Whenever I write about sugar, I get a lot of spam comments trying to advertise brands of “natural, healthy” sweeteners that, apparently, are simply bursting with healthiness. I’m also constantly aware of people choosing artificial sweeteners to avoid sugar; as well as people choosing “natural” sweeteners over artificial, or just regular sugar.
So what is the difference between all of these types and brands of sweeteners? Are there really new natural sweeteners out there, or is it just clever marketing of an existing product, with a new brand name?
A natural sweetener, by definition is one that is unprocessed, and naturally occurring in nature – in the same state (or requiring minimal processing that you could do yourself). A lot of sweeteners sold as natural, actually require a lot of refining and processing to get to the state they reach us in – far from natural.
One of the most talked about sweeteners, Stevia is actually a herb. It has a natural sweet taste, but no actual sugar molecules. The green leaf Stevia plant is therefore a great alternative to sugar. Unfortunately, far more readily available than the green leaf versions, is the white powdered form of Stevia (i.e. branded as Natvia, Truvia or Sun Crystals). This is very processed, and definitely one to be avoided.
Raw Honey is a great natural sweetener. Using a local honey is even supposed to reduce hayfever. Whilst honey is natural (and in fact the only sweetener I use), it still produces an insulin effect and is definitely best suited for occasional use – as are all forms of sweeteners.
Maple Syrup, traditionally made Agave Nectar (Miel de Agave), Sorghum Syrup, Coconut Sugar, Palm Sugar, Molasses, Date Sugar, Cane Sugar, Fruit Juice, Muscovado and Sucanat are also natural sugars – but, again, no sweetener is the healthier choice, even if they are natural! Incidentally you might have seen Brown Rice Syrup in you health food shop – and whilst it too is “natural”, it contains malt and is therefore a source of gluten!
Not So Natural?
Agave Nectar is another one that seems to be thought of as another supremely healthy product. Agave is natural, in that it comes from the juice of the agave plant. It has a low glycemic profile, which means less of an insulin spike. However, this is because Agave nectar contains only 10% glucose – which means the other 90% is fructose, which comes with all sorts of health issues and is definitely to be avoided. Not only should Agave be avoided for its high fructose concentration, but it also contains saponins; toxins that have less than desirable effects on the body. Agave Nectar is produced in a not too dissimilar way to High Fructose Corn Syrup – yet at least HFCS is seldom marketed as a healthy sweetener.
Turbinado Sugar and Sugar Alcohols (i.e. xylitol and erythritol) are also not natural; but often sold with impressive health claims.
The chemical sweeteners really are a no brainer. Recognised as toxins in the body – and in many cases not established enough for us to really understand their impact, I can’t see any reason why anyone would want to consume these. There is also a lot of research into the insulin response, with many suggesting that the sweet taste, even in the absence of sugar, is enough to trigger an insulin response.
Artificial sweeteners include Aspartame (sold as NutraSweet or Equal), Saccharin (Sweet n Low), Sucralose (Splenda), Acesulfame-K (Sunette or Sweet One), Sorbitol, Mannitol and Tagatose.
Sweeteners – Are They Paleo?
Whilst the natural sweeteners are without doubt less harmful than their chemical or processed alternatives, they still aren’t “Paleo”. As an occasional treat Raw Honey is the only sweetener I would suggest.
Ultimately, it’s best to give up the need for constant sweetness. Since doing so, I’ve found my taste buds have changed and I no longer crave sweet things like I used to. Try giving up sugar; after a few weeks you’ll be glad you did!
Have you given up sugar? If not, what types of sweeteners do you use?