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Sugar Alternatives – Are they really healthier?

This blog post also is available in German.

sugar alternatives:

I am going to be honest with you right away, only because today`s products are called healthier alternatives, doesn`t mean you can consume them in huge amounts. The word “healthy” might suggest something is actually quite good for your body, but still that`s not the case with sugar alternatives. No matter refined sugar or these so called healthy sugar alternatives, both are not essentially necessary for your body and shouldn`t be eaten in high quantities. Sugar alternatives contain calories, fructose and/or glucose and can increase blood sugar levels as well, although to a lesser extent. One positive fact about these alternatives is, that some of them contain minerals and vitamines in small amounts, which you will not be able to find in refined sugars. Lot`s of them are also produced quite naturally, like rice syrup, honey or maple syrup. Still the content of minerals and vitamines in sugar alternatives will never cover your daily needs, unless you eat a lot of them, which obviously isn`t recommended.

Basically the supporters of sugar alternatives can be divided into two different groups; those ones who pay most of their attention to the glycemic index and those who mainly care about the fructose content. The first group believes it`s very important for the blood sugar levels to not been raised high rapidly. For that reason they will always choose and recommend the alternatives with a low glycemic index, like agave syrup, xylitol or erythritol. The other group wants to minimize fructose intake as much as possible (except the fructose from fresh fruits), by avoiding products that contain that sort of sugar. They argue on the facts, that fructose can lead to intestinal problems, fatty liver, diabetes and more problems. On top of that our body doesn`really need sugar in that chemical form. People of this group would recommend to use stevia or rice syrup. It seems pretty obvious that there isn`t going to be “THAT” very answer for the question asked in the title of this blog post. The main aspect is to not consume too much sugar (except the one in fresh or dried fruits). But let`s take a deeper look into the different existing alternatives, their pros and cons.

1. Maple syrup

Is a syrup obtained by bleeding sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) and subsequent reducing by heat. Two thirds of maple syrup are sucrose, the rest is fructose, minerals and water.

Pros:

  • natural processing method
  • lower glycemic index than refined sugar
  • contains small amounts of minerals

Cons:

  • the name maple syrup is not protected. Make sure to buy organic quality, otherwise the syrup can be laced with sugar water.
  • although lower in glycemic index, maple syrup still has a high sugar content
  • not sustainable, as maple syrup is an oversea product for people living in Europe
  • not suitable for sweetening everything, due to it`s caramel-like taste

2. Molasses:

Is actually nothing else than a sugar syrup, emerging as a side product during refining sugar. Molasses is made out of sucrose (about 2/3) and – on contrary to refined sugar – still contains all minerals originally found in the raw materials (sugar cane or sugar beet). Attention, molasses is not sugar beet syrup! They are two different products, that are not comparable.

Pros:

  • contains small amounts of important minerals (iron, potassium, B vitamins, calcium, etc.)
  • said to have positive effects on your body and health (alternative medicine)
  • sustainable product (by-product), as long as it`s made out of local sugar beets
  • lower glycemic index than sugar

Cons:

  • high in calories
  • although lower in glycemic index, still has a high sugar content
  • not suitable for sweetening everything, due to strong taste of it`s own

3. Honey:

Is sugary honeydew, secreted by bees after consuming nectar. Honey is made out of approximately 40% fructose and 30% glucose, the rest is water, sucrose, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and other substances in small amounts. The ratio of fructose and glucose varies amongst different honey sorts, but in most of them the fructose content outweighs.

Pros:

  • natural product
  • has antibacterial properties and has been used as a medical remedy since the ancient and medieval times
  • lower glycemic index than sugar
  • sustainable, as long as produced locally

Cons:

  • can be laced with rice syrup (there`s an interesting documentary about this topic on netflix: Rotten – Lawyers, Guns & Honey) – make sure to always buy organic quality
  • high sugar content (about 80%), only exception Manuka-Honey, which is a healthy alternative
  • not suitable for sweetening everything, due to it`s strong taste of it`s own
  • not vegan
  • not suitable for kids unter 12 months
  • very sweet in taste

4. Dates, dried fruits, date syrup:

Dried fruits are well known as a very healthy snack and sweetener. On my point of view they are the best option to substitute sugar. There`s just one tiny little fact to consider, they have a fructose content of 50 up to 70%, which never makes them a better alternative to fresh fruits. Always choose fresh fruits over dried ones! Date syrup is nothing else than boiled down date juice. You can easily prepare date syrup at home out of fresh dates, which makes it way better than the one you can buy in the supermarket.

