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Making Sense of the Bewildering Array of Natural Alternative Sweeteners

JJ sugarsUsed to be you found sugar and pink, blue, and yellow packets on your grocery shelf. Then a number of studies showed aspartame and other artificial sweeteners were more harmful than sugar and could trigger cravings, weight gain, and even diabetes.

Manufacturers got savvy to the fake-sugar backlash and started presenting an array of natural sweeteners with awkward names like Truvia®, PureVia®, and Nectresse™.

I took a look at the science behind these sweeteners, many of which you’ll see are hardly new but simply repackaged, to show you which ones you can safely incorporate into your diet (and which ones need to go the way of those nasty artificial sweeteners).

Monk Fruit

What is it? A fruit with an extract 300 times sweeter than sugar. You might alternately see it marketed as “Lo Han sweetener” (not to be confused with the troubled actress!). Besides its medicinal purposes, China has long used monk fruit as a sweetener.

What are its health benefits? In China, monk fruit sweetener has been used for nearly a thousand years to treat obesity and diabetes. Studies show monk fruit is rich in antioxidants and offers anti-inflammatory benefits.

Is it safe? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies monk fruit as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), and there have been no reports of negative side effects.

How to buy monk fruit: Splenda has marketed their version of monk fruit sweetener as Nectresse.™. Although they claim it has “zero calories,” they have added erythritol (good) but also sugar and molasses (bad) to this monk fruit powder.

I recommend instead that you look for pure Lo Han sweetener with no additives. (Note: many brands of Lo Han, as well as other sweeteners I discuss, contain silica or silicon dioxide as an anti-caking agent, which is not harmful.)

Erythritol

What is it? A sugar alcohol discovered in 1848 that naturally occurs in some fruits and fermented foods. (Note: sugar alcohols got their name because their biochemical structure resembles a hybrid of a sugar and an alcohol.) Erythritol has 95% less calories than sugar, although the FDA does label it as having some calories.

What are its health benefits? Studies show that erythritol is tooth friendly and does not contribute to dental problems like sugar does. Another study showed that erythritol (along with xylitol) inhibited caries formation.

Erythritol makes an ideal sweetener for people with diabetes. One study showed this sugar alcohol had no adverse affects on blood glucose levels.

Is it safe? A comprehensive review concluded “erythritol did not produce evidence of toxicity.” Unlike other sugar alcohols, only about 10% of erythritol goes to your colon. (Going to your colon creates many of sugar alcohol’s laxative effects.)

Instead, your small intestine absorbs most erythritol and excretes it in your urine. So you don’t have the gas and bloating that other sugar alcohols can create.

However, large doses (>50 grams) can create nausea and (very rarely) allergic urticaria. For the most part, however, erythritol is incredibly safe.

How to buy: you will often find erythritol blended with other sweeteners, or you can buy 100% erythritol powder at some health food stores.

Xylitol

What is it? A naturally occurring sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sucrose. Xylitol, however, has 33% fewer calories than sugar. Manufacturers used to derive xylitol from birch trees, but now it more likely comes from either corn husks or as a blend of corn and birch. Scientists claim no molecular difference exists between sources.

What are its health benefits? Because it doesn’t raise glucose like sugar does, Europeans have used xylitol for over a century as a sweetener for people with diabetes.

Whereas table sugar has a glycemic index of 100, xylitol ranks only a 7. (The glycemic index ranks how quickly a food raises your blood sugar levels.)

Xylitol has an impressive history of reducing cavities and ear infections. The FDA allows manufacturers to claim xylitol does not promote dental caries.

Other studies show xylitol can reduce your risk for osteoporosis and control oral infections of Candida.

Is it safe? Studies show you can ingest large amounts of xylitol with no toxic effects. The problem, as most of us well know, is xylitol’s laxative effects, including diarrhea, gas, and bloating. Much like with fiber, starting low and gradually upping the amount of xylitol you use will help lessen these unpleasant effects.

How to buy: You can buy xylitol as a powder in most health food stores. Xylitol used to be found in many chewing gums, but sadly aspartame and other artificial sweeteners now give chewing gums their sweetness.

Stevia

What is it? An herb that grows in North and South America that’s 300 times sweeter than sugar.

What are its health benefits? Stevia has no adverse effects on blood sugar. One study even found it can enhance glucose tolerance, which makes stevia ideal for people with insulin resistance and diabetes. Most studies showing that stevia can improve insulin sensitivity and benefit diabetes have been conducted with rats, but show promise with humans.

One study also showed stevia can reduce mild hypertension or high blood pressure.

Is it safe? A 1985 study that showed stevia is a mutagen in rats and created potential liver problems was later debunked as flawed. Regardless, stevia has a controversial history. In 1991, the FDA labeled stevia an “unsafe food additive,” and manufacturers must classify stevia products as dietary supplements rather than sweeteners.

But wait, you say: how can manufacturers sell stevia-based sweeteners like Truvia® and PureVia® in the sugar aisle? Because these sweeteners use rebaudioside A, which is derived from the stevia plant but the FDA claims is not stevia but “a highly purified product.”  

JJ’s Take on Natural Alternative Sweeteners

Of all the alternative natural sweeteners on the market, monk fruit shows the most promise. Bypass Nectresse™, however, for 100% pure monk fruit powder.

