Best Natural Sweeteners
Guide to Using Natural Sweeteners
The average American takes in 400 calories a day from added sugars. And while the consumption of refined sugar is on the rise, so are artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, ACE K and saccharin have been debated for years in regard to their damaging side effects.
While all of these sweeteners are technically “safe,” according to the FDA, they are coming under increased scrutiny because of their side effects. Side effects from artificial sweeteners range from headaches and migraines to shrunken thymus glands, impairment of liver and kidney function, and mood disorders.
Refined sugars aren’t healthy either. Side effects of refined sugars include diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and even poor cognitive functioning.
Over the last few years, corn growers and affiliated associations have pushed high fructose corn syrup as a natural sweetener. This is simply not true. The vast majority of HFCS is produced from genetically modified corn.
Fructose is a simple sugar that is rapidly metabolized by the liver causing a “sugar high.” This quick-acting sugar is believed to lead to increased storage of fat in the liver, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive upset, and atherosclerosis.
To add confusion to the sugar dilemma, many foods labeled sugar-free still might not be good for us either. They often contain artificial sweeteners- which our body doesn’t recognize and thus we want to avoid. Or they include large amounts of other sweeteners, such as agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura sugar or dates. Even though they’re more natural whole food forms of sugar, they’re in such great quantities that if consumed in large amounts, would cause anyone to gain excess body fat and have blood sugar spikes!
Fortunately, we have plenty of other real food options to fulfill our sweet tooth that doesn’t harm our health, and in fact, can even support our health in some ways. But with dozens of natural sweeteners out there, many of us are wondering what they are and how to use them.
Whether you’re using natural sweeteners for baking, your morning coffee, tea or smoothies, or you’re following a certain diet like low carb, Paleo or keto, or you have health conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia, you can find alternatives to support your clean eating lifestyle.
What to Avoid: Artificial Sweeteners and Refined Sugar
Artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet’N Low and Equal became really popular over the last decade since they have zero calories and therefore seemed healthy at first. Well, that is it seemed safe. Low-calorie and sugar-free items are made up of harmful chemical ingredients like saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose. In fact, here are some facts you might not know:
- Fake sweeteners can cause symptoms from headaches and migraines to weight gain and IBS, and even more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease.
- Research found daily consumption of diet drinks containing artificial sweeteners was associated with a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes.
- Research also showed artificial sweeteners can overstimulate sugar receptors, cause addiction to overly sweet foods and retrain the taste buds to need sweeter foods.
- Overstimulation can lead to weight gain, obesity and numerous health problems like type 2 diabetes, kidney damage and more by altering the diet.
Over-consumption of any common refined sugars like white sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar or powdered sugar, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, dextrose or sucrose can cause conditions like Leaky Gut, fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers like small intestine, colon, breast, and even more illnesses by rapidly increasing blood glucose and insulin levels, increasing triglycerides and causing inflammation.
Natural sweeteners may be a great alternative to satisfy the sweet tooth without causing a major insulin spike.
Natural Sweeteners Explained
Stevia is a plant that’s grown in South America. It’s processed and extracted into either a powder or clear liquid, with the resulting product being about 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Positives include zero fructose, zero calories and zero on the GI. This means that it’s a natural way to add sweetness without affecting your blood sugar, and in fact can even reduce fasting blood sugar levels, balance insulin resistance and aid in glucose regulation.
There are also medicinal properties in the plant shown to have truly incredible health benefits (as seen in about 600 different studies) including its use as a natural cancer relief, improving cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, supporting weight loss and warding off health problems linked with obesity, like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
While purified stevia extracts are more processed than green leaf stevia, their health benefits seem to be on par with the natural leaf.
Negatives include a bitter aftertaste that can be off-putting. While most people do well with stevia, it is an herb and everyone’s body may react differently to it. Some people report bloating, nausea, dizziness, numbness and muscle pain with consumption, but this hasn’t been observed in scientific studies.
It all comes back to the source and quality of stevia you get–the taste, benefits and possible side effects largely will depend on what stevia you use. If you use a good quality stevia, you’ll likely enjoy the taste and experience zero side effects.
Not all stevia products are created equal. It’s important to look for 100% pure liquid stevia, ideally organic and alcohol-free, to know you’re getting the most pure form. Or you can go totally pure and get the crushed, dried stevia leaves, which are unprocessed and you can grind yourself (although it’s recommended you don’t use homegrown stevia for baking or cooking because of the chemical reactions that may occur).
Powdered versions, while not necessarily bad, aren’t as pure and are often mixed with other zero sugar sweeteners, which don’t always digest as well. Also avoid altered stevia blends, which can have toxic chemical solvents and end up with less than 1% of actual stevia. The best stevia in any form will have no additives, including other sweeteners, and be certified organic.
Chicory Root Fiber and Inulin
Chicory root comes from a plant in the dandelion family. Inulin is a type of plant-based starch (classified as a soluble fiber and prebiotic) that gets extracted from the roots of chicory plants, producing chicory root extract.
Positives include Inulin’s high fermentablity by the friendly bacteria in our guts, meaning it can support gut health. It is a source of fiber, though not a large amount. Chicory root has been shown to reduce stress, contain anti-inflammatory properties, protect the liver, possibly prevent or delay the onset of diabetes, help manage osteoarthritis, aid gut health and relieve constipation.