Pros:

  • natural product, avoid sulfurated dried fruits
  • high in fiber (dried fruits)
  • best sugar alternative, as dirctly made out of fresh fruits
  • lower glycemic index than refined sugar
  • very suitable as a healthy snack instead of sweets
  • contains minerals
  • suitable for raw diet, except storebought date syrup

Cons:

  • high fructose content
  • can cause digestional problems, especially bloating, if consumed excessively
  • not suitable for sweetening everything, due to the strong taste of it`s own and consistency, only exception: dates
  • not sustainable, as dried fruits sometimes aren`t produced in Europe
  • quite sweet

5. Rice syrup:

A honey-like sweetener orginally coming from Japan. Rice syrup is produced out of rice flour / rice starch by fermentation with the help of enzymes and it mostly consists of oligosaccharides, glucose, maltose and minerals (potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorous) and doesn`t contain any fructose at all.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • free of fructose
  • rises blood sugar levels slowly
  • doesn`t cause any voracious appetite
  • contains minerals
  • suitable for people with fructose intolerance
  • suitable for sweetening almost all sorts of foods and drinks, due to it`s neutral flavor

Cons:

  • contains glucose
  • not sustainable, as it`s usually not produced in Europe

6. Spelt syrup:

Obtained naturally from spelt. Same as rice syrup, spelt syrup contains oligosaccharides and no fructose at all.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • free of fructose
  • rises blood sugar levels slowly
  • doesn`t cause any voracious appetite
  • contains minerals
  • suitable for people with fructose intolerance
  • suitable for sweetening almost all sorts of foods and drinks, due to it`s neutral flavor
  • sustainable product if produced from local spelt

Cons

  • contains glucose

7. Agave syrup:

Extracted out of different varieties of the agave plant in Central America. Thusfor the plant is bleeded, the leaking plant juice is collected, filtrated and boiled down. Overall quite a natural processing method. The final product mainly consists of fructose and a small amount of glucose.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • very low glycemic index, thusfor doesn`t raise blood sugar levels
  • contains practically no sucrose and glucose
  • suitable for sweetening almost all sorts of foods and drinks, due to it`s neutral flavor

Cons:

  • very high fructose content
  • not sustainable, due to monocropping and as it`s an oversea product
  • high caloric value, due to it`s high fructose content
  • quite sweet

8. Concentrated apple & pear juices:

Generally concentrated juices are made out of the juice of fruits, either by heating and reducing the juice or just by extracting it cold. Concentrated juice from apples or pears are very similar to agave syrup, as they mainly contain fructose.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • very low glycemic index, thusfor doesn`t raise blood sugar levels
  • contains practically no sucrose and glucose
  • sustainable product, if made out of local fruits

Cons:

  • very high fructose content
  • high caloric value, due to it`s high fructose content
  • quite sweet
  • not suitable for sweetening all sorts of dishes and beverages, depending from which fruit the concentrated juice is obtained it can have a strong taste on it`s own

9. Yacon syrup :

The syrup is obtained from the Yacon tuber, a peruvian vegetable. For the production of the syrup the tuber is squeezed to gain the juice, which subsequently gets filtrated and boiled down. Yacon syrup mainly contains sugar in form of fructo-oligosaccharides and fructose, glucose and sucrose in very small amounts.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • very low glycemic index, thusfor doesn`t raise blood sugar levels
  • contains practically no sucrose and glucose
  • positive impact on the digestions and gut flora, due to the fructo-oligosaccharides
  • contains minerals
  • suitable for sweetening a lot of dishes and beverages due to it`s neutral only slightly caramel-like taste

Cons:

  • not sustainable as it`s an oversea product

10. Unrefined cane sugar & raw cane sugar:

Unrefined cane sugar is produced by gently processing the juice of the sugar canes. As the name already suggests this type of sugar isn`t refined. The sugar cane juice only gets heated and reduced. Main component of unrefined cane sugar still is sucrose and some minerals in very small amounts. Raw cane sugar experiences a refining process but only on a small extend. The sugar also still contains small amounts of molasses. Main component of raw refined sugar is sucrose as well and some minerals in very small amounts. Unrefined cane sugar and raw cane sugar might be less refined or not at all, but still they are basically the same thing like sugar, which is why we are not treating them as possible sugar alternatives here.

11. Coconut blossom sugar / palm sugar:

The first sort of sugar is gained out of the coconut blossoms. Their juice is being boiled down until you get a syrup, then crystallization is taking place to form the sugar. Coconut blossom sugar mainly contains sucrose and a little bit of glucose and fructose. Other ingredients are amino acids and minerals. Palm sugar actually can be coconut blossom sugar if obtained from the coconut palm tree. But it can also be produced out of other palm trees. Main ingredient for palm sugar is sucrose as well.

Pros:

  • quite a natural product, as long as it`s organic
  • lower glycemic index than refined sugar, although sucrose is the main ingredient
  • contains high amount of minerals, higher than any other sugar sorts
  • suitable for sweetening a lot of dishes and beverages due to it`s neutral only slightly caramel-like taste

Cons:

  • not sustainable as it`s an oversea product
  • main ingredient is sucrose, thusfor quite similar to refined sugar, apart from the natural processing method and the lower glycemic index

12. Xylitol / birch tree sugar :

Xylitol, sometimes also called birch tree sugar, is a nonartificial sugar substitute. Xylitol is not a synthetic sweetener and it traditionally was manufactured from wood sugar of different tree species (for example the birch tree) through a chemical process. As the demand of xylitol is on the rise and the traditional method is quite expensive and complex, the sugar substitute nowadays is produced chemically by using glucose from corn starch with the help of enzymes.

