Today I want to take a look at the various types of sugars, sugar substitutes and sweeteners and how they affect our health. Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is the most well known and the body’s main energy source. Blood glucose is measured in diabetics, and glucose levels are checked during the fasting blood sugar test during pregnancy. Glucose, fructose and sucrose are simple carbohydrates or “simple sugars.”
Simple carbohydrates or short chain carbohydrates can be classified as monosaccharides (one sugar unit) or disaccharides (two sugar units). Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides while sucrose is a disaccharide, made up on glucose and fructose. They are formed when two monosaccharides are joined together and a molecule of water is removed — a dehydration reaction.
Glucose, also known as blood sugar, along with fat, is a preferred source of fuel for the body, in the form of carbohydrates and can be metabolized by every cell in the body. In fact, the brain and red blood cells can only use glucose for energy. The body uses glucose by processing it into immediate energy or for storage in muscle cells or the liver as glycogen. When glucose is consumed, blood glucose concentrations are on the rise, insulin is secreted and cells take up blood glucose for use. Blood sugar levels should be normal, and can range from 70-150 before eating. In fact, some experts recommend glucose levels should be below 80 before eating a meal. Abnormal blood sugar levels are linked with heart disease, blindness, skin infections, hypoglycemia and problems in the extremities. Most integrative nutritionists today are suggesting to make fat, rather than glucose, the main fuel for the body, and to limit carbohydrate intake.
Common forms: bread, fruits, vegetables, dairy
Fructose is a sugar found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. It causes a low rise in blood sugar levels. Unlike glucose, fructose can only be metabolized in the liver, and it does not require insulin to be released or stimulate the hormone leptin, which is the “satiety” hormone. Because it does not stimulate leptin, eating it won’t make you feel full, which can cause overeating. Unfortunately, fructose feeds bad bacteria in the gut, and also elevates triglycerides which are stored fats, and links to proteins and fats causing advanced glycation products, or AGEs which accelerate aging. Excess consumption of fructose causes the liver to overload and thus is thought to cause liver damage, toxic accumulation, fatty liver disease, obesity, leaky gut, and brain dysfunction. The goal is to eat under 30g of fructose daily, which is the amount in 2 large apples. This is important because fruit is not a food that you should eat however much you want, as many people might think.
Common forms: agave syrup is 70-90% fructose, high fructose corn syrup
Sucrose or table sugar is equal parts glucose and fructose. Sucrose comes from sugar cane or one of the top five genetically modified plants, sugar beets. Fruits and vegetables also naturally contain sucrose. Sucrose is metabolized into glucose and fructose which both go down their pathways. Glucose is used as energy, but fructose needs to be converted into glucose by the liver before it can be used by the body. Too much sucrose causes tooth decay, heart disease, diabetes and obesity and feeds yeast within the body.
Common forms: Coconut sugar is almost all sucrose, with some fructose and glucose. While it raises blood sugar less than table sugar and contains iron, some B vitamins, potassium, zinc, and magnesium, it is STILL sugar!
Some of the sugars that we use in the kitchen are below, what benefits they may have and how they are digested.
FORMS OF SUGAR
White sugar. White sugar is sucrose and comes from GMO sugar beets. If you are purchasing white sugar, buy organic.
Coconut sugar raises blood sugar less than table sugar. On the plus side, it contains iron, B vitamins, potassium, zinc and magnesium, BUT it is still sugar and processed as such.
Maple Syrup is a low fructose sweetener that is digested the same as fructose.
Raw Honey contains antioxidants, enzymes, nutrients and is anti-microbial, but cooking it destroys the benefits. It is composed of glucose, fructose and water. Honey is metabolized very similarly to sugar, but since the glucose and fructose are already separated, enzyme digestion is not required, glucose is readily available and it is digested more quickly.
Stevia is considered safe, however, many have reported issues with stevia such as disrupting a woman’s menstrual cycle, which is a cause for concern. It comes from a plant, and has been shown to improve blood glucose control in diabetics (6).
Aspartame metabolizes into formaldehyde. It is linked with food cravings and cancer.
A sugar substitute (artificial sweetener) is a food additive that duplicates the effect of sugar in taste, but usually has less food energy. Besides its benefits, animal studies have convincingly proven that artificial sweeteners cause weight gain, brain tumors, bladder cancer and many other health hazards. Some kind of health related side effects including carcinogenicity are also noted in humans. (4)
Splenda which is sucralose substitutes chlorine for one of the molecules in sugar making it related to a known carcinogen.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that tastes similar to sugar, and is well tolerated. It is known for benefits with dental health. It is sweeter than sugar, and has a negligible effect on insulin.
Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol with no effect on glucose or insulin levels. When it is found in powdered form, erythritol is processed. It seems to be well tolerated and erythritol won’t spike blood sugar or insulin levels (7). Look for non-GMO.
Agave Nectar: While it had its time of popularity a few years ago, agave nectar is mainly fructose, so an overconsumption of it causes liver damage and fat accumulation among other issues. Most health experts recommend avoiding agave.
Dates: Dates are a whole food and contain various vitamins and minerals, including fiber, calcium and potassium. Most of the carbohydrates in dates come from sugars including glucose and fructose.
MonkFruit Sweetener – newer to the market, this is mostly erythritol and monkfruit is up to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Monkfruit has not had many studies done to know the complete effects. Look out for dextrose in the ingredients. Dextrose is a slightly larger molecule of glucose.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Honey, maple syrup, white sugar, and coconut sugar, which have been touted as healthier than white sugar, contain only a little bit less fructose, and some have a few antioxidants, but there is minimal difference when processed by the body. Excess sugar consumption causes fat to accumulate, along with chronic health problems such as insulin resistance. You can use sugar as a treat sometimes, but it is smart to try to limit sugar in your diet. Most of the sugars listed are highly addictive, so try a sugar detox when you are ready, which is a great place to start!
Xylitol seems to get the best ratings for coffee/tea sweetener and baking. In second place, erythritol, which seems to have good reviews, with the exception of not dissolving as well.
If you use sugar in your coffee or tea, try it black or try xylitol.
If you eat milk chocolate, try dark chocolate.
In oatmeal or yogurt, try cinnamon.
Try a handful of almonds instead of a sweet treat.
Have dessert only on weekends or special occasions.
Opt for savory over sweet.
3 Asprey, Dave. The Bulletproof Diet.