Sweeteners: the healthy alternatives to sugar
Sugar is probably the worst ingredient in our modern diet. It is associated with many serious diseases, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Moreover, most people consume far too much sugar and don't realise it. Fortunately, there are many ways to sweeten food without adding sugar.
Why sugar is bad for you
Sugar contains no proteins, essential fats, vitamins, or minerals. In fact, it is not needed in the diet. There is also a long list of reasons why you should avoid it. Sugar affects the hormones in your body that regulate hunger and satiety. This can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain. It also damages your metabolism, which can lead to increased insulin and fat storage.
Many studies have even found a strong link between sugar and obesity. Simply put, people who consume the most sugar are much more likely to be overweight than those who consume the least.
So no sugar, but what now?
Sugar is incredibly unhealthy, but that doesn't mean you should never enjoy sweets again. Fortunately, there are many alternatives.
Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub scientifically known as Stevia Rebaudiana. It contains zero calories and so far has not been linked to weight gain.
In fact, studies have shown that stevia is not associated with any adverse health effects. Not only is stevia considered to be safe, but it has also been linked to some health benefits.
The two different sweet compounds extracted from the stevia plant (stevioside and rebaudioside A) have a slightly different taste. Usually available in powder or liquid form. All in all, stevia is probably the healthiest choice if you need to sweeten something.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar. It is extracted from corn or birch and found in many fruits and vegetables. Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, which is 40% fewer calories than sugar.
Most of the harmful effects of regular sugar are due to its high fructose content. However, xylitol contains zero fructose and therefore has none of the harmful effects associated with sugar. On the contrary, xylitol is associated with multiple health benefits.
Several studies show that it can improve dental health by reducing the risk of cavities and tooth decay. In addition to that, xylitol increases the body's calcium absorption.
Xylitol is generally well-tolerated, but eating too much of it can cause digestive side effects such as gas and diarrhea. It is also important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. If you own a dog, you'll want to keep xylitol out of reach or not in the house at all.
Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but it contains even fewer calories. With only 0.24 calories per gram, erythritol contains 6% of the calories of ordinary sugar. It also tastes almost exactly like sugar, making it an easy substitute.
Your body does not have the enzymes to break down erythritol, so most of it is absorbed directly into your blood and excreted unchanged in your urine. Therefore, it does not seem to have the harmful effects that regular sugar has. It is considered safe for human consumption and is very well tolerated.
Agave syrup (also known as agave nectar) is a naturally occurring sweetener that is similar in consistency to honey, although slightly thinner. It is extracted from various species of the agave plant.
It is easily soluble, which means it is particularly suitable for use in smoothies, and thanks to its liquid form it is often used instead of honey, for example by vegans. It is made up of fructose and glucose, which means that it has a much lower glycemic index than conventional granulated sugar (sucrose).
Agave is sold in different shades and gets stronger in flavor the darker it gets. Agave syrup works well as a topping for breakfast cereals, pancakes, or bread.
Although agave has a low GI, it is about 30% sweeter than sugar, so you need less to achieve the same flavor. Be aware that agave nectar is high in fructose so always use it in small amounts and choose to buy organic, raw agave rather than the cheaper, highly processed version.
Other sweeteners and sugar substitutes
There are several natural sweeteners that health-conscious people often use instead of sugar. While these natural sweeteners may contain a bit more nutrients than regular sugar, your body still metabolizes them the same way. Still, these natural sweeteners may be slightly "less bad" than regular sugar.
Coconut sugar is extracted from the sap of the coconut palm. It contains some nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants. It also has a lower glycemic index than sugar.
Coconut sugar, however, is still very high in calories, with the same number of calories per serving as regular sugar. It also contains a lot of fructose, which is the main reason why regular sugar is so unhealthy in the first place. At the end of the day, coconut sugar is very similar to regular table sugar and should be used in moderation.
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honeybees. It contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as an abundance of beneficial antioxidants. Eating honey can help increase the level of antioxidants in your blood. High levels of antioxidants in the blood have been linked to a lower risk of disease.
In fact, honey has been shown to improve several risk factors for disease. But despite the fact that studies have shown honey to have some promising health benefits, it still contains fructose, which can contribute to a host of health problems. In short, honey is still sugar and not completely harmless.
Ahorn syrup is a thick, sugary liquid made by boiling the sap of maples. It contains a fair amount of minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. It also contains several types of antioxidants.
Although maple syrup contains some useful nutrients and antioxidants, it is very rich in sugar. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar, so it will raise blood sugar levels a little more slowly.
In conclusion: sweetness is delicious but in moderation
The sweeteners mentioned above are good alternatives to sugar, although the keyword here is alternatives. It helps if you use them instead of refined sugar. Stevia is probably the healthiest option, followed by xylitol and erythritol. Less bad sugars like maple syrup and honey are slightly better than regular sugar, but should still be used sparingly. As with most things in food, moderation is the key.