New Natural Sweeteners: Are They Better for You Than Sugar?

sugarMost people eat too much sugar. In fact, the average American eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day. Sugar is in most many packaged and prepared foods, even seemingly “innocent” ones like yogurt, canned fruit and fruit juice. Plus, most people add it to their coffee, tea and breakfast cereal by the spoonful.

Why is this a problem? The calories add up – not to mention all that sugar increases the risk for health problems. Plus, there’s evidence from animal studies that the desire for sugar can become an addiction, much like smoking and alcohol. These days you can find sweeteners that have fewer calories than sugar, some of them calorie-free. Unlike artificial sweeteners like Splenda and Equal, these sweeteners are made from natural ingredients. Here are some relatively new natural sweeteners you should be aware of.

Nectresse™ Natural No Calorie Sweetener

This sweetener is offered by the same company that makes the synthetic sweetener Splenda. Unlike Splenda, this newest offering is made from natural ingredients including erythritol, a sugar alcohol, and monk fruit, a sweetener that comes from a fruit native to Asia. Monk fruit has been used safely as a sweetener in China for many years and apparently has no side effects..

Erythritol, a sugar alcohol, is also considered to be safe, although you could experience some intestinal distress or bloating if you use large amounts of it. It has no calories and less than a gram of net carbs due to a small amount of added molasses.

Is it a good option? It’s a reasonably good alternative to sugar and synthetic sweeteners if you don’t experience bloating from the erythritol. Even though it’s made from natural ingredients, it undergoes a significant amount of processing to make the final product. So, the word “natural” has to be used loosely.

We’ve never tried this particular sweetener so we can’t tell you how closely it mimics the taste of sugar. One advantage, based on reports, is it doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste and you only need a small amount to sweeten things.

You can find other sweeteners made from monk fruit including one called LoHan, at some natural food markets. Monk fruit-based sweeteners seem to be an up and coming trend.

Stevia

Stevia isn’t new but it’s worth mentioning because it’s growing in popularity. Stevia comes from a shrub that grows in South America. It’s almost 300 times sweeter than sugar so you don’t need a lot to sweeten your coffee or tea. The problem with most of the Stevia-based sweeteners is they’re highly processed. That’s because the Stevia plant naturally has a bitter aftertaste. Most manufacturers mask the bitter aftertaste by adding erythritol, a sugar alcohol that’s considered to be safe by the FDA. Sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and plants.

There was some concern initially that Stevia caused genetic mutations and fertility problems in animals but these studies are believed to be flawed. Further studies deemed it safe enough for the FDA to approve it. Not only does Stevia not raise blood sugar levels like sugar, it appears to be beneficial for diabetics by helping with blood sugar control and may lower blood pressure as well.

Is it a good option? We believe Stevia is one of the safer sweeteners on the market. People have used it without ill effects in Japan and Brazil for decades. We use it ourselves to sweeten oatmeal, coffee and tea. The kind we use doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste unless you use it for baking.

You can make your own Stevia extract by placing Stevia leaves in grain alcohol to extract the sweetness and then diluting it with water, although we’ve never tried this. This “natural” version is more likely to have a bitter aftertaste than processed Stevia products.

Here’s a video on how to make your own Stevia:

Sugar Alcohols

If you can tolerate them, the sugar alcohol xylitol has an added benefit. It helps to kill bacteria that cause tooth decay. That means chewing on xylitol mints could help you avoid dental drills and bills. You can also find xylitol and erythritol in health food stores you can use as a sweetener. We don’t recommend using another sugar alcohol, sorbitol, since it can cause severe diarrhea and bloating in some people.

Sweeteners We Don’t Recommend

We don’t recommend agave syrup because it’s primarily fructose and very similar in composition to high fructose corn syrup, the “not so healthy” sweetener in many packaged foods. You can read more about why here. We also don’t recommend honey. Even though it has more vitamins and minerals than sugar, it has a high-glycemic index, meaning it has a significant impact on your blood sugar level.

The Bottom Line?

There are a growing number of alternatives to sugar these days that are more natural than synthetic sweeteners like Splenda and Equal. We recommend cutting back on all sweeteners in your diet, but if you can’t drink your tea without sweetener, these are low-calorie and calorie-free options.

References:

Pharmacol Ther 121 (1): 41–54.

J Calif Dent Assoc. 2003 Mar;31(3):205-9.

Kristie Leong M.D.

Dr. Kristie Leong and Dr. Apollo Leong are physicians helping you to lead a healthy lifestyle by sharing nutrition and fitness tips and keeping you abreast of the latest health news.

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