A Sweet Dilemma

As humans, we are hard-wired to crave sweet things; from an evolutionary perspective, a sweet taste in food meant it was toxin free and safe to eat. Before the evolution of agriculture, when our ancestors came across something sweet such as fruit or honey they undoubtedly would have indulged on it until either it was all gone or they could eat no more, as they had no guarantee where their next ‘sugar hit’ would come from. Sweet food would have provided a rich and well deserved reward, and when discovered, would have been enjoyed with reckless abandon.

However, our inbuilt desire to seek sweet foods has in recent years been transformed from a survival instinct into a potential health hazard, thanks in no small part to the ‘junk food’ industry. Sweetness is now everywhere you turn; soft drinks, fruit juices, breakfast cereals, sweets, chocolate, and energy bars scream at us from supermarket shelves. As a result, our threshold for sweetness has been extended, and as a nation on a collective blood sugar rollercoaster we are now consuming more added sugar than ever before.

Nonetheless, a recent revolt against sugar has seen a dramatic increase in the consumption of sweeteners, sugar substitutes, and even ‘healthy’ sugar sources such as maple syrup and coconut sugar. Even these are coming up against fierce opposition, with a growing low carb and sugar free community claiming that all sugar should be avoided in our quest for optimum health. Are they correct? Or are sweeteners safe, or even healthy, in moderation? Let’s take a look at the main sugar sources in our diet and examine the evidence.

Fruit

We’re kicking things off with fruit, because although it is widely recognised as one of the healthiest things you can eat, the growing contingent of ‘sugar-shunners’ have voiced quite a strong opinion against it. The theory is that fructose, the main source of carbohydrate in fruit, is a toxin that can contribute to everything from weight gain to diabetes to cardiac failure. Whilst a number of studies do point to fructose being hazardous, these studies are looking at isolated fructose; the kind found in energy drinks and other over-processed creations of the junk food industry. There’s a notable difference between the two.

Indeed, the fructose found in fruit comes packaged with fibre and water, which slows down the insulin response and increases satiety. Many people would find it rather difficult to consume 4 large Jonagold apples in one sitting, but it’s significantly easier to drink a can of coke. Studies have shown that the consumption of fruit is in no way unhealthy, whilst an increase in fruit consumption can actually decrease the risk of diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, the sugars in fruit also come hand in hand with a range of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are extremely beneficial to our health. Fruit has always been a nutritious part of the human diet, and there is no reason for it not to carry on that way.

White / Brown Sugar

Sugar, on the other hand, is quite rightfully demonised by virtually all nutritionists, doctors, and health professionals. Once touted as a ‘healthy, low calorie way to lose weight,’ we can now pretty much all agree that table sugar should be avoided wherever possible, given how it has virtually no nutritional value and skyrockets our blood sugar thanks to it’s high glycemic index (GI).

Both white and brown sugar come from the sugar cane, and whilst brown sugar retains some of the molasses, white sugar has these stripped away. Some people turn to brown sugar because they believe it to be healthier than its paler counterpart, but in reality there is very little nutritional difference given the high levels of processing both forms undergo.

As we discussed earlier, when sugar is refined it makes it very difficult to measure a caloric response thanks to the ease of consumption. As such, we are now consuming far more sugar than would ever have been possible before agriculture, which is leading to a world riddled with blood sugar imbalances, obesity, diabetes and candida. Too much sugar of any kind can lead to health issues, but as white and brown sugar will give you the least nutritional value per calorie, it would be in your best interest to avoid added sugar wherever possible. But if that’s the case, what about natural sweeteners?

Honey, Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugar and Molasses

Honey, Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugar and Molasses are considered ‘more natural’ sweeteners as they are unrefined and, as such, come packaged with beneficial nutrients, phytonutrients and enzymes. Out of the four, honey has the longest history in the human diet, and would have provided a fantastic source of energy for hunter gatherer communities, providing they could get their hands on it. In fact, there are still tribes today where honey represents a significant component of their diet, such as the Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania, who remain in remarkably good health despite a diet that could raise a few eyebrows due to it’s sugar content. Whilst honey is composed almost entirely from fructose, glucose and water, it does contain beneficial enzymes, phytonutrients and antioxidants. Studies have shown that these antioxidants help to reduce inflammation and decrease HDL (bad) cholesterol whilst increasing LDL (good) cholesterol. Raw honey also has naturally antibacterial and antiviral compounds, and can help reduce allergies. When choosing honey, be sure to source one that is raw, unpasteurised, and where possible, local, for maximum benefits.

Molasses, the ‘leftover’ product of sugar production, contains all the vitamins and minerals found in the sugar cane. Whilst not a ‘nutrient dense’ product when compared to things like fruits or vegetables, molasses does provide a good source of minerals calcium, magnesium, iron and potassium. Maple syrup and coconut sugar also contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, and although they are not as beneficial as honey and molasses, they are both lower GI than table sugar, with coconut sugar having a GI value almost half that of table sugar.

If you have a sweet tooth, it is without doubt that these four sweeteners make more sensible choices than table sugar. Simple changes such as swapping sugar in your tea for a teaspoon of molasses, or baking with coconut sugar, are excellent places to start. That said, it is still important to look on these sweeteners as ‘treats’ that are consumed every so often, rather than making them a part of your daily diet.

