Are natural sweeteners a better choice?
The debate continues to rage on: what’s the better option, calorie-free artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners that spike blood sugar and calorie intake? Read on to see what the experts have to say.
Understanding natural vs artificial
Before deciding which sweetener is best, you need to understand what types of sweeteners are available and how they are processed:
- Straight from nature: Some sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses and fruit are all-natural options that go through very little, if any, processing before they hit the shelves.
- Sort-of from nature: Other sweeteners come from natural sources, like sugar cane, corn or brown rice, but they undergo processing before landing at the store. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that what you're using in your food isn't something you can find by tapping a tree or picking a fruit. Keep in mind that there are also different levels of processing that these "natural" options go through. For instance, raw sugar undergoes less processing than white table sugar, but it's still processed.
- From the lab: There are numerous sweeteners that originate in the lab. Most of these are zero-calorie options with monikers like aspartame, sorbitol, xylitol, Splenda, Saccharin and Sucralose.
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Choosing a Sweetener
Calories and sweeteners
Natural sweeteners are loaded with empty calories that carry virtually no nutritional value. You may think this isn't a big deal because you don't use sweeteners very often, but manufacturers regularly add "hidden" sugars to packaged foods in order to enhance the flavor. In a society plagued by obesity, these sugar calories can add up fast.
In this respect, there isn't a real difference between highly-processed table sugar and more natural options. Dr Kenneth Mitchell, the director of Roper St Francis Bariatric and Metabolic Services in Charleston, SC puts it this way, "A sugar is a sugar, and calorie-wise, less-processed sugars like maple syrup or raw honey are equivalent with table sugar in equal amounts."
Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, were created to provide a sweet taste without the extra calories. In this respect, calorie-free artificial sweeteners look pretty good.
Nutrients and sweeteners
Some natural sweeteners, like honey and maple syrup, provide added nutrients like vitamins, minerals and fiber, making them slightly more nutritious than refined sweeteners and artificial options. That said, it's unlikely you would be consuming these sweeteners in a high enough volume to significantly impact your overall nutrition.
The body's response to sweeteners
No matter what you put in your body, your cells undergo a chemical response. Sugars are broken down into monosaccharides that can then be used as fuel or converted to fat. Most sugars are broken down quickly, causing a spike in blood sugar that is subsequently followed by a flood of insulin into your bloodstream. If you regularly experience extreme rises and falls in blood sugar, you could develop insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Some highly-processed sugars, like high fructose corn syrup and white table sugar, contain fructose and must be metabolized in the liver. According to Dr Mitchell, this causes lower insulin and leptin response and a higher ghrelin response. Leptin and ghrelin are the hormones responsible for hunger, and consuming highly processed sugars could actually increase your hunger, potentially causing you to eat more.
If you think this makes artificial sweeteners... sweeter, so to speak, think again. Dr Barry Sears, a leading authority on anti-inflammatory nutrition and the creator of the Zone Diet, explains it this way, "Artificial sweeteners fool the neural communication between the taste buds and the pancreas to release more insulin in anticipation that glucose will soon be entering into the bloodstream. The increase in insulin levels will make you hungrier sooner, thus increasing calorie intake." Add to that the fact that some artificial sweeteners have been linked to cancer and can cause stomach distress, and they stop looking so hot.
Dr Sears sums it up pretty well when he says, "Bottom line, all sweeteners simply have very little place in the human diet." Used in moderation, each type of sweetener has its benefits, but to be safe, the more natural a sweetener is, the better off you'll be.