Modern consumers pay close attention to sugar levels in products, preferring sweeteners from more natural sources.
The reasons more people want to cut their sugar intake is varied. Most desire a healthier diet, better weight management, or prevention of tooth decay and diabetes.
Honey is the most popular natural sugar alternative. Stevia, monk fruit, agave, brazzein, xylitol, and brown rice syrup are also commonly used, even if no one of these has yet dominated the category, for reasons of formulation, cost, and aftertaste.
Are natural sweeteners without contraindications?
Calorie-containing natural sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, agave, and coconut sugar are often touted as healthier alternatives to added sucrose (table sugar). Is there any truth to these claims?
The plain truth is that, similar to sugar, these alternatives are still low-nutrient concentrated sweeteners; they add substantial calories to the diet while contributing very little nutritional value. Furthermore, the lower glycemic index associated with natural sweeteners is not at all related to avoid any negative dietetic effects. Even if some natural sweeteners undergo fewer processing steps than sugar and may retain some phytochemicals from the plants they originate from, their nutrient-to-calorie ratio is still very low, and they contain minimal or no fiber to slow the absorption of their sugars.
Fructose stimulates fat production
Sucrose is half fructose and half glucose, made up of one fructose molecule linked to one glucose molecule. All sweeteners (and fruits) contain some combination of glucose, fructose, and the two bound together as sucrose. Maple syrup contains about 90% sucrose, so it is very similar to regular white sugar. Coconut sugar contains 70-80% sucrose, and honey contains 49% fructose and 43% glucose. Agave nectar is marketed as the lowest glycemic sweetener, due to its high fructose content (approximately 90%).
Fructose and glucose are broken down differently by the body. When fructose is absorbed, it is transported directly to the liver, where it is broken down to produce energy. Fructose itself does not stimulate insulin secretion by the pancreas. However, much of the fructose is actually metabolized and converted into glucose in the liver, so it does raise blood glucose somewhat (although not as much as sucrose or glucose). Despite its low glycemic index, added fructose in the form of sweeteners still poses health risks. Fructose stimulates fat production by the liver, which causes elevated blood triglycerides, a predictor of heart disease. Fructose, when used as a sweetener, also seems to have effects on hunger and satiety hormones that may lead to increased calorie intake in subsequent meals.
Sweeteners, unlike whole fruits, are concentrated sugars without the necessary fiber to regulate the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and fructose to the liver.
In conclusion, all caloric sweeteners have effects that promote weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, regardless of their ratio of glucose to fructose, or what type of plant they originate from.
Joel Fuhrman, Physician & Nutrition Researcher – “Health Risks of Natural Sweeteners”