Agave Nectar

Whilst many people would group agave nectar in the ‘safe sweetener’ category, we’re not so sure. Taken from the sap of the blue agave plant native to Mexico, which also makes tequila, agave nectar can contain up to 90% fructose – and very little else. We discussed fructose earlier, and concluded that, whilst fine when naturally packaged in fruit, such high levels of fructose in isolation should be avoided. Whereas 100g of blueberries, for example, contain about 7.4g of fructose packaged with fibre, water and many beneficial nutrients, the same amount of agave contains up to a whopping 90g fructose. Unlike other sweeteners like maple syrup and honey, agave has it’s beneficial enzymes removed to stop it fermenting and turning into tequila in your cupboard. Metabolically and nutritionally speaking, therefore, agave nectar is very similar to high fructose corn syrup, considered one of the biggest offenders in the whole food industry. Whilst a little agave won’t hurt you, we’ve opted against including it in the ‘acceptable sweetener’ list.

Stevia

As we leave the territory of natural sweeteners, we come into a market that provides a source of much debate: natural sugar substitutes. Out of these, stevia is perhaps the most popular. Although only approved in the EU in 2011, stevia has rose to popularity for providing sweetness (said to be up to 300x sweeter than sugar) without any calories or carbohydrates. Many healthy recipes now call for a couple of drops of stevia rather than sugar, and even manufacturers of nutrition products like protein and greens blends have taken to using it to provide sweetness without additional calories. But is it safe?

Unfortunately, given the fairly recent arrival of stevia in the EU and America, there are not a great deal of studies to allow us to form a concrete opinion either way. Until more research of the effects of stevia on humans comes to light, we’re sitting on the fence with this one!

One potential issue that has been raised with stevia is how the sweet taste without the influx of sugar may confuse our insulin response; conversely, however, one study showed how stevia can actually help control blood sugar, whilst another showed how stevia improved insulin sensitivity in rats. Because of this, the early indications are that stevia may be a particularly good choice for those with diabetes, low insulin tolerances, or issues digesting sugar.

From our point of view, we prefer to use a sweetener such as raw honey or maple syrup simply because stevia is really, really sweet – it’s very easy to overdo it when not following a recipe! The key here is balance – if you like the taste of stevia, and you notice no ill effects from consuming it, then keep doing what you’re doing. Just be sure to keep an eye out for new studies as they come out, as we’re still learning about stevia and as such should be open to new research.

Xylitol

Much like stevia, xylitol is an all-natural sweetener (this time derived from tree bark) that contains very few calories and almost zero sugar, and is treated by the body as an indigestible carbohydrate, similar to fibre. Xylitol doesn’t raise blood glucose after consumptionand is actually recommended by dentists due to the benefits it offers for oral health. Xylitol has been shown to increase tooth whiteness and decrease the risk of cavities. Furthermore, xylitol can not be used as a food source for common plaque forming oral bacteria as sugar can – instead, it actively inhibits the growth of these bacteria.

Excessive consumption of xylitol can produce laxative effects, so use with caution. Natural sweeteners like xylitol are an excellent step to take to decrease your sugar intake, but that doesn’t mean you should consume the same amount!

Artificial Sweeteners

As we delve deeper into the world of sweeteners, the water gets a little murkier. Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose are also free from sugar and calories, but evidence suggests we would be best to avoid them wherever possible. Aspartame, the most studied artificial sweetener, has come up against a lot of opposition ever since it was first synthesised in 1965, but research hasn’t been significant enough to warrant a ban – yet. One studyin the 1980s linked aspartame consumption in rats with the formation of brain tumours; however, this has since been challenged a number of times. Another study reported a slight increase in the risk of Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma in males but not in females; but again, this has since faced vocal opposition. Sucralose has been the subject of less research, although a study has linked it to a decrease in red blood cells.

A recent study has also indicated that artificial sweeteners could actually impair glucose tolerance. The study indicates that they do so by changing the composition and function of our gut bacteria, leaving us with an impaired ability to digest and utilise glucose. Another study supports this argument, which showed that rats who are fed with artificial sweeteners gained weight faster than rats who were fed with glucose or sucrose.

Human studies have also been shown to correlate; when used in liquid form, artificial sweeteners are so sweet that they can mess with our bodies’ metabolic signals. Our brains expect such sweetness to equal caloric density, so when these calories aren’t provided, our bodies aim to compensate and actually begin to crave more calories. Whilst one would think that consumption of calorie free sweeteners would lead to an overall reduction in calories due to the sugar that they replace, studies have shown this not to be the case; rather, participants who consumed calorie free sweeteners in place of sugar actually consumed more calories in total.

When it comes to artificial sweeteners, we think that the alarming number of studies linking them to adverse health effects provide ample reason to avoid them. They have not been in the human diet long enough to be subject of long term research, but if anything, this uncertainty should provide even more reason to exercise extreme caution. If you’re anything like us, the word ‘artificial’ should be enough to put you off on it’s own.

What to do?

Unlike thousands of years ago, sweet doesn’t necessarily mean ‘safe’ these days. On the other hand, unlike sugar free activists would have you believe, sweet doesn’t mean ‘toxic’ either. As with everything, the key is balance. Avoiding anything sweet would be soul crushingly boring – can you imagine life without the joys of fresh fruit, sweet potatoes or raw chocolate? In moderation, sweetness is perfectly healthy – whilst many people should probably consume less sweet things, there is absolutely no reason to shun them from our diets completely unless we are facing a metabolic condition that dictates we do so. Fruit can (and arguably, should) be eaten regularly. Honey and molasses offer a range of health benefits, whilst maple syrup and coconut sugar are perfectly safe. Stevia and xylitol are great choices for diabetics and those with impaired insulin sensitivity. By avoiding the artificial and highly processed stuff, we can all enjoy a little sweetness in moderation and be completely healthy whilst doing so.