What's the Best Artificial Sweetener?: Your Guide to Alternative Sugars
If you’ve ever binged on a box of cookies or a big bag of Halloween candy, you already know that our off-switch for sweet things is particularly weak. Turns out there’s a biological reason behind our binging: To our cave people ancestors, sugar indicated high-nutrient, high-energy foods, providing easy-to-use energy to speed up our flight from a lynx or prolong our hours of hunting and gathering.
The trouble is, sweet foods today are not what they were back then. In place of a berry bush, we can find high fructose corn syrup and table sugar, in everything from cookies to cereal to pasta sauce to milks. But the biological drive to eat and eat and eat them is still strong.
We still need sugar to survive. When we consume carbohydrates– sugars and starches – the body releases insulin to help cells uptake and utilize the energy in those molecules. Vegetables, legumes and grains contain carbohydrates that are broken down into glucose, which can be readily used a fuel by every cell in the body.
But you probably don’t think of lentils and carrots when you’re on the hunt for something to satisfy your sweet tooth. That’s largely because they don’t contain fructose, a sweeter sugar found in fruit (especially tropical fruit like mango, papaya and pineapple), in processed sweeteners like corn syrup and in table sugar (a combination of fructose and glucose). Only the liver can process fructose, so consuming too much of it can lead to reduced functioning of the liver, weight gain and even Type II Diabetes.
Given our easy access to less-than-healthful sugars, and our built-in drive to want something sweet, how can we choose the best artificial sweetener to keep our metabolism, insulin levels and liver functioning in check? Here’s what you need to know when seeking out alternatives.
Stevia is a plant-based sweetener made from the powdered leaves of the stevia plant, an herb native to South America. Stevia contains sweet-tasting compounds called stevioside and rebaudioside (the sweeter of the two). Whole, natural, unprocessed stevia contains both of these compounds.
Stevia is sold in three main forms: green leaf stevia, which has been used in traditional medicine in Japan and South America for centuries; stevia extracts; and altered stevia. The latter is most common, sold under brand names like Truvia. These highly refined varieties contain just rebaudioside and are manufactured using chemical solvents likeacetonitrile (a known carcinogen and liver toxin) and corn-based erythritol. These processed versions contain less than 1% stevia leaf; for this reason, we’d consider these products closer to aspartame than to a plant-based sugar.
Stevia does not raise blood sugar levels, but this is largely because its compounds are not identified as energy-bearing food by the body and it’s excreted without being metabolized.
Stevia is classified by the FDA as a “novel sweetener,” which is a vague term for generally safe sugar substitutes. Keep in mind that whole stevia is an herb, and as with any herbal remedy, individual reactions can vary.
With the rise of ketogenic eating plans, erythritol has gained popularity in recent years as a semi-sweet, low carb sugar alternative. It has become a common additive in sports drinks and energy bars because of the claim that it contains zero calories and zero carbohydrates. I
Why? Because the body can’t break it down. Just like aspartame, the body receives erythritol and doesn’t register it as food. It can’t uptake any of the energy contained in the alcohol, so it just passes through the system unmetabolized and is excreted through the urinary tract.
Unfortunately, it’s not as “naturally occurring” as some would like you to believe. While it occurs naturally in some fruits like watermelon, pears and grapes, and fermented foods like wine and cheese, commercial erythritol is a highly processed sugar alcohol made from cornstarch.
Erythritol consumption has been linked to physical symptoms like digestive upset, diarrhea and headaches, although the FDA considers it generally safe. If you have concerns about eating artificial sugars or GMO foods, this sweetener is one to cut back on.
We hate to burst a bubble on this one: agave is not good for you. Because it’s made from the same Mexican cactus as tequila, one might think it’s a healthy, natural option; after all, it’s plant-based and can be readily found in raw, unprocessed varieties. In truth, agave is close to 90% fructose, which nearly twice as much as the 50% fructose content in table sugar.
This high fructose content makes agave very addictive (think back to the fructose in that berry bush) and can contribute to insulin resistance and excess fat deposition, especially in the midsection of the body. That excessive fructose also poses a danger to the liver. The liver converts excess fructose to triglycerides, putting you at risk for arterial plaque development, a precursor to cardiovascular disease.
Agave is delicious, and it’s natural in so far as it came from a cactus; however, chemically, it’s akin to sweetening your smoothie with table sugar.
Coconut Sugar and Maple Sugar
Coconut and maple sugar are made from the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm and maple tree, respectively. While often less refined (they can be found in raw and unprocessed versions), these sweeteners contain just a little less fructose than table sugar, anywhere from 38 to 49%.
In their less processed forms, these sugars provide some of the nutrients that once flowed through the trees including potassium, calcium, manganese, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus. More refined or pasteurized versions will contain less nutritional value, and sometimes taste sweeter due to the heat concentrated processing.
While their glycemic index scores are lower than table sugar because they can contain fiber from the tree that slows digestion, these plant-based alternatives still interact with the body in a similar way and will ultimately become used or stored fuel.
There are a few ways to think about honey’s nutritional properties. Raw, unpasteurized local honey can be a boon during allergy season as it can help the body develop some defenses against plant pollen. It also has powerful antimicrobial properties and for a sore throat, little else is as soothing. Honey also contains minerals like iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, something very few other alternative sweeteners can claim.
When it comes to sugar, though, honey is right up there in fructose content with white sugar: it’s about 40% fructose. There are 17 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of honey, so if you’re on a low carb plan, one tablespoon will nearly meet your carb quota for the day. It’s a concentrated source of sugar, which explains why it’s so much sweeter than other alternatives.
While its fructose content is high, honey doesn’t spike blood sugars levels quite as quickly as table sugar. It is higher in calories, though, so using it in moderation is advised.
Brown Rice Syrup
Often found in protein bars and in the “natural organic” aisle, this sweetener is made from culturing cooked rice with enzymes, which break down the sugars into smaller sugars. The resulting mass is filtered, creating a dark translucent liquid that resembles thick maple syrup.
Because it comes from a complex carbohydrate food (brown rice), rice syrup breaks down into 100% glucose. (While it’s a comprehensive chemical profile shows it also contains maltose and maltotriose, these sugars are actually glucose molecules combined in different ways.) Rice syrup contains no fructose at all.
This is a tricky one, though: because it contains no fiber and few nutrients alongside such a high amount of easily absorbed glucose, brown rice syrup should still be considered empty calories. It has a similar effect on blood sugar as eating several pieces of white bread; that is, it is a nutrient-devoid, high-carb food that is broken down quickly and easily stored as fat.
If you’re looking for an exclusively low-fructose option, brown rice syrup can be a good one. Look for organic, non-GMO versions and incorporate in baking or smoothies in moderation.