Maple syrup, agave nectar, coconut sugar, honey – the list goes on. These days, there seems to be a constant buzz around the newest and “healthiest” alternative sweeteners, since sugar is seen as the number one enemy.
Is anyone else overwhelmed?
The media portrays sugar to be our biggest downfall, and there seems to be a race to find the best alternative sweeteners to satisfy our sweet-tooth. But endless lists and arguments result in confused consumers, and it’s time to get to the bottom of it.
First of all, let’s break this down and this time, let’s not sugar coat it (see what I did there?!)
Sugar is sugar, no matter how you put it. And we’re probably consuming far too much of it in our daily diets. Did you know that the World Health Organization developed a new guideline in early March, in which it recommends that adults and children reduce intakes of added sugars to less than 10% of their total energy intake per day (1)? Reducing free sugar intake to less than 10% has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of becoming overweight, obese, as well as decreasing the development of dental caries (1).
That’s the harsh reality, and that’s why these alternative sweeteners have been on the rise.
At this point, you’re probably thinking, “wait a minute – aren’t there different types of sugars? Should I avoid try to avoid all sugars, including those found in fruits?” Yes and no. There’s fructose, and glucose, and galactose, and lactose, and a plethora of other compounds ending in “ose”, and it’s important to know the core differences, and how our bodies handle them.
Let’s make this easy, and focus first off, on the difference between glucose, sucrose, and fructose.
This type of sugar is instant energy for your body! It can be found circulating in your blood, and is considered to be a monosaccharide – which is, in simplest terms, the basic building block of a carbohydrate. Glucose is what your body converts many of the carbohydrates you consume into.
Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose. It’s the primary component of our favourite table sugar – and excessive added amounts have been linked to the development of diabetes, as well as cardiovascular disease.
F is for fruits – fructose is found primarily in fruits and vegetables in a natural state (good!), but is often used as an added sugar in drinks (not so good! – think high fructose corn syrup). Recent research has alluded to the fact that added fructose may pose an even greater risk in the development of diabetes and metabolic abnormalities, when compared to sucrose and glucose (2). Since the replacement of fructose for sucrose in soft drinks, obesity rates have sky rocketed, and researchers have speculated that fructose may be to blame.
So is fructose the new bad guy, and should we be looking more closely at added fructose and high fructose corn syrup in our goods, as apposed to glucose?
Perhaps – a 2009 study found that in individuals consuming either dietary fructose or dietary glucose sweetened beverages, the fructose group exhibited a higher percent of weight gain of visceral adipose tissue, or belly fat, whereas the glucose group gained the same amount of weight, but accumulated the excess fat in subcutaneous, or under the skin, tissue (3). It can be argued that fructose consumption accumulates a more “dangerous” type of fat, and therefore, would later lead to more health complications. Recent findings have also concluded that individuals consuming high fructose containing diets are at increased risk of developing fatty liver disease – an issue that has not commonly been seen with glucose consumption (4). This can be, in part, explained by the metabolism of fructose in the liver, as opposed to glucose metabolism, which can occur anywhere in the body, as well as the visceral accumulation of fat.
Now that we’ve covered the debate of fructose vs. glucose and have some of the facts down pat, let’s focus on a few alternatives that have been making headlines, and what they’re really all about/ what they’re made of.
Honey: Fructose + Glucose
Agave nectar: Fructose + Glucose note: significantly higher fructose than glucose concentration
Coconut sugar: Sucrose + Fructose + Glucose
Brown sugar: Sucrose + small amounts of Fructose + Glucose
Maple syrup: Sucrose + small amounts of Fructose & Glucose
Dr. William Bettger, Professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at The University of Guelph, weighs in with his thoughts on alternative sweeteners. “All sweeteners stimulate the reward center in the brain, leaving your body craving more. Maple syrup and agave contain the same sugars as traditional sugar, so they affect your body similarly.”
Evidently, sugar is confusing. Some people will argue that these alternative sweeteners contain more antioxidants or vitamins and minerals than plain sugar, but the trace amounts within are debatable and lack scientific substantiation to make them a “healthier” choice. I sure as heck had a hard time figuring out exactly which sweetener would be my “go-to”, and realistically, I still haven’t’ decided on my final choice. For now, it’s important to keep in mind that everything can be enjoyed in moderation, even sugar! Sugar is sugar, so try to be critical of that before jumping on the bandwagon of only eating “healthy alternative sweeteners” – they’re essentially just sugar!
P.S. Stay tuned for Part 2 of the sweet stuff for information on some up-and-coming sweeteners that will give you something to smile about!
(2) DiNicolantonio, J. J., O’Keefe, J. H., & Lucan, S. C. (2015, March). Added fructose: a principal driver of type 2 diabetes mellitus and its consequences. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings (Vol. 90, No. 3, pp. 372-381). Elsevier.
(3) Stanhope, K. L., Schwarz, J. M., Keim, N. L., Griffen, S. C., Bremer, A. A., Graham, J. L., … & Havel, P. J. (2009). Consuming fructose-sweetened, not glucose-sweetened, beverages increases visceral adiposity and lipids and decreases insulin sensitivity in overweight/obese humans. The Journal of clinical investigation, 119(5), 1322.
(4) Sievenpiper, J. L., de Souza, R. J., Cozma, A. I., Chiavaroli, L., Ha, V., & Mirrahimi, A. (2014). Fructose vs. glucose and metabolism: do the metabolic differences matter?. Current opinion in lipidology, 25(1), 8-19.
(5) Rizkalla, S. W. (2010). Health implications of fructose consumption: A review of recent data. Nutr Metab (Lond), 7(82), 911-22.