The Skinny on Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners

Sweetness. Our bodies crave sweet, and for a biological and historically good reason – it triggers our desire for calories that keep us (cavemen) alive.  

Fast forward to today and we’ve got many options for satisfying our sweet desire, including:

  • Scientifically manipulated naturally sourced sweeteners, such as high fructose corn syrup
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), and more
  • Sugar alcohols, (generally end in ‘-ol’) such as xylitol, erythritol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, inositol, and lactitol

Keep in mind, even though we have so many sugar options, keeping your blood sugar levels balanced is really important for your health.

Naturally Sourced, Plant-Based Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners make the most sense because they are the least scientifically manipulated, and the body will recognize them for digestion and absorption. I prefer a natural sweetener with some added nutritional value. 

Raw honey is a natural sweetener with other health-promoting benefits, provided the raw honey has not been heated or overprocessed (unlike the crystal clear, ultra-refined kinds of honey you often see). Raw honey is rich in enzymes, antioxidants, and minerals. The darker the color means it is higher in antioxidants. Buy local whenever possible. Manuka honey is another option with properties that support the body's innate resistance to pathogens. 

Green-Leaf Stevia is a very sweet herb from the leaves of the stevia plant, found in South America. Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar and is calorie-free. It is considered a supplement by the FDA, although it has been an approved natural sweetener in the European Union since 2011. The green leaf variety is more nutritious than the white powder, and it doesn't promote dental cavities or affect blood sugar levels.

Luo han guo (aka: Monk Fruit) is a very sweet fruit that grows on a vine and is native to China and Thailand. Like stevia, luo han guo extract is almost 300 times sweeter than refined sugar, with very few calories. It has traditionally been used in Chinese medicine for weight management and diabetes. It is becoming more popular here in the United States as a natural, plant-derived low-calorie sweetener.

Lucuma is the most popular ice cream flavor in the Andes. It's a mildly sweet fruit with a smooth texture, often described as butter pecan. It's rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene and contains potassium, iron, niacin (vitamin B3), calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. Lucuma is low-glycemic, contains compounds that support normal inflammatory levels, and contains a small amount of fiber and protein, which is uncommon for a sweetener.  

Dates are a nice way to add sweetness to baked goods and homemade bars. They are a great source of fiber, which supports digestion. Dates contain antioxidants, calcium, iron, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc.  

Glucose/Dextrose is a simple monosaccharide found in plants. It is about 70% as sweet as refined sugar (sucrose), so more is required, however, it is a safer sugar alternative to fructose. 

Scientifically Manipulated Naturally Sourced Sweeteners

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a mixture of glucose and fructose as monosaccharides. HFCS and cane sugar are not biochemically identical, and HFCS is quite often found tucked into long ingredient lists of overly processed foods and is ubiquitous in drinks of all kinds.

HFCS is produced by milling corn to produce corn starch (is that non-GMO corn starch?), then processing that starch to yield corn syrup, which is almost entirely glucose, and then adding enzymes that change some of the glucose into fructose. The resulting syrup (after enzyme conversion) contains approximately 42% fructose and is HFCS 42. Some of the 42% fructose is then purified to 90% fructose, HFCS 90. To make HFCS 55, the HFCS 90 is mixed with HFCS 42 in the appropriate ratios to form the desired HFCS 55.

Refined white sugar (aka sucrose) is natural, but processed, and when consumed in current day quantities, is detrimental to our health in a variety of ways. It causes inflammation, increased blood sugar levels, and added calories with zero nutrients. Too many calories in and not enough burned off every day means weight gain, and associated medical issues such as obesity lead to a host of health concerns such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and more.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet'N Low), and more were a promising way to sweeten beverages with few or no calories back when we thought there were no unintended consequences. However, research has proved otherwise. Consider Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Executive Director Michael Jacobson’s statement on aspartame (source below):

Aspartame has been found to cause cancer—leukemia, lymphoma, and other tumors—in laboratory animals, and it shouldn’t be in the food supply.

Artificial sweeteners are just that: artificial. They are created scientifically. They are not made from any type of naturally occurring, plant-based source. It reminds me of Michael Pollan’s now famous saying, ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.’. He doesn't say, 'Each scientifically engineered food substances and lookalikes, mostly chemicals.'

Sugar Alcohols

What are sugar alcohols?

Actually, you are probably familiar with some of the common sugar alcohols – sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates – are manufactured from cornstarch. Xylitol, another common sugar alcohol, is manufactured from such sources as corn cobs, sugar cane bagasse (stalk residue remaining after sugar extraction), or birch wood waste. Isomalt and lactitol are becoming more common and are manufactured from sucrose and whey, respectively. Isomalt and lactitol are commonly called bulk sweeteners because their sizes are nearly the same as sugar. 

Sugar alcohols are not as sweet as refined sugar, and they have fewer calories, but in general, they are not calorie-free. Because sugar alcohols are not absorbed completely by your body, unwanted side effects often include bloating, upset stomach, gas, and/or diarrhea.

In summary, plant-based sugars closest to their naturally occurring form, not chemically transformed sugar or sugar lookalikes, have to be the most healthy for us. Enjoying them in moderation and erring on the smaller side of moderation at that, makes the most sense to me. 

So when the cave(wo)man in me craves sweet, I’m reaching for my raw honey, stevia, and lo han guo. My body will thank me for it in the long run.



Harvard Medical School: Is Fructose bad for you? 

Center for Science in the Public Interest: Coke Shouldn’t Bother Rehabilitating Asparatame’s Image 

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