It is becoming well known that sugar is damaging to our health. And, the danger of fructose is also now on people’s radar, which is great news for our health and wellbeing. Fructose has been shown to seriously damage our metabolism, causing obesity and weight-gain, and is a major contributor to most modern disease, including heart disease.
Fructose in itself is not unhealthy (it is naturally occurring in fruits). The fructose overload in our western diets is the problem. Some health professionals recommend staying under 25g of fructose per day. I actually think our ancestor’s natural diet would have contained around 15g a day, so I think that is a healthier benchmark. However, for birthdays or the occasional treat, consuming 25g in a day won’t hurt.
We all naturally seek out sweet food, and there is still a lot of confusion about which alternatives are healthiest. And, there is also a lot of misinformation, which I would like to clear up to make it easier.
I find the easiest way to achieve vibrant health and wellbeing is to emulate our hunter-gatherer ancestors. If a food can be grown, and was naturally accessed (albeit irregularly in the case of sweets), then I consider it a healthy alternative. But, here is some specific information to help navigate the maze of choice.
I sometimes see stevia listed with artificial sweeteners, but it is actually very natural. It is a small green herb, and its leaves are 1,000 times sweeter than sugar. If you can find a plant (try an organic nursery), you can grow it in the back yard, and grind the leaves in a mortar and pestle. It has no fructose, so it is my favourite sweetener. However, you do need to be careful to avoid stevia based sweeteners that have been mixed with other ingredients (usually sugar alcohols or chemicals). Use a pure, natural stevia. My favourite brand is Nirvana.
Some people insist that stevia has a bitter aftertaste, but if you use a quality brand, it just tastes sweet; no aftertaste. It comes in a powder, drops, or tablets (easy to add to hot drinks); my preferred form is the extract powder. Nirvana comes with a tiny scoop that is equivalent to 1 tsp of sugar, so it makes it easier to measure. ½ a tsp is equivalent to 1 cup of sugar.
Honey is starting to get a bad rap now that everyone is more aware of the dangers of fructose. However, there are a few facts about honey that many people aren’t aware of. Even though it is quite high in fructose (around 50%), raw honey contains compounds that reduce the insulin response, so the fructose doesn’t have the same impact. Studies also show that raw honey stabilizes blood sugar levels.
In addition, raw honey is full of antioxidants, and is also loaded with minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and vitamins. Raw honey also contains nutraceuticals, which are nutrients found to neutralize free radicals and improve the immune system. It is a wholesome food that has been eaten for centuries, before we started loading our diets with sugar.
Having said all that, because raw honey does contain fructose, its use does need to be limited. I recommend no more than 1 tsp in a day, which equates to about 4 g of fructose. When I use raw honey in a recipe, I use one or two tablespoons in the entire recipe, which means each serve contains less than a tsp of honey. If you see a recipe asking for 1 cup of honey, consider using stevia instead. Keep in mind that once you are sugar-free, your taste buds will change, and you will no longer want your desserts to be super sweet.
Notice that I keep saying ‘raw honey’. Commercial honey has been super-heated, and no longer contains any beneficial compounds, and you may as well be consuming high fructose corn syrup. Honey also becomes toxic when overheated.
Maple syrup is also around 50% fructose. I won’t get too technical here, but the monosaccharide fructose form of fructose (the type in high fructose corn syrup) is the most harmful. Raw honey has around 42g of monosaccharide fructose per 100g, while maple syrup only has around 4g per 100g, so it is very low in the dangerous kind of fructose. However, while we know that raw honey is beneficial to health, and has properties mitigating its high fructose content, maple syrup isn’t a whole food because it needs to be boiled extensively to reduce the maple tree sap into thick syrup. As a result, its nutritious value and enzymes are destroyed. It would be lovely to think the syrup simply pours out of the tree, but that isn’t the case.
The blue agave plant is a succulent, traditionally grown in Mexico, but also found the U.S. and South America, and is the source for Tequila.
Agave syrup has been marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, and many raw desserts sold in health food shops are loaded with it. It is advertised as healthy because of the Glycemic Index. The GI measures the glycemic response in the body, and ‘low GI’ foods have been deemed healthier by many health professionals. Using GI does actually work in a lot of cases, but there was one huge problem with the entire theory. Fructose has a very low GI, and we now know that high levels of fructose cause major health issues.
Even though agave syrup is ‘low GI’, it is 90% fructose, so is actually quite unhealthy. In addition, it is not a natural, whole food with enzymes. The agave syrup is not made from the sap, but from the bulb. Heat and chemicals are used to convert the bulb into syrup. Some syrups are processed under 50°C, so are marketed as ‘raw’, but they are not raw or wholesome.
In addition, natural enzymes are physically removed to prevent the mixture from fermenting (and becoming tequila). Once agave syrup is processed, it becomes a condensed fructose-syrup, with no nutritional value; far higher in fructose than any other commercial sweetener, including sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
The term ‘sugar alcohol’ sounds pretty natural, but the name comes from the chemical structure, which is similar to sugar and alcohol. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates; some are extracted from plants, but most are manufactured from sugars and starches. Sugar alcohols are popular because they have half the calories of sugar. I personally don’t believe calories have anything to do with maintaining a healthy weight, but the reason they have less calories is because the body doesn’t absorb them completely. As a result of the malabsorption, they often cause bloating, gas, and diarrhoea. The common sugar alcohols are:
Are they natural? I think most people can tell from the chemical sounding names that they aren’t. Sugar alcohols do occur in nature in tiny amounts. We can’t go out into nature to collect sugar alcohols to use as a sweetener. They are manufactured products, and I recommend avoiding them.
Dextrose (the commercial form of glucose) is now quite commonly being used as a sugar alternative. Extensive research has shown that fructose is the dangerous part of any sugar; testing has also shown that glucose, dextrose, and starch don’t cause obesity or health issues.
However, that being said, there is new research suggesting that diabetics and people who are insulin resistant actually make fructose from the glucose. It happens with something called the ‘polyol pathway’. Eating too much fructose activates the polyol pathway, and we begin to make fructose from other sources as well. Researchers are learning more about this pathway, but they have definitive evidence that glucose turns into fructose with an insulin resistant person. Unfortunately, with the high levels of sugar in western diets, most people are insulin resistant (unless they have been sugar-free for a substantial period).
Dextrose has been a good alternative for a lot of people, and has assisted many in losing a lot of weight. And, it is clear that when someone isn’t insulin resistant, that it won’t cause the issues linked to fructose. But, because of the issue with insulin resistance, I recommend other alternatives.
If you want more information on the new research being done about the polyol pathway, Dr. Richard Johnson, the chief of the division of kidney disease and hypertension at the University of Colorado, is continuing that research.
There is SO much evidence out there showing detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners, so I will just give you a brief synopsis. There are over 10,000 documented reports of reactions to artificial sweeteners, including death. Aspartame and sucralose have been shown to cause bloating, weight-gain, depression, migraines, anaemia, kidney dysfunction, infertility, and spontaneous abortions. They also destroy healthy gut bacteria. Aspartame is also an excitotoxin, which causes overactive brain cells; to the point that they die. The ester bond in aspartame is broken down into formaldehyde and methanol, toxic substances that have been shown to increase risk for cancer.
Again, to achieve optimal health and weight, it is better to look for something naturally occurring in the environment. These dangerous chemicals don’t even work; they may not have calories, but one of their proven side-effects is weight-gain.
The Best Alternatives
My favourites are stevia and small amounts of raw honey. If nothing else, it does make it simple. Easy healthy meals and desserts are simple to make once you know the right way to use these beautiful sweeteners.