Are “Natural” Sweeteners Better For You?

White, brown and palm sugar

So on a regular basis we can hear about how if something is natural, then it must be good for us.

A toadstool which has sprouted up in your yard is natural, it is a form of mushroom, are you going to eat one?

After all, they are natural, aren’t they?

Of course you are not going to munch into that natural little morsel that sprouted up in your yard over night, the damn thing might kill you.

But, it’s natural…

toad stool

Yum yum, all natural toadstools. Good for you, good for…awe never mind. I’m not eating them.

Is “natural” really healthier for us?

If you follow any of the popular weight loss social media sights you will often see where people on a weight loss journey has made the intelligent decision to quit eating refined sugar. This is fantastic, as at David’s Way, we strongly advocate quitting sugar. The downside is that while some of these people have given up refined table sugar, they are now substituting with honey, agave nectar, coconut sugar, molasses and maple syrup because they are natural sweeteners. Being natural must mean that they are a healthier choice as at least one of them is considered to be fairly low on the glycemic index and therefore diabetic friendly. Think again my friends.

In this article I am going to get down to the facts on these natural sweeteners and then you make up your own mind if you still believe they are any better for you. Of course, I recommend cutting out all refined sugar and simple carbs, but knowing that not everyone will do this, I will give you the information on common sweeteners for you to decide with knowledge which is best for you. I will give you the compounds that comprise each sweetener, calories per serving, grams of carbs per serving and the manufacturing process.

What are “natural” sweeteners made from?

It is a common assumption that when something is referred to as “natural” it is somehow magically better for you than other versions. This way of thinking is a serious misconception, as I illustrated in the opening.

All basic sugars include glucose from carbs. Fructose from fruits, high fructose corn syrup, agave and honey. Lactose from milk and dairy products. And sucrose which is table sugar from the sugar cane plant. If you are diabetic, none of these sugar compounds are any better for you than the next. In fact, fructose has been shown to promote elevated cholesterol levels and triglycerides, making it even worse than glucose. Fructose has been linked to being one of the causes of non-fatty liver disease. Agave has a high percent of fructose which makes it the worst “natural” sweetener for people with diabetes. So much for “natural” being better. right?

Sugar in all forms are a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. However, the effect on your body and overall health depends little on the type of sugar you are consuming, no matter whether it is natural or refined. How the body metabolizes the sugar in fruit and milk differs from how it metabolizes the refined sugar added to processed foods. The body breaks down refined sugar rapidly which causes insulin and blood-sugar to skyrocket rapidly. Because refined sugar digests quickly, you do not feel satiated after consuming it, no matter how much you ate. The fiber in fruit slows down metabolism, yet there is one caveat. Once any sugar has passed into your small intestine, your body does not know the difference whether it came from a piece of fruit or from a sugar filled soda pop.

1. Refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. No matter the plant source, refined sugar is 100% sucrose which means it contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose. One teaspoon contains 4 grams simple carbs for 16 calories. Whether cane or beet, the plants are processed to extract all of the sugar from them in a liquid form. To this sugary liquid, lime is added to clarify during processing, Calcium carbonate is also added to the juice from sugar beets. This liquid is then concentrated through a series of evaporators to remove all water. Once concentrated to a super saturated solution, sugar crystals are then added to facilitate crystal formation and drying. From there the sugar is further refined to remove the molasses. Brown sugar is simply sugar that still retains some molasses, or refined sugar that has had molasses added back to it.

2. High Fructose Corn Syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch. It comes to us as either HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 which means that it is either 42% or 55% fructose and 58% or 45% glucose respectively. As you can see, there is actually little difference in the make up of high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar. One teaspoon contains 4.9 grams of simple carbs and 18 calories. Slightly higher than refined sugar, but not a significant difference. High fructose corn syrup is made by milling corn to extract corn starch, and then an acid enzyme process is utilized to break up the existing carbohydrates. High-temperature enzymes are added to further metabolize the starch which converts the existing sugars to fructose. These added enzymes break down longer sugar chains to shorter chains, and to convert them into glucose. A few more steps are taken to purify the solution which is then run over xylose isomerase which converts the sugars to 50% to 52% glucose and 42% fructose for HFCS42. HFCS42 is used mainly in beverages, processed foods, cereals and baked goods while HFCS55 is used mainly in soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is not significantly different than refined sugar, yet it has a much worse reputation largely because the processing is a little more complex than refined sugar. However, all sweeteners available to you, the consumer, has gone through some manner of manufacturing or preparation for market. The largest issue at hand is simply the over consumption of sugar. Think of all the people you know who might drink soda pop all day instead of water. If you think these individuals are any less healthy because of the HFCS over simple sugar, you are sadly misinformed. They consume too much sugar, period.

