A sweetener is anything that creates a sweet taste on your tastebuds. They can either be chemically produced (Synthetic) or extracted from plants (supposedly natural). Sweeteners entered the food industry back in the 1800s and are now a staple in processed food.
Classification of Sweeteners
Under the name of sweeteners, the Food and Agricultural Organization includes products used for sweetening that are either derived from sugar crops, cereals, fruits, or milk, or produced by insects. In general, sweeteners can be classified into five major groups,
i) Artificial sweeteners
ii) Modified sugars
iii) Natural caloric sweeteners
iv) Natural zero calorie sweeteners
v) Sugar alcohols
Sweeteners can also be classified as Natural (Naturally occuring sugars) and Synthetic (chemicals and sugar alcohols) depending on their composition and method of processing.
In this article we would focus on the natural sweeteners, their usage and various health impacts.
Natural sweeteners are carbohydrates obtained from vegetables, trees, seeds, roots, and nuts. Some of these natural sugar alternatives include plant saps/syrups (e.g., maple syrup, agave nectar), syrups made from raw sugar and grains (e.g., molasses, barley malt, and brown rice syrup), honey, and fruit or vegetable sugars (e.g., date sugar, carrot, beet sugar).
This is the most popular and widely used of all the sweeteners. Made primarily from sugarcane juice, at the factory, cane juice is extracted, purified, filtered and crystalized into golden, raw sugar and further refined into white sugar. It is the most harmful category of sweeteners because of its highly acidic state. Sugar gives you just calories (empty calories) with no nutritional benefit. It can cause inflammation and can lead to leaky gut syndrome (IBS, IBD), Insulin resistance, Diabetes, Obesity, Hypertension and Liver dysfunction. It is the most blamed category for decaying teeth and cavities. Excessive sugar intake can cause your brain to shrink thereby hindering mental capacity.
Besides, higher sugar consumption may even increase your cancer risk by promoting insulin-glucose dysregulation, internal stress, hormonal imbalances and excess obesity (1).
Is Sugar addictive?
Nowadays, sugar has been refined to the state of a chemical-like substance. Indeed, when sugar cane is crushed and drained of all its liquid contents, boiled down to a syrup, shaken and then stripped of all its vitamins, minerals and molasses, we are left with pure white crystals.
This extraction and refinement process is similar to that of other addictive white crystals, that is, cocaine from the coca leaf, and opium from the poppy seed/pod. Thus, it is the refinement of sugar that significantly adds to its addictive properties (2). Over-consumption of sugar also creates a chaos in the brain.
How does one get addicted to sugar?
When you eat sugar, our brain releases dopamine and you start feeling really good. The problem? Dopamine wears off really quick and we look for our next hit, eat some sugar and dopamine is back. Now, sugar causes brain damage. This brain damage worsens depression, so you need more dopamine, so you eat more sugary foods, get high temporarily and this vicious cycle continues. And the addiction worsens. This is how it leads to a perpetual cycle of extreme cravings (3).
While it may be slightly ‘healthier’ to replace refined sugar with a sweetener, it is not really advisable to add jaggery to your diet. It can raise your blood sugar levels because it is ultimately sugar which is marginally less refined. It can trigger the same insulin- glucose dysregulation that sugar does and can be just as addictive as sugar due to the dopamine cycle.
Also investigations carried out in a study done in Uttarakhand, India revealed that the quality of jaggery degrades when stored in hanging baskets and polythene bags (4). We recommend you keep jaggery at the same distance as you keep sugar. Very far away from you.
Coconut Palm Sugar
It also goes by the following names:
Though it is known to have trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, you will have to have a whole lot of it in order to see observable results, which means you would be consuming a whole lot of sugar in the end. Consequently, eating a lot of sugar can lead to sugar addiction and a feeling of being ‘high’.
Natural Maple syrup is made by boiling down sap from maple trees until there is a thickened syrup. Natural maple syrup contains minerals, such as calcium and potassium and in small quantities it might be okay for occasional consumption. Maple syrup is also manufactured by combining corn syrup, maple flavoring and coloring. Manufactured maple syrup may not contain the same level of minerals as natural maple syrup and can result in insulin resistance, obesity and inflammation.
Agave is a vegan alternative for honey. The nectar or syrup is made from the agave plant, which is also the source of tequila. It is about 1½ times as sweet as white sugar. Agave comes in many flavors and colors, from light and mild to dark and strong. When agave is processed to make syrup, what’s left is mostly fructose — anywhere from 70-90%.
Fructose is fine when consumed as a component of whole foods, like fruit, but on its own can have pretty negative health consequences. Because agave syrup is much higher in fructose than plain sugar, it has greater potential to cause adverse health effects, such as increased belly fat and fatty liver disease.
There is a high concentration of sucrose in the sugar beet plant and the sugar is extracted from the same. However, there are concerns regarding its consumption because of the use of genetically modified (GM) sugar beets (5). GM foods can cause antibiotic resistance, food allergies and other possible adverse effects on health. Sugar beets are also used to produce two other varieties of sweeteners, namely, Brown sugar and molasses. Avoid beet sugar as it comes from GM sugar beets.
Honey is made by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. It is sweeter and has more calories than white sugar. Honey provides temporary relief from problems like eye diseases, asthma, throat infections, tuberculosis, thirst, hiccups, fatigue, dizziness, constipation, worm infestation, piles, eczema, healing of ulcers, and wounds. However, the use of chemicals and pesticides sprayed on crops is impacting the health of honey bees and further also its consumer’s. So the use of organic honey is always promoted. We’ve found use of honey beneficial in our protocols especially due to its antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Dates and raisins
The use of artificial sweeteners is controversial (Refer Part-2). Hence, it is always best to use the naturally sweet foods to satisfy your cravings. Dates and raisins are sweet foods with added benefits because of their inherent and ample nutritional content. They have what we call cellular sugar. The sugar in them is bound to fiber and provides additional nutrients such as minerals. These belong to the safest categories for use, but watch out for over consumption always.
All of the sweeteners mentioned above can be referred to as ‘natural caloric sweeteners’. There are also sweeteners which are natural and also zero caloric. These are sweet-tasting plant-derived natural products, have zero glycemic index and are harmless to teeth, but they can have an aftertaste.
The most popular ‘Stevia’ is included in this category, along with a few others. It is regarded as ‘herbal sugar of the 21st century’ and is considered as a novel sweetener. Though it is a herb, the products publicised in the market involve processing for various reasons- improving shelf life, taste, quality, etc.
Manufacturing techniques usually involve the use of fillers or alcohol tinctures. These hidden ingredients make their use harmful.
Stevia leaves in their natural form might be okay as a sweetener but they have blood sugar and blood pressure lowering properties (6). So it is advised to be used carefully for those who are already on medication for lowering high BP and blood glucose levels.
The other natural zero calorie sweeteners include: Luo Han Guo also known as monk fruit extract, thaumatin, pentadin, monellin and brazzein.
You should always have a closer look for these sweetening agents, as they can cause instant reactions in some people and they have a bitter and metallic after taste.
Growing health concerns of obesity and metabolic problems have been reported over the use of refined and other processed sugar. Hence, there has been an increase in the use of what are called- Artificial sweeteners and their varieties as people believe those are safer to use. But are they really that safe? Find out in our next article in this series:-Sweeteners part 2- Artificial sweeteners