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Are natural sweeteners bad for you?

by Sarah Spence

 

Are you hooked on the sweet taste of sugar?

Do you always get dessert after dinner, have cake with your coffee or put sugar in your cuppa?

If so, as you’re starting to wise up to the downsides of sugar, you might be looking for other, natural alternatives. Maybe they could be the perfect solution to satisfy your sweet tooth?

 

Are natural sweeteners bad for you?

The short answer is… it depends. That’s because natural sweeteners are either ‘nutritive’ or ‘non-nutritive’. We chat about this more further down - but the simple way of looking at it is that ‘nutritive’ natural sweeteners react in your body in the same way as sugar, while ‘non-nutritive’ natural sweeteners don’t.

 

What exactly are natural sweeteners?

There are so many different types of sugars. You might think it’s all about ‘real’ sugar versus artificial sugar, or fruit sugar vs added sugar, but the reality isn’t nearly that straightforward. So, let’s break this down.

Here’s a simple way of thinking about it:

Sugars that show up naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy are generally OK. However, processed sugars (sugars that have been removed from their original source and added to a different food) aren’t so good.

 

 

Did you know that sugars now have over 60 different names? Companies introduce fancy new names all the time to disguise how much sugar they’re adding to their products.

But when it comes to added sugars, it doesn't matter whether the label says ‘free sugars’, ‘natural sugars’, or ‘sourced from nature'. As far as your body is concerned, they’re all still sugars.

Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, aren’t sugar – but that’s a whole different ball game.

 

Where does the sweetness in natural sweeteners come from?

Natural sweeteners get their sweetness from Mother Nature in different forms: glucose, fructose, sucrose and maltose. And these sweet elements, along with the way our bodies process them, mean natural sweeteners can still pack a pretty hefty sugar punch.

Let’s take a closer look:

 

Glucose

Glucose is your body’s main source of energy. Every cell relies on it to function. When you hear people talk about ‘blood sugar’, they’re referring to the glucose in your bloodstream.

Glucose is also the simplest form of sugar. It’s what your body breaks every other form of sugar down into.

 

Fructose

Fructose (or fruit sugar) is another simple sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, veggies and honey, as well as in white sugar and high fructose corn syrup. It’s about one-and-a-half times sweeter than white sugar.

You digest fructose in your liver, which breaks it down into glucose. When you eat too much, your liver can’t process it fast enough. In that case, it breaks down the fructose into compounds that your body then stores as fat, which can lead to all kinds of health complications.

 

So… is the sugar in fruit unhealthy?

While fructose turns up in fruit, there’s a big difference between eating whole, natural fruit and eating added fructose. Fruit is full of fibre, so when you eat it fresh, that fibre slows down your fructose absorption. You don’t get a sudden dump of fructose on your liver, and your body has more time to process it. The sugar doesn’t affect your liver in the same way.  

BUT. Fruit sugar is still sugar. It still counts towards your 6 teaspoons a day. So if you only eat fruit all day, you’ll still quickly blow out your daily sugar allowance.

 

What about fruit juice?

Fruit juice is fruit that’s been squeezed, squashed and pulped to a liquid – and usually, this process removes all the fibre. That means the juice has a different impact on your body compared to eating a whole fruit. Not only that, but the sugar content in fruit juice can be almost as high as in soft drinks.

 

Sucrose

Sucrose is white table sugar, and is found in foods worldwide. It’s made from either sugar cane or sugar beet plants and contains 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose.

 

Maltose

Maltose is a sugar that forms when two glucose molecules get friendly enough to bond. It’s not as sweet as sucrose or fructose, but manufacturers sometimes add it to foods to sweeten them.

 

What are the types of natural sweeteners?

There are two types of natural sweeteners: nutritive and non-nutritive.

 

Nutritive sweeteners

These natural sweeteners aren’t technically sugar, but they still affect your body like sugar, just less intensely. Nutritive sweeteners are rich in simple carbs, which means they provide calories. They show up on labels as ‘added sugars’, general ‘natural sweeteners’, or sometimes as:

  • coconut sugar
  • maple syrup
  • honey
  • agave nectar/ agave
  • rice malt syrup

We’ll talk more about each of these types of nutritive sweetener shortly.

 

Non-nutritive sweeteners

These are natural sweeteners that don’t affect your body like sugar does. They have no simple carbs in them, so subbing them in for sugar is one way to reduce your carb/calorie intake and keep your blood sugar levels even. Non-nutritive sweeteners, like stevia and erythritol, are great for letting us enjoy a sweet treat, without impacting our body like sugar does. Especially when they’re whipped together to create our Natural Sweetener Blend.

 

Nutritive natural sweeteners can hide a bit of a secret

As people understand more about the harmful effects of sugar, they’re starting to look for natural alternatives.

