Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Artificial Sweeteners 101

Maple syrup is one of my favorite sugar alternatives.
Image: Chiot's Run / Flickr CC
If you’re a sweets fiend trying to live healthy, then it’s probably a constant battle to cut down on sugar intake. I, for one, didn’t have any idea how many processed foods contain high levels of sugar—until I started paying it special attention. Its packed into things you’d expect it to be in (though in larger amounts than necessary), like juice. But it’s also often in plenty of places you might not expect it—ketchup, pasta sauce, salsa, pasta or macaroni salad, baked beans, crackers, and even processed meats.

Even as someone that’s never been a sugar junkie, it has been hard to cut out those little white granules. It started with switching from flavored CoffeeMate creamer to half and half with just a little sugar added, and eventually no sugar at all. I used to think coffee without sugar was, well, gross, but to my surprise, as soon as I started cutting the sugar out, I didn’t even want to add it back in. I also started noticing that unsweetened food (like vegetables) started to taste sweeter to my un-inundated palate.

I’ve come to love savory foods more than I ever thought I would. But still there are times when I want a little extra sweetness that’s not sugar. Why not sugar? It’s earned quite the bad reputation among health experts, and has been linked to problems like obesity, heart disease, cancer, raised blood pressure, insulin resistance, blood sugar level spikes, increased glycosylated hemoglobin, and even impaired brain function. Yikes!

I’m certainly not perfect and I do still consume regular ‘ol sugar at times, but if I have an active role in choosing the sweetener, I generally try to go for something different. There are a lot of options, some of which are better than others. None are perfect, and some even contain higher levels of fructose than table sugar does—so keep that in mind when choosing which ones to use.

My favorite alternative sweeteners include maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar. Maple syrup is high in sucrose, contains antioxidants, and has low fructose levels. Honey (raw, not processed) is rich in nutrients but still contains high levels of fructose, which is one of table sugar’s main downfalls. Coconut palm sugar is fairly low in fructose content, but it’s still just as full of carbs and calories as regular sugar.

Other options for natural sweeteners include agave, which is incredibly sweet but also has very high levels of fructose (75-90 percent, or more than high fructose corn syrup), making hit hard to metabolize. Molasses is another more nutrient-rich option, though also high in fructose.

Brown rice syrup is a fructose-free option, but could possibly contain arsenic (just as brown rice can). Sweeteners such as Lo Han (monkfruit) and Stevia are options as well, though they both still perpetuate the desire for sweets—meaning you’ll continue to crave sugary foods. Yahoo! Shine has a great article that outlines the different types of natural sugar alternatives, with pros and cons for each.

Do you use sugar alternatives at home? Please share with me which sweeteners you do (and don’t!) use in the comments.