Guide to Natural Sweeteners Part 1: General Guide

With the global obesity pandemic and going by the successful launch of sugar-denouncing books in the last two years such as I Quit Sugar by Sarah Wilson and Sweet Poison by David Gillespie, sugar no doubt is a much overhyped concern in the health community. I have not read any of the above-mentioned books or those in a similar vein, but this is my pragmatic view on the sweet matter. When choosing a healthy sweetener, consider these four things: (1) how processed it is and (2) how high it is on the Glycemic Index (GI), (3) its fructose level, (4) common sense.

Choose Whole Sweeteners

It is always most nutritious to eat foods closest to their natural state. A natural (or unrefined) sweetener is one that has not been altered appallingly from how it is found in nature. The refining process strips the sugar of its nutritional value rendering it nothing but empty calories in addition to being high on the GI. While white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may be the darling of the processed food world, they need not have a presence in your kitchen. There are many options for wholesome sweeteners available now ranging from wholly naturally dried fruits such as dates to minimally processed maple syrup. Read labels and always choose those that are “natural” or “unrefined.”

Consider the Glycemic Index (GI)

GI is a measure of the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels after consumption. Foods that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI. Glucose has a GI by 100, by definition. Low GI is 55 or lower and high GI is 70 or greater. The GI is a useful tool for keeping your blood glucose levels in check. Maintaining stable blood glucose levels should not only be pertinent for those with diabetes, but to every one. It provides a stable flow of energy, reduces mood swings and quells cravings.

Consider the Fructose

Metabolic fate of oral fructose. Fructose is converted to glucose, free fatty acids, triglycerides and VLDL. Image from Tappy and Le (2010).

The next concern is the fructose content of the sugar. You may heard of the High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) controversy and the rise of fructophobes, but if not, let me fill you in in layman’s terms. Carbohydrates are mostly broken down into two simple sugars – glucose and fructose – which are metabolized differently. Glucose is the preferred energy source for all cells of the body. For ingestion of a certain quantity of glucose, 80 percent of the glucose load is utilized by organs, and the remaining 20 percent is shuttled to the liver. However, fructose is metabolized predominantly by the liver via the hepatic portal vein. According to RH Lustig who is considered one of the leading experts in the fructose field, the liver is the only organ possessing the Glut5 fructose transporter for fructose uptake into cells, although other sources also state it is distributed to the jejunal intestine, kidney and adipose tissue. In these tissues, fructose goes down a lipogenic pathway involving aldolase B metabolism, generation of pyruvate and de novo synthesis of free fatty acids (FFAs), triglycerides and the bad cholesterol VLDL.

Furthermore, it is said that fructose metabolism is about twice as fast as glucose metabolism. Fructose is also not regulated by insulin released from the pancreas. What this means is a triple whammy on your body system – a fast and furious hit of FFAs, triglycerides and and VLDL.

Different sweeteners have different levels of fructose. For example table sugar (sucrose) is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. Are there low fructose sweeteners? What are the high fructose sweeteners to avoid? These pertinent questions will be covered in Parts 2 and 3 of the natural sweeteners guide.

Common Sense

After all is said, it always comes back to moderation and common sense. Whatever the sweetener of choice, do not overdo it in recipes. Choosing a healthy sweetener is a straightforward science, but using it judiciously and smartly should be an easily practiced art too. The most healthy alternative is to wean yourself away from all added sugars as much as possible. Choose nature’s best offerings – fruits of the season – over ooey gooey desserts.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Natural Sweeteners series, where we jump into the sticky world of sweet syrups!

Recommended Readings and References

Sugar: The Bitter Truth. (YouTube Video)
The Fructose Epidemic. RH Lustig (2009). Bariatrician 24:10-18.
Sugar may be bad but this sweetener is far more deadly. J Mercola (2010). Huffington Post.
Metabolic Effects of Fructose and the Worldwide Increase in Obesity. L Tappy and KA Le (2010). Physiological Reviews 90:23-46.
Why high fructose corn syrup is still a darling of food manufacturers. H Weinggarten (2012). Fooducate.

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