And manufacturers have jumped on board – natural sugar alternatives have taken the market by storm. The problem is that ‘natural sweetener’ implies ‘natural goodness’: the sweet taste of sugar without any nasties. Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

Yes, nutritive natural sweeteners are a tiny bit better than processed sugar. That’s because they contain less fructose than table sugar, and also contain a few vitamins and minerals. But you’ll get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a healthy diet anyway.

So if you still want to use nutritive natural sweeteners, use them sparingly.

 

Speaking of sugar intake…

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends having no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar a day. They also say that added sugars should make up less than 5% of your total daily calories.

Those 6 teaspoons include all the obvious sugars, like dessert after dinner, or an afternoon sugar-sweetened drink. (Bear in mind though, that one can of soft drink can have over 7 teaspoons – more than your daily limit – of sugar in it!)

But WHO’s figure also includes all those added sugars you don’t see. These are the sugars that manufacturers put into everyday items like breads, pastas, soups and sauces. We kid you not: sugar is in SO many food and drink items.

So it’s easy to see how you can quickly blow through your entire daily allowance by the end of brunch!

 

Types of natural sweeteners

Here are a few common sweeteners that all owe their taste to their own natural sugars.

 

Maple syrup

How sweet is it to drizzle a little maple syrup over pancakes? Unfortunately, the thing is, it’s not that different to sprinkling a spoonful of sugar on top.

Maple syrup is made from boiled-down maple tree sap. That means it’s super-high in sucrose, although it does contain a few minerals, antioxidants and nutrients.

And if you’re thinking of maple-flavoured syrup as a cheaper alternative, think again. That’s just a sticky syrup, loaded with refined sugar, that never even sniffed a real maple tree.

 

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar is made from coconut palm sap. It contains tiny amounts of nutrients, but nothing to get excited about.

The high sugar content outweighs any possible benefits. In fact, coconut sugar has exactly the same number of calories per serving as regular table sugar. You could end up paying more for something that isn’t any healthier.

 

Honey

One of the oldest natural sweeteners, honey is actually sweeter than sugar. It also ranges from light and mildly flavoured to dark and strongly flavoured.

Raw honey contains trace amounts of enzymes, minerals and vitamins. But pasteurising and processing raw honey kills off much of its nutritional value. So yes, it’s a tasty sweetener – but it’s still full of calories.

 

Agave

Agave nectar (AKA agave syrup) can catch you off guard. It’s marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, but it may actually be one of the unhealthiest sweeteners available.

Agave is a liquid sweetener made from agave cactus juice. Manufacturers process the juice to extract the nectar, which is super-high (85 per cent) in the fructose - much higher than regular sugar. That means it carries all the same health risks as regular sugar, so you’re better to avoid it.

 

Rice malt syrup

Sometimes called brown rice syrup, this one is loved by both vegans and the no-fructose movement.

Rice malt syrup is made from starches in rice and is a blend of maltose and glucose. It’s a slower energy release than other natural sweeteners and super sweet, so only very small amounts are needed to sweeten things up.

 

Molasses

Molasses is a dark liquid made from sugar cane or sugar beet. With a strong flavour and a high salt content, it’s not overly sweet.

It contains a handful of vitamins, calcium, magnesium and potassium, and is particularly rich in iron. But all that sugar means it’s certainly not healthy in large quantities.

 

How much sugar does each natural sweetener have?

You may be surprised to see the sugar content in 100g of these natural sweeteners:

  • White sugar – 100g
  • Honey – 82g
  • Coconut sugar – 75g
  • Maple syrup – 68g
  • Agave nectar – 68g
  • Molasses - 51g

 

What you need to remember about natural sweeteners

 

There are two types of natural sweeteners: nutritive and non-nutritive.

Nutritive sweeteners aren’t technically sugar, but they still affect your body like sugar, just less intensely. Using these naturally sweet alternatives, such as maple syrup, can be a winner to help you reduce your added sugar intake. But they’re not always a magic bullet.

The nutritive natural sweeteners we’ve listed as alternatives in this article are just that – alternatives. So if you’re going to use them at all, use them instead of refined sugar, not as well as. And always use them in moderation.

On the other hand, non-nutritive sweeteners, like stevia and erythritol, don’t affect your body like sugar does. So they’re great for allowing us to enjoy a sweet treat, without impacting our body like sugar does.  

At the end of the day, the best and only way to reduce your sugar intake is to have nutritive sweeteners as occasional treats, and otherwise, stick to foods and drinks with healthy, natural, non-nutritive sweeteners.

Better yet, look for naturally sugar free options, like Nexba.

 




Sarah Spence
Sarah Spence

Author




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