Food Facts: Natural Sugar Substitutes That Can Help You Reduce or Eliminate Sugar From Your Diet

Unlike my previous post on natural sugar substitutes in baking, this post is more a discussion of some of the zero or low calorie sugar substitutes currently on the market that can assist with your dietary goals.

There are two modes of thought when it comes to eliminating sugar from one’s diet: doing it for eco/diet-conscious reasons (wanting fewer refined sugars and more natural foods in the diet, trying to be more sustainable, etc.). The other is doing it for health-conscious reasons (diagnosed with obesity, diabetes/pre-diabetes, heart disease, or other health condition where an elimination of sugar from the diet is required).

There are a myriad of products on the market today, both natural and man-made, that can assist with either one of these needs; so many, in fact, that the market is glutted with them and their pros and cons are becoming harder to decipher for the average consumer. Is stevia a good substitute? (it depends). Is erythritol sugar-free (no) or simply a sugar replacement? (yes). Can I replace granulated sugar 1:1 with aspartame in my baked goods? (oh helltotheno).

Natural sweeteners, as opposed to artificial sweetener chemical creations will be generally a better choice for your body, but your mileage may vary; if your medical practitioner has recommended an artificial sweetener as a safe sugar replacement for you, I’m not gainsaying this (obligatory I am not a doctor notice…). What I am saying is that there are many other options out there that you may not have heard of and may be worth investigating.

Below is a shortlist of natural sweeteners which may be available to you to replace sugar in your daily diet, with a short informational description to help you decide if it’s worth looking into further.

Stevia

Stevia is a 100% natural, plant-based sweetener extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub scientifically known as Stevia rebaudiana. It can be extracted from either the compound stevioside or rebaudioside A; each compound can be up to 350 times sweeter than sugar.

The upside: Stevia has zero calories, has no known adverse health effects, and has been shown to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

The downside: Stevia has a different flavour profile than regular sugar, and may be very noticeable depending on how it is used. Also, while stevia is considered generally safe, more current research is needed to ascertain whether it’s truly of sustained benefit for human health.

Monkfruit

Monkfruit sweetener is the new darling in the natural sugar substitute field; Starbucks has been carrying packets of this sweetener in its cafes for a few years now. The sweetener is extracted from monk fruit (you don’t say…), a small round fruit grown in Southeast Asia, and is 100-250 times sweeter than sugar.

While monk fruit contains natural sugars like fructose and glucose, it gets its sweetness from antioxidants called mogrosides. During processing, mogrosides are separated from the fresh-pressed juice, removing fructose and glucose from monk fruit sweetener.

The upside: monk fruit sweetener contains zero calories; mogrosides provide monk fruit with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and animal and test-tube studies have indicated that monk fruit can inhibit cancer growth.

The downside: more research is needed to better understand the connection between monk fruit and its purported health benefits. In addition, monk fruit extract is often mixed with other sweeteners, so read your labels before consuming.

Erythritol

While this sugar substitute’s name doesn’t sound at all natural, erythritol is a simple sugar alcohol extracted from corn, using enzymes and fermentation. It is considered a chemical compound, unlike monk fruit or stevia, but is naturally occurring, which is why it’s been added to this list. Since 1990, erythritol has had a history of safe use as a sweetener and flavor-enhancer in food and beverage products, and is approved for use by government regulatory agencies of more than 60 countries.

The human body doesn’t have the enzymes to break down the majority of erythritol, so most (80-90%) is absorbed directly into the bloodstream and leaves the body, unchanged, via urine. Erythritol is not zero-calorie, but only has a mere fraction of the calories of table sugar. However, at 60-80% sweetness, it’s not quite as sweet as sucrose, the main component of sugar.

The upside: Erythritol contains only 0.24 calories per gram, which is about 6% of the calories of sugar. It also tastes almost exactly like sugar, which makes it an easier option to switch to. Erythritol does not raise blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol or triglyceride levels. At reasonable consumption levels, it also does not have the digestive concerns that other sugar alcohols possess (see: xylitol below).

The downside: commercial production of erythritol is time consuming and expensive, making this sweetener less generally available to the individual end user, usually in specialty grocery and health food stores [Note: purchasing this product online makes this much more accessible and affordable]. More research also needs to be done to determine whether erythritol leads to weight gain, as it is seen to play a role in human metabolism. A caution: overconsumption can cause stomach rumbling, nausea, and a laxative effect. Erythritol has also been reported in rare instances to cause allergic hives.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol like Erythritol, though its calorie count is slightly higher (yet still well below the equivalent amount of sugar). It is extracted from corn or birch wood, and is found in many fruits and vegetables.

Xylitol is considered a good alternative to sugar is due its lack of fructose, the main ingredient accountable for much of sugar’s harmful effects on the human body. Xylitol is not zero calorie, but is only a fraction of the calories in the same amount of sugar.

The upside: Xylitol has 40% fewer calories than sugar (only 2.4 calories per gram), and unlike sugar it does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels, making this a good sugar alternative in weight management and the counteraction of the consequences of obesity, insulin resistance, high cholesterol and other metabolic syndrome-related health issues. In addition, xylitol is associated with multiple health benefits including improvements in skin and digestive tract health, respiratory health, bone strength, immune function, anti-inflammatory effects, and dental health. Lastly (but not least when it comes to my passion), there are many Xylitol sweetener brands that are useful in baking. The amazing baking website, The Spruce Eats, has a great article on Xylitol and how to use it in baking.

The downside: many studies concerning xylitol’s effects on health are controversial, outdated, or involve non-human studies, so more human studies are needed to confirm the validity of the claims above. At high doses, xylitol can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and a laxative effect; for a small number of the population this can occur at lower doses as well. Another concern to take into consideration if you’re a dog owner is that xylitol is highly toxic to canines.

There are many other natural and artificial sweeteners I could write about as well, but these four seem to have the best cost/benefit analysis for me when it comes to our health. I have yet to use these sweeteners in a baking or cooking playtest, but when I do I will be sure to post my experience in using them, and some good recipes that use one or more of the sweeteners above. If anyone has a tried and true recipe using one of the above, I’d be thrilled if you could contact me in the comments below and let me know!

Good luck and happy noshing 🙂

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