3. Honey, that sweet nectar provided to us naturally by honey bee’s who lovingly produce it just for our enjoyment and nourishment. The little workers fly from flower to flower collecting secretions from the plants or from other insects. Then by regurgitation, enzymatic activity, and water evaporation we are left with a delicious nectar of the gods in their honeycombs. Honey on average is comprised of 56% fructose to 44% glucose. One teaspoon of honey contains 21 calories and 5.8 grams of carbs. Honey is collected from bee colonies where each hive can yield an average of 65 pounds per year. The beekeepers smoke out the bees and then remove the honeycomb which is then either crushed or sent through a honey extractor to remove the honey. From there the honey is sent through a filtration process before being sent to market. When buying honey, the buyer should always be aware that not all honey on your store shelf is pure. Some honey is adulterated by the addition of other sugars, syrups or compounds to change it’s flavor or viscosity. Besides creating a cheaper product, some manufactures add more fructose to the honey to stave off crystallization. If you think that jar of inexpensive honey on the store shelf is a good deal, then you had better be reading the entire label to know what you are buying. Some honey’s are actually about 50% high fructose corn syrup.

4. Agave Nectar/Syrup is a sweetener made from several species of the agave plant. It is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar so less can be used, but lets not get too excited about agave nectar just yet. Agave nectar or syrup averages between 56% to 60% fructose, 20% glucose and trace amounts of sucrose. The amount of fructose is actually a little higher than that of refined sugar, HFCS and honey. (I will get into the significance of fructose later) One teaspoon contains 20 calories and 5.3 grams of carbs. Agave leaves are cut from the plant after it has been growing for 7 to 14 years. The juice is then extracted from the core of the plant, filtered then heated to break the complex components into simple sugars. This filtered juice is then concentrated into a syrupy liquid. The color differences in agave syrup is entirely dependent on the amount of processing. In the United States there is a alternative non-heat method of producing agave syrup which is similar to that of the production of HFCS where enzymes are added to the juice. Contrary to the popularity of agave syrup today, it is not listed on the inventory of foods, generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration.

5. Molasses is a sweet viscous liquid which comes from the refining of sugar cane or sugar beets into refined sugar. It is used mainly for sweetening other foods and is the defining component of brown sugar. Molasses contains 29% sucrose, 12% glucose and 13% fructose. One teaspoon contains 20 calories and 4.7 grams of carbs. Whether molasses is made from sugar cane or sugar beets the process is similar. I’m only going to cover the process from sugar cane. Juice is extracted from sugar cane and is concentrated by boiling to promote sugar crystallization. Molasses can go through three boiling processes, the first of which is known as “First” syrup. First syrup has the highest sugar content and is commonly known as Cane Syrup. Second molasses comes from the second boiling process and is slightly lower in sugar than cane syrup and has a slightly bitter taste. The third boiling yields “blackstrap” molasses which is known for it’s robust flavor. With Black Strap the majority of the sucrose has been removed and only a small amount of sugar remains. Unlike refined sugar and other sweeteners, molasses contains vitamin B6 and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and manganese. One tablespoon contains 20% of the recommended daily values of each of these components.

6. Maple Syrup I am not going to go too in depth on maple syrup, but there is one key thing to know about it. Most of the maple pancake syrups sold on the market in the United States are not pure maple syrup. These products are largely maple flavored corn syrups. Some of you might be shaking our head while saying “well duh”, but there are some people who are not aware of this. Pure maple syrup is made by boiling down the sap from maple trees. Maples are usually tapped at 30 to 40 years old. Each tree can support from one to three taps depending on trunk diameter and will produce between 9.4 to 13.2 US gallons per day. The sap is boiled down to a syrup, filtered and then packaged for distribution. Maple syrup consists of mainly sucrose, with small amounts of glucose and fructose from the invert sugar created during the boiling process. Maple syrup contains 17 calories and 4.3 grams of carbs. While maple syrup is not used as a sweetener very much in the United States, I included it because of the misperception that maple pancake syrups are pure maple when they are usually mostly corn syrup instead. Buyer beware.

