The Skinny On Sugar Alternatives
Sugar, sugar everywhere!
Americans are now estimated to eat over 140 pounds of added sugar per year. That’s close to half a pound of added sugar every single day!
By now, you’ve probably heard how bad artificial sweeteners are for you.
The ones found in diet sodas and low-calorie foods like aspartame and sucralose have been linked to sugar intolerance (increasing your sensitivity to sweet tastes), leaky gut, weight gain, migraines, Alzheimer’s Disease, and even some cancers.
On our never-ending quest for a “guilt-free” sweet treat, you may have started hearing about sugar alternatives like stevia, monk fruit, xylitol, and erythritol.
But what exactly are these sugar alternatives, and are they actually a healthier choice?
Let’s uncover the truth about these sugar alternatives!
THE SKINNY ON SUGAR ALTERNATIVES
WHAT IS STEVIA?
Stevia is a plant that is native to Brazil and Paraguay and is known for its intensely sweet-tasting leaves.
The two main components in stevia are stevioside and rebaudioside A (aka Reb A).
The stevioside part is not as sweet as Reb A. So if you’ve tasted stevia that is less processed and closer to the whole leaf, the stevioside is responsible for the bitter aftertaste that you may have noticed.
The Reb A component of the stevia leaf is the sweeter part and typically extracted to use in most of the stevia sweeteners you find on the market.
Once processed into a sweetener, stevia is 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar and contains virtually zero calories.
Stevia does not affect blood glucose levels or insulin response.
WHAT THE HECK ARE SUGAR ALCOHOLS?
Erythritol and xylitol come from a group of sugar alternatives called sugar alcohols.
They are hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules (hence the name) but do not contain any ethanol, which is the compound in alcoholic drinks that gets you drunk.
Sugar alcohols are a type of sweet carbohydrate found naturally in fruits and vegetables.
Unlike stevia, sugar alcohols do contain calories; just significantly less than table sugar. But similar to stevia, they don’t raise your blood sugar or cause an insulin response.
Side effects: Sugar alcohols have been known to cause digestive issues in some people such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
This is mainly because they are not digested and travel unchanged through your digestive system into your colon. Once in the colon, they are fermented by gut bacteria, which can cause unpleasant side effects.
Usually, this only occurs if you’re consuming too much sugar alcohol, they are poor quality, or you have an underlying digestive issue already, such as SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Even though sugar alcohols are found naturally in fruits like apples and pears, the majority of sugar alcohols are extracted from genetically modified corn and cornstarch.
That’s something to consider if you’re looking to stay away from GMO products or corn specifically.
90% of erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted through your urine.
So, not as much of it makes it into the colon for fermentation. Therefore, it might be a better option for those experiencing digestive issues.
Xylitol comes from birch trees and GMO corn. If you’re looking to avoid corn or GMO products, you can find birch only or non-GMO corn options.
Xylitol has been around as a sweetener since the early 1900s and is commonly found in sugar-free mints and gums.
The reason sugar is so bad for your teeth and causes tooth decay and cavities is that it feeds harmful bacteria that live in your mouth. Sugar alcohols are shown to be resistant to the bacteria in the mouth.
Xylitol, in particular, has been shown to actually kill off the bacteria in the mouth that cause dental issues and can actually promote oral health.
Also known as Luo Han Guo or “Buddha fruit”, monk fruit comes from Southeast Asia.
Monk fruit extract contains mostly fructose and glucose, but the sweet taste actually comes from its antioxidants called mogrosides.
During processing, the mogrosides are isolated from the juice. Therefore, monk fruit sweetener does not contain any fructose or glucose.
Like the other sugar alternatives mentioned, monk fruit is not shown to raise blood sugar or insulin.
Once processed, monk fruit is 150-200 times sweeter than table sugar, and like stevia, contains no calories or carbohydrates.
Monk fruit is also less processed and refined than stevia.
THE NOT SO SWEET SIDE OF SUGAR ALTERNATIVES
All of these sweeteners have promise becoming good sugar swaps, but there are some downsides to these sugar-free alternatives.
- They are less available and therefore, more costly to produce. This causes many of the products you find on the market to be highly processed, poor quality, or mixed with other added sweeteners such as dextrose or maltodextrin. Make sure you’re reading labels before you’re buying!
- Taste them. While your taste buds will need some time to adjust away from regular sugar, these sugar alternatives can contain a slightly bitter or metallic aftertaste. So, make sure that you taste them and see which one you’re more likely to enjoy.
- Some studies also suggest that when you eat something sweet, your body expects a chemical response like raised blood sugar and insulin output. When we trick our bodies with zero-calorie sweeteners, it can lead to an increased appetite and enhanced cravings for sweets.
ARE YOU REALLY CRAVING SOMETHING SWEET?
When it comes to sugar alternatives, here are some questions to ask yourself.
- Do you feel as satisfied by eating foods that have been sweetened by sugar alternatives as something with regular sugar?
- Why are you craving sweets or feel like you have to have them? Typically, there are some biological, emotional, or psychological reasons behind those feelings.
- Do you find that you overeat foods with sugar alternatives, either because you’re not satisfied or because you feel like it’s a healthier option and you can “get away with it”?
- Do you find yourself overeating other foods after eating sugar alternatives?
These are all great questions to ask yourself to get to the real answer as to whether or not sugar alternatives are healthy or good for you.
As with everything in health and nutrition, it’s so important to figure out what works best for your body, your life, and your specific goals.
Have you tried any of these sugar alternatives? Which one is your favorite?