I’ve written before about sugar and the problems it can cause for your health, but it’s a topic that just keeps coming up. There’s just no way around it, you need to avoid sugar as much as possible if you want to do the best you can for your long term health.
Of course, there are the problems sugar causes for your dental health by providing a ready food source for bacteria in your mouth. Bacteria that damage teeth survive and thrive in high-sugar environments. However, the real damage sugar does is through its effect on metabolism. In short, diets rich in refined sugar make people resistant to insulin causing problems such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. If you plan to be lean, fit and healthy for a long time, it’s best to avoid refined sugar as much as possible.
The big problem with avoiding sugar is how delicious it is! And besides from just being enjoyable, it is actually addictive. Sugar overstimulated pleasure centres in your brain and creates an addictive effect similar to illegal drugs like cocaine.
I’m happy to admit that I have a serious sweet tooth, but once I found out about these powerful effects of sugar I started to look for other options. The world of natural and artificial sweeteners is a complicated one so I’m going to explain it to you as best I can in this article. I’m going to start by explaining the differences between two of the most popular sugar alternatives: Truvia and Stevia.
What’s the difference between Truvia and Stevia
Due growing awareness of the aforementioned negative effects of sugar, Stevia has gained huge popularity in recent years as a sugar alternative. The sweetener Stevia is produced from a plant, Stevia Rebaudiana, native to South America that has been respected for its health benefits for many years. It has also been recognised for it’s strong, sweet flavour. Today, Stevia products are available in liquid and powder forms.
Aside from being a zero-calorie alternative to sugar, Stevia has been linked to some interesting health benefits. One of the compounds in Stevia, stevioside, has been shown to reduce blood pressure and lower the risk of blood pressure-related heart problems. However, the amount of stevioside you would consume by using Stevia as a sweetener is much lower than the amount shown to reduce blood pressure. This effect is still very interesting.
More interesting still are Stevia’s effects on blood sugar and Type II diabetes. In an experiment, when a group of Type II diabetics ate a small amount of stevioside with a meal they had much lower blood sugar levels than a group that were given maize starch. In another experiment, Stevia was shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels relative to refined sugar. Other research shows stevioside raising insulin, which would explain its effect on blood sugar as insulin causes blood sugar to go into cells.
Regardless of the potential health benefits, it’s clear that Stevia provides the flavour of sweetness without causing anywhere near the damage sugar is responsible for.
Because of their similar names, people often confuse Stevia and Truvia and think they are the same thing. While Stevia is a single ingredient extracted from the Stevia Rebaudiana plant, Truvia is a product made of several ingredients one of which is based on stevia. Truvia was developed by the Coca-Cola Company and Cargill.
While Cargill markets Truvia as a “natural” sweetener, this is controversial and has resulted in legal actions against Cargill. Because Erythritol and Rebaudioside A (the two main ingredients in Truvia) are highly processed and come from genetically modified plants it was claimed that calling Truvia “natural” is misleading. Cargill settled the legal action out of court and continues to market Truvia as “natural”.
Just because Truvia is controversial does not mean that it is bad for your health. Or, to be more precise, worse for your health than sugar. Erythritol, the main ingredient in Truvia, is a sugar alcohol which mimics the sweetening effects of sugar but without the harmful metabolic effects. It appears that humans cannot absorb erythritol. Once you consume it, it simply passes through your system and out in your urine. Erythritol is generally considered safe and as had no long term negative health effects on animals.
Like Stevia, Truvia has a negligible caloric load and almost no effect on blood sugar along with other biological markers. Because of this, it would be very difficult to consume enough Truvia to effect your weight or harm your metabolism.
In short, Stevia is a generic product and Truvia is a brand name sweetener. It seems like both are great alternatives to refined sugar from a health perspective.
There is a whole host of other sweeteners that people put forward as alternatives to refined sugar. Some of them can be helpful and useful, but others have surprising and negative effects. Here’s a little guide to some of the most popular alternatives to sugar.
I’ve already mentioned a bit about Erythritol because it’s one of the ingredients of Truvia. Just to recap, Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that provides the sweetness of sugar but that can’t be absorbed through digestion. It doesn’t affect blood sugar, insulin or cholesterol. However, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. If you consume very high amounts of Erythritol you can expect to encounter digestive issues. The bottom line is that Erythritol is a safe alternative to sugar.
Xylitol is another sugar alcohol and works in a similar way to Erythritol in that it doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels. But Xylitol has ⅔ of the calories of sugar. However, there’s good evidence that Xylitol has some interesting health benefits. Firstly, it has an opposite effect to sugar. Xylitol has a positive impact on dental health reducing the risk of dental decay and cavities. Secondly, Xylitol has been linked to increased bone density helping to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Like everything in life there are no free lunches, and if you eat too much Xylitol you can expect the same digestive problem that comes with too much Erythritol. Used sparingly, Xylitol can be a great, safe alternative to sugar.
I’ve written about sucralose before and anyone who has read that article will know that I’m not a huge fan. Sucralose, branded as Splenda, is a zero calories sweetener that is approved as safe by food authorities but has some connections to health problems. I’m not going to go into all the details here, but there enough negative associations with sucralose to justify avoiding it. Between its effects on insulin and blood sugar, to how it changes with heat to its effect on gut health. At this stage, I recommend playing it safe and avoiding sucralose.
Honey and other sugars
Using natural sweeteners as alternatives to sugar is very popular among some health conscious people. However, the metabolic difference between refined sugar and alternatives like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and molasses are negligible. While each of those alternatives has slightly different levels of fructose and may have some health benefits their effect on your blood sugar is basically the same as sugar.
However, I don’t think anyone has ever become obese from eating honey or coconut sugar alone, obesity is usually the result of a completely unhealthy diet and lifestyle. If you are overweight and trying to lose weight it’s best to avoid all sources of sugar, refined or otherwise. On the other hand, there’s no reason a healthy person couldn’t safely enjoy small amounts of honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and molasses as part of a good diet.
There are plenty of reasons why you should try to cut down the amount of sugar you consume. There are lots of ways sugar can harm you, from dental health, metabolic issues like diabetes to cancer. Personally, I feel like I have benefited greatly from minimising my exposure to sugar. When I avoid sugar my energy is more stable, I can recognise when I’m actually hungry much better and I find myself eating out of boredom much less.
However, humans seem to be hardwired to enjoy the sweetness. We seek it out in our food and no matter how it affects your health it does give short term pleasure. Instead of cutting sweetness out of my life completely, I prefer to use alternatives like Stevia, Xylitol and Erythritol as occasional treats. It is a really good idea to have some more healthy alternatives to sugar available so you can enjoy sweetness without getting all the detrimental effects of refined sugar.
I hope this article has helped you make sense of all those confusing sugar alternatives.
What’s your favourite sugar alternative? Let me know in the comments. Feel free to share this with anyone you know who wants to go sugar-free.