7. Coconut sugar. Oddly, there is a ill conceived notion out there that natural coconut sugar is somehow a healthier choice than refined sugar. Guess again, it is not healthier. It has the same empty nutritional values of table or brown sugars. With a Glycemic index score of 54, it is not even considered to be low on the glycemic index scale. The major component of coconut sugar is sucrose, 70% to 79%, followed by 3% to 9% glucose. This means that coconut sugar is still 38% to 54% fructose which is about the same as table sugar. Coconut is deemed by some marketers as being a healthy alternative to table sugar because it contains iron, zinc, and calcium in small amounts. Coconut sugar contains calories and 4 grams of carbs, just like table sugar. Please, do not be fooled by the hype. Coconut sugar is produced in two steps. Sap is collected from the flower bud stem of a coconut tree, and then it is heated until the liquids have all evaporated. As the sap thickens, it may be further reduced to crystals, a block or a soft paste form.

Fructose and your liver

Fructose is a bigger culprit towards obesity and diabetes than glucose, and is metabolized somewhat differently than other simple sugar forms. While the cells in our bodies depend on glucose for energy, virtually none of them can use fructose. While glucose is used throughout our body’s as a beneficial energy source, fructose goes straight to the liver where it causes damage. When you consume glucose, it circulates through your entire body. Body tissues other than your liver metabolize 80% of the glucose you ingest which leaves only 20% for your liver to have to deal with. Much of that glucose is converted to glycogen for storage while leaving a small amount of glucose to be stored as fat. This is not what happens when you consume fructose.

When you ingest fructose, large quantities go directly to your liver since no other cells can utilize or metabolize it. This creates a tremendous amount of pressure for your liver to deal with. Your levels of carbohydrates and insulin may be as much as ten times higher than anywhere else in your body which means the liver is exposed to more carbohydrates such as fructose and glucose than any other organ in your body. Fructose is twenty times more likely to cause you to get fatty liver than glucose alone.

Fructose is unique in carbohydrates as a cause of fatty liver. Fatty liver creates insulin resistance. Bear in mind that the damaging effects of fructose does not need high levels of blood sugar or insulin levels to cause you harm. This is caused by fatty liver and insulin resistance which cannot be seen in the short term. Nope, it is after the long term that you discover the damage and you have screwed your body through a bad diet.

Fructose has no mechanism for easy storage, which means it is metabolized to fat which cannot be easily lost. While fructose is a natural sugar and has been a part of our diets since the beginning of time, we have to consider the first principle of toxicity. The dose makes the poison. Just because we can get away with consuming small amounts of fructose does not give us license to consume as much as we might desire while expecting our health to never suffer a negative impact.

If you are going to jump off on any “natural” trends, do yourself due diligence and do your homework first. Natural is not always healthier.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Brenda Sue says:

    This is critical information. Many people believe that “natural” means “healthy”. As you have so eloquently illustrated here, that is not always true.

    1. David Yochim says:

      Thank you, I hope all of our readers get this critical point.

      1. Brenda Sue says:

        If they read this article, they will.

  2. Cyn says:

    I don’t argue with anything here…as I have no education on the subject. But I am confused about the maple syrup I buy that says, “Pure Maple Syrup” and under ingredients only says, “maple syrup”…is actually not corn syrup?

    1. Brenda Sue says:

      If this product is manufactured in the United States, the ingredients must be listed. So, if it is manufactured in the U.S.,
      and the list of ingredients says merely “Maple Syrup”, then that’s what it is. There shouldn’t be any corn syrup in it whatsoever. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    2. David Yochim says:

      Hi Cyn. If the only ingredient is pure maple, then it is true maple syrup. One way to know that it is pure maple syrup besides looking at the ingredients is it will be far more expensive than other maple pancake syrups.

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