The low down on sweeteners
The main issue with a lot of sweeteners out there is that they are highly processed. There doesn’t seem to be a perfect sweetener which suits everyone but I hope this breakdown is helpful.
Some sweeteners are promoted as being healthy as they are low in glucose so we just need to be careful this doesn’t mean that fructose levels are sky high. Every cell in our body can metabolize glucose but fructose is metabolised by the liver in the same pathways as fat so too much refined fructose can put our liver under stress.
Natural fructose found in fruit is completely different, it's bound with essential vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and other nutrients. When we eat fruit, sugar is released into our system at a much slower rate as it’s combined with fibre and fat (i.e. adding fruit to a smoothie is a better option than juicing fruit and removing the fibre especially if you are trying to keep blood sugars low). Fructose found in refined sugars and highly processed syrups (eg high fructose corn syrup and agave) have been stripped of all nutrients and fibre so these foods flood the body with a load of calories and sugar and we would never find anything this sweet in “the wild” outside of a bee hive.
ALTERNATIVES TO CONSIDER
Home-made fruit syrups (from dried fruit such as apricots, figs, dates or raisins) are a raw and natural sweetener to use. Be mindful when buying dried fruit to check that there are no added nasties (ie, sugar, oil & sulphates) and choose organic wherever you can. Dates are high in glucose and if you are Diabetic or concerned about glucose then these are best enjoyed in in moderation - when bound with fats and fibre, the release of sugar into the bloodstream is slowed down. Try making your own home-made fruit syrup from dried fruit (soak the fruit, blend with lemon, water & a pinch of salt).
Raw Honey is a wholefood full of vitamins, high in enzymes and is both antibacterial and antimicrobial. Honey has numerous health benefits including helping to heal colds, flu and a sore throat. It is still incredibly sweet and can spike blood sugar levels although not quite as much as sugar. Heat damages enzymes so it’s best to check that honey is cold pressed or unpasteurised to preserve essential nutrients (this will be be clearly indicated on the label – if not, it’s best to assume it’s heated). Some ethical brands also state on the label that they don't feed their bees sugar or antibiotics which is great for the bees and for us.
Maple Syrup is not a raw sweetener but it is often processed at low temperatures and has high levels of the minerals manganese & zinc. There are many different grades of maple syrup so try to source a high grade syrup. It’s lower in glucose than honey and contains more fat which means that the sugars hit the bloodstream at a slower rate.
Raw Coconut Crystals & Nectar are high in minerals and rate lower in both glucose & fructose than sugar. It has a lovely molasses-style caramel taste. Use sparingly as it will spike blood sugar levels at a similar rate as raw honey.
Blackstrap Molasses – a very strong flavoured sweetener made from heated raw cane sugar and sugarbeet. Sugar crystals are extracted leaving a black tar-like substance packed with minerals including iron, calcium & magnesium.
Agave Syrup has a very low GI rating but is incredibly processed and high in fructose without any of the phytonutrients found in whole fruit. It's not only the high levels of fructose which give cause for concern, it's the highly refined process that agave goes through where numerous chemicals are added. Most agave on the market is highly refined and there is only one brand of raw unprocessed agave available in the UK which is a completely clear liquid made by Ultimate Superfoods, for more information look at this post by David Wolfe.
Yacon Syrup is my absolute favourite – it tastes beautiful, is natural, sustainable and has very low impact on blood sugar levels so is suitable for most diabetics. It’s a root vegetable with very little glucose and fructose but high in a sugar called FOS, a pre-biotic which feeds healthy bacteria in our bowel. All in all a fantastic choice all round. It can be a little tricky to source at times and isn’t the cheapest option available but well worth getting hold of if you can find it.
Lucuma is another wonderful creamy low GI sweetener. It’s made from a fruit similar to a peach and is generally found in powder form. It can be added to smoothies and used to make cakes and desserts with.
Stevia – a natural herb which is incredibly sweet and can often have a very bitter taste. Stevia isn’t actually a sweetener, it’s a sweetness booster and works best alongside other sweeteners. It means you can reduce the amount of calories you take in from sweeteners and top up with a few drops of stevia. I recommend a company called Daforto located in Germany – have a look at their website for detailed information about stevia. I also really like using Nick’s brand - a lovely range of stevia flavours
Xylitol - it's classed as a sugar alcohol (does not contain ethanol), it sounds incredibly toxic and it certainly isn’t the most natural sweetener to choose from but it does come with its advantages. It isn't yet sourced organically and the end product will contain some chemical residue but it has 40% less calories than sugar so it’s a great choice for diabetics or anyone watching blood sugar levels. Be sure to source xylitol from the bark of birch trees as opposed to xylitol from corn which is also on the market and almost always from GMO sources. Xylitol is best used in moderation as it can cause digestive distress if consumed in large quantities.
Erythritol - another sugar alcohol similar in taste to xylitol. Some people find it easier to digest than xylitol as it it is absorbed into the blood stream and excreted in urine.
Monk fruit - a beautiful low GI sweetener. As far as I know, in the UK, it’s only available in a blend mixed with xylitol or erythritol . It can also be found in liquid form and used in the same manner as liquid stevia.