It’s also great for anyone watching their sugar or carb intake, as it’s a 1 on the GI and has no carbs, so just like other sweeteners in this category, it won’t contribute to insulin spikes.
On the downside, large doses of prebiotic fibers like inulin can cause gastrointestinal distress such as gas, bloating and pain in some people. People with conditions like IBS can have symptoms with even small doses. It can also have a laxative effect, so it’s best diluted by mixing it with other sweeteners like stevia (and often comes this way in stevia baking blends). Also, be careful if you’re sensitive to FODMAPs. Chicory root has a long history of being used as a coffee substitute, and many herbal blends still use chicory root as a base.
Inulin is often used in high-fiber and gluten-free products like granola or protein bars, baked goods and cereals, as well as low-fat or dairy-free yogurt, ice cream and ready-to-drink protein shakes to add natural bulk and sweetness.
Inulin is not really used as a sweetener on its own, but you may see it mixed in with other sweetener blends and in some of the foods mentioned. For chicory root, look for organic and buy it already roasted and ground to use as a coffee substitute, or you can find it raw for use when cooking.
Monk Fruit or Luo Han Guo
Monk fruit is a melon-like fruit found indigenously in southeast Asia. Monk fruit sweeteners are made from the fruit’s extract and are 150 to 400 times sweeter than sugar.
Monk fruit contains powerful antioxidants called mogrosides, which are metabolized differently by the body than natural sugars. That’s why, despite their very sweet taste, these fruits contain no calories and have no effect on blood sugar with its GI rating of zero.
In fact, monk fruit has a myriad of health benefits, including its ability to fight free radicals, lower risk of obesity and diabetes, act as an anti-inflammatory and coolant, help prevent cancer, combat infections, fight fatigue, naturally relief for diabetes, and work as a natural antihistamine.
There are no reported monk fruit side effects or negative reactions, though no long-term studies have been done to test monk fruit side effects over time. When shopping, its harder to find than other natural sweeteners, and it’s expensive to import.
Look for a whole-fruit extract, as it is likely to maintain more benefits. Be sure to check your labels, as monk fruit is often mixed with other artificial sweeteners, dextrose or other ingredients to balance out sweetness.
The next three sweeteners–erythritol, xylitol and maltitol–are all sugar alcohols (also known as polyols), but they have slight variations so they are listed separately.
Sugar alcohols occur naturally in plants, like fruits and vegetables. They’re often used as sugar substitutes because they provide a sweet taste that does not raise blood sugar to the degree that sucrose does since they convert to glucose more slowly in your body and do not require much insulin to metabolize.
As an added benefit, sugar alcohols do not cause tooth decay, unlike their sugary counterparts. However, you should avoid sugar alcohols if you have problems with bacterial or yeast overgrowth.
Just like with some of the other natural sweeteners covered above, it takes processing to get these natural substances into the consumable forms we see on shelves today. Despite coming from plants and being zero or low glycemic, some people wouldn’t consider these options ‘real food’ given they aren’t in their most natural form.
Erythritol is made by fermenting the natural sugar found in corn (and occurs naturally in pears, soy sauce, wine, sake, watermelon and grapes). It’s about 60-80% as sweet as sugar, but with no fructose.
Erythritol does not raise blood sugar and thus considered suitable for people with diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemics. It’s also the easiest sugar alcohol to digest since more than 90% of erythritol is broken down in the small intestine and never reaches the colon (in contrast to other sugar alcohols, which can cause digestive upset). If you have digestive imbalances, this may be a great option for you.
Erythritol is also an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals, slowing down the aging process.
However, many people report experiencing gas, bloating and diarrhea when eating sugar alcohols (typically only when eaten in excess). Also, if you have kidney problems or are sensitive to corn, you may want to avoid erythritol.
Be sure to check the labels if you’re looking for the inclusion/exclusion of specific sweeteners. Oftentimes sugar alcohols and stevia are used in conjunction with other higher GI sweeteners or even regular sugar, so if you’re diabetic or watching your sugar intake, always read the ingredients and check the sugar content on the label.
Xylitol is a naturally occurring alcohol found in most plant material, including many fruits and vegetables. It’s actually extracted from birch wood to make medicine. Like erythritol, xylitol has zero fructose, doesn’t raise blood sugar and is safe for diabetics, hypoglycemics or for those avoiding sugar.
However, you may experience gut discomfort when you first try xylitol. Most likely it from eating too much at first, our bodies have an enzyme that breaks down xylitol, but if it isn’t in use, it takes time to build it up. Until you have enough of the enzyme, you’ll experience discomfort. It’s also easy to get a low-quality xylitol, which can likewise cause digestive upset.
Look for birch-sourced or North American xylitol, making sure it’s free from corn.
Maltitol is made by the hydrogenation of maltose, which is obtained from starch. It can reduce the rise in blood glucose and insulin response associated with the ingestion of glucose, but is still more likely to boost your blood sugar compared to to the low GI options like stevia and erythritol.
It’s commonly linked to digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Maltitol probably isn’t the best choice natural sweetener, you maybe better off with the zero glycemic sweeteners that have less side effects, like stevia and erythritol.
Of course it’s always best to stick with real food and lower GI natural sweeteners that also have health benefits. Eating fruit is a great clean eating option to get your sweet fix, too.
Consuming other natural sweeteners in moderation is usually fine for most people, and honestly, sometimes we just need to splurge on a little sugar! So going for the real deal makes the most sense.
Amazon Best Seller Products List Last Updated on 2020-01-18