Pros:

  • doesn`t contain any glucose, sucrose and fructose
  • suitable for diabetics
  • doesnt`t raise blood sugar levels
  • low in calories
  • protects the teeth from caries
  • suitable for sweetening a lot of dishes and beverages, especially baking (only exception; yeast-risen pastry, which still will need regular sugar)

Cons:

  • mainly chemical processing methods
  • raw materials can be genetically modified (corn starch)
  • can lead to bloating and diarrhea if consumed in higer amounts, especially at the beginning, the effect will disappeae as your body will get used to xylitol
  • it`s poisonous for dogs

13. Erythritol:

Another sugar substitute of the sugar alcohol group. Again it`s not a synthetic, but a natural available sugar alternative. Erythritol can also be found in some mushrooms, fruits and pistacchios. It`s produced through fermentation using glucose and sucrose of certain mushrooms. There`s also a high possibility that corn starch is used as a glucose base for the production, as it`s cheaper.

Pros:

  • doesn`t contain any glucose, sucrose and fructose
  • suitable for diabetics
  • doesnt`t raise blood sugar levels
  • no calories
  • protects the teeth
  • suitable for sweetening a lot of dishes and beverages, especially baking (only exception; yeast-risen pastry, which still will need regular sugar)

Cons:

  • mainly chemical fermenting methods
  • raw materials can be genetically modified (corn starch)
  • can lead to bloating and diarrhea if consumed in higer amounts, less frequent compared to xylitol

14. Stevia:

A sweetener extracted from a plant called sugarleaf (Stevia rebaudania). You can directly use the dried leaves of the plants itself for sweetenting teas or any other beverages or you can triturate the dried leaves and use the powder for the very same purpose. There also exist stevia extracts or tablets. But be aware that the latter ones per se aren`t natural anymore as they are produced through chemical extraction of the sweeteners from the plant.

Pros:

  • doesn`t contain any glucose, sucrose and fructose
  • suitable for diabetics
  • doesnt`t raise blood sugar levels
  • no calories
  • protects the teeth

Cons

  • partially chemical production, depending on what sort of product you buy
  • utilization of the natural products is limited due to their texture and consistency
  • sweetening with stevia is difficult due to it`s own slightly bitter taste and the strong sweetening intensity compared to other sugar alternatives, which makes stevia rather suitable for beverages than for baking
  • not sustainable as it`s an oversea plant
  • make sure to always check on the ingredients list when buying stevia, some manufacturers tend to mix it with sugar substitutes to make handling easier

15. Red banana powder:

Is produced without exposure to heat from red bananas. The powder contains the natural sugar of the banana itself, as well as potassium, beta-carotene and other important minerals.

Pros:

  • suitable for a raw diet
  • natural processing method
  • contains minerals, proteins and fiber

Cons:

  • contains a lot of sugar, like bananas too
  • high in calories
  • not sustainable as it`s an oversea product
  • although mild the banana taste is still present, which doesn`t make it suitable for sweetening all kind of dishes and beverages

The list slightly became longer as I expected. And if you read through all of it, you might still feel like you didn`t get any answer to the question posed in the title of this blog post right? Ultimately every one of us has to decide independently which will be the focus of his/her diet. If you want to keep calories low and avoid sugar at any cost, but don`t care to much about the nativeness of your product, you might go for sugar substitutes like xylitol and erythritol. Those ones who prefer to consume unprocessed products and want to avoid sucrose and fructose as much as possible will choose rice, spelt or yacon syrup. It`s obvious that there isn`t a general solution for all of us together.
Personally I`ve tested almost all of the above mentioned alternatives and I like them. If I had to make a choice, I`ll rather go for the natural products with a high tendency towards date syrup, dried fruits, rice syrup and yacon syrup. Also I kind of like maple syrup and coconut blossom sugar a lot, although I`m aware that there are better alternatives out there.

Conclusion: Basically the rule is to avoid sugars as much as possible, doesn`t matter if refined or sugar alternatives. They just aren`t a necessary thing for our body, which is also the main reason why they are on top of the food pyramid. If consumed then only on a moderate level. Still sugar alternatives should be given preference (except a few ones). 

I hope you did like this post and in case you have questions or remarks please leave a comment down below. I would love to discuss this topic with you.

Read you soon,

Sarah

Sources:
https://www.vital.de/gesunde-ernaehrung/zucker/artikel/melasse-ist-das-zucker-nebenerzeugnis-gesund
https://de.wikipedia.org/
https://www.apotheken-umschau.de/Ernaehrung/Trockenobst-Gesund-oder-Kalorienbombe-233241.html
https://ohnezucker.ch/ernaehrung/zucker-alternativen/
http://zuckerersatz-info.de/reissirup/
http://lepsusuber.com/article/yacn-sirup
http://www.kokosbluetenzucker.net/inhaltsstoffe-und-naehrwerte/
https://aramark-ernaehrung.de/?xid=167&aid=1009

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