Sugar — is it friend or foe?
Well, it’s complicated. The word gets thrown around all the time, but not all sugars are created equal.
In order to address the potential health concerns surrounding refined sugars, many have turned to sugar substitutes; whether it be artificial or natural sweeteners.
Although there are many sugar substitutes, two sweeteners stand out as being some of the more popular alternatives: Erythritol and Stevia.
But, which of these two wins the sweetener war?
Before we dive into that debate, let’s take a closer look at sugar and the concerns surrounding refined sugars.
A Quick Look at Sugar
Sugar is naturally occurring, and can be found in most foods. It goes by different names depending on the type. Sugar is a soluble carbohydrate that is produced within the leaves of the sugarcane plants due to the process of photosynthesis.
Most carbohydrates are broken down by our bodies and are then converted into sugar glucose. Once glucose is in our bloodstream, it then fuels the cells in our body and can be stored for later when your body needs energy.
Natural sugars occur naturally in whole foods like fruit, vegetables, and milk. Since they are naturally occurring, there are some health benefits such as fiber and antioxidants that these foods can offer.
Refined sugar typically comes from sugar cane or sugar beets after they have been processed. The most common name you’ve probably seen is called sucrose; a combination of glucose and fructose. You can find refined sugars in a good amount of processed foods and beverages.
Natural Sugar Vs. Refined Sugar
When consumed naturally, within whole foods such as fruits or vegetables, natural sugars come with the added benefit of fiber and other nutrients. When sugar is refined and processed, many of these naturally occurring nutrients are reduced.
The biggest difference is in how the body processes sugar. Due to the associated fiber, naturally-occurring sugar can be digested slower and can aid in helping you feel full for a longer period of time.
Refined sugars, with the absence of fiber, are broken down faster than natural sugar causing insulin and blood sugar levels to rise and fall more rapidly. In addition, it can leave you feeling less full.
Refined Sugars and Some Concerns
Although it provides a sweet taste to many foods and beverages, one of the concerns of refined sugars is the fact that it does provide virtually no nutrients as it is primarily used as a sweetener. If any, there may be very small amounts of micronutrients. Also, there is evidence that refined sugars, consumed in excess, can pose some pretty serious health risks.
Evidence has shown that diets that are full of added and refined sugars can put you at a higher risk to develop obesity. Again, this has to do with how refined sugar is metabolized by the body. When sugar is extracted from its natural source, in fruits and vegetables, it does not carry the benefit of fiber (discussed above).
Excess refined sugar consumption can disrupt normal metabolism and the hormones that regulate hunger, decreasing satiety while increasing calorie intake. This can lead to weight gain and obesity.
Not to mention the fact that refined sugars can often be quite addictive. These cravings can also lead to overeating.
A Guide to Sweeteners
Thankfully, there are many alternatives to refined sugars. These come in the form of sugar substitutes or sweeteners. However, not all sweeteners are the same.
Non-nutritive sweeteners are known as artificial sweeteners.
Some common artificial sweeteners include:
- Aspartame (also known as Acesulfame K)
Natural sweeteners can be derived from a variety of means. Generally, they do contain some caloric and nutrient value, but that depends on the type.
Some common natural sweeteners include:
- Raw honey
- Agave nectar
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
Erythritol is a low-calorie sweetener. Although it can be found naturally in some foods — fruits and fermented foods like wine — it is produced synthetically as a sweetener.
It is produced to replace sugar and provide a low-calorie sweetening option for low-sugar or sugar-free foods.
What is It?
Erythritol is a polyol, a type of carbohydrate. It belongs to a class of compounds known as sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are widely used as sugar substitutes in food production. It is touted as a low-calorie sweetener — it only has .24 calories per gram.
It’s popularity as a sweetener is that fact that it possesses a fraction of the calories as sugar while still maintaining the sweetness. Generally, erythritol is derived from corn and wheat starches.
Erythritol is also found in grapes, mushrooms, and those with a fermentation process like wine and sake.
Benefits of Erythritol
Again, erythritol is most popular due to its low-calorie value. Furthermore, it is said to be safer for those with metabolic issues as it rates zero on the glycemic load.
But, one of the more surprising benefits is its role as an antioxidant. Antioxidants help fight against the effects of oxidative stress.
Drawbacks of Erythritol
There have been some reported side effects when erythritol is consumed in excess, most of which are gastrointestinal; e.g. bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It can also lead to liver damage, and a higher risk of memory loss.
Stevia is another popular sugar substitute. It is a natural, plant-based sweetener that is derived from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a South American shrub. Popular brand names are Truvia and PureVia.
Many stevia products combine stevia leaf extract with other ingredients such as dextrose, maltodextrin, erythritol or other additives to help reduce the sweetness of stevia and mimic the taste of sugar.
What is It?
It is known for being a zero-calorie alternative to sugar. Stevia extract is made by isolating the glycoside compounds in the stevia leaf. It is said to be 200-400 times sweeter than sugar.
Benefits of Stevia
The benefits of stevia are many. Aside from being a zero-carb, zero-calorie, plant-based sugar alternative, it has also shown to possess some metabolic benefits — supporting a reduction in post-meal blood glucose levels in healthy individuals. This is thanks to its steviol glycosides.
Drawbacks of Stevia
One of the complaints concerning stevia is its bitter aftertaste. Furthermore, stevia is also considered a sort of diuretic, which simply means it can increase the frequency of urination.
Who Wins the Battle of Sweeteners?
Both options make for a worthy alternative to sugar. Each option is low-calorie, friendly towards those with metabolic issues, and both boast antioxidant effects. Both can have some side effects as well.
However, for those looking for a natural, plant-based sugar substitute, stevia has the upperhand.