I’m seeing more manufacturers use monk fruit as a sweetener these days. So Delicious Dairy Free No Sugar Added coconut milk ice cream, for instance, comes sweetened with monk fruit (and a whopping 10 grams of fiber per serving). Delicious!

I also like xylitol, but I understand your complaints. For some people, even a little xylitol can cause major gastric distress. I’m also concerned that more xylitol comes from corn these days, even if manufacturers promise the corn they use is not genetically modified.

I like sugar alcohols because they contain some calories, unlike stevia, which has no calories. The problem with no-calorie sweeteners is a condition called calorie dysregulation, where your body can no longer calibrate the degree of sweetness to the caloric load. As a result, you’re more prone to overeating.

Because erythritol does not create the degree of unpleasant side effects that xylitol potentially can, I recommend this sweetener if monk fruit isn’t available.

Stevia is becoming more popular. Some people like it, while others complain it has a licorice or bitter aftertaste. I consider stevia a good back-up choice if monk fruit or erythritol isn’t available.

If you opt for stevia, choose pure stevia extract powder, not commercial stevia products like Truvia®, which contain nebulous “natural sweeteners.” Trader Joe’s® makes a good organic 100% pure stevia extract powder. A tiny bit will usually give your tea all the sweetness it needs.

Finally, I encourage you to consider cinnamon or vanilla as natural sweeteners. They can give your tea or organic coffee a kick and wonderful flavor without the potential unpleasant aftermath of stevia or xylitol.

References:

Curi R, et al. Effect of Stevia rebaudiana on glucose tolerance in normal adult humans. Braz J Med Biol Res. 1986;19(6):771-4.

Di R, et al. Anti-inflammatory activities of mogrosides from Momordica grosvenori in murine macrophages and a murine ear edema model. J Agric Food Chem. 2011 Jul 13;59(13):7474-81. Epub 2011 Jun 15.

Dyrskog SE, et al. Preventive effects of a soy-based diet supplemented with stevioside on the development of the metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes in Zucker diabetic fatty rats. Metabolism. 2005 Sep;54(9):1181-8.

Hsieh MH, et al. Efficacy and tolerability of oral stevioside in patients with mild essential hypertension: a two-year, randomized, placebo-controlled study. Clin Ther. 2003 Nov;25(11):2797-808.

Ishikawa M, et al. Effects of oral administration of erythritol on patients with diabetes. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1996 Oct;24(2 Pt 2):S303-8.

Kawanabe J, et al. Noncariogenicity of erythritol as a substrate. Caries Res. 1992;26(5):358-62.

Lailerd N, et al. Effects of stevioside on glucose transport activity in insulin-sensitive and insulin-resistant rat skeletal muscle. Metabolism. 2004 Jan;53(1):101-7.

Lynch H, et al. Xylitol and dental caries: an overview for clinicians. J Calif Dent Assoc. 2003 Mar;31(3):205-9.

Mäkinen KK. Long-term tolerance of healthy human subjects to high amounts of xylitol and fructose: general and biochemical findings. Int Z Vitam Ernahrungsforsch Beih. 1976;15:92-104.

Mäkinen KK, et al. Similarity of the effects of erythritol and xylitol on some risk factors of dental caries. Caries Res. 2005 May-Jun;39(3):207-15.

Mattila PT, et al. Increased bone volume and bone mineral content in xylitol-fed aged rats. Gerontology. 2001 Nov-Dec;47(6):300-5.

Munro IC, et al. Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data. Food Chem Toxicol. 1998 Dec;36(12):1139-74.

Shi H, et al. Antioxidant property of Fructus Momordicae extract. Biochem Mol Biol Int. 1996 Dec;40(6):1111-21.

Uittamo J, et al. Xylitol inhibits carcinogenic acetaldehyde production by Candida species. Int J Cancer. 2011 Oct 15;129(8):2038-41. doi: 10.1002/ijc.25844. Epub 2011 Apr 1.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0016412/

http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214865.htm

 

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  1. Miguel A Sanchez says:

    Enjoyed this article , have to say TJ’s Stevia loosened my digestion to the point I stopped taking it, instead opted for zero sweeteners for both my coffee and tea drinking habits. I have learned a new world of taste!.

  2. Hey, Just a note on artificial sweeteners. Sugar addition and alcoholism are essentially the same. The growing concern I have is this… Why is it that often people are unable to eat/drink foods with out having to sweeten them? It’s because there addicted. This sugar addiction is more than likely due to the intestinal flora that has been compromised in the gut. If the flora itself needs sugar to survive, then watch out! Yeast, candida, and cancer feed on sugar. The good guys of the flora feed on fiber, which is essentially where our neuro pathways are located, and the key to protecting ones immunity. So, kick the sugar habit. Or enjoy the fruits of this ubiquitous problem… Want to learn more, read “Licking Sweet Death”, by Dr Hugo Rodier

    C. Hunter

  3. i saw a program of yours on public broadcasting last night. WONDERFUL. i gave up gluten several months ago and noticed a DRAMATIC difference. i have since noted suspect issues with corn and egg, and have planned to give those up as well. the biggest challenge in doing your program would be giving up my beloved butter. thank you so much for the detailed info you have posted here on sugar. i and other family members have recently had questions about types of sugars. last night you mentioned concerns with agave. we had no idea. our bottle of that liquid sweetener will be going down the drain. thanks again!

    • Check out my recent article about natural alternative sweeteners: http://jjvirgin.com/3474/making-sense-bewildering-array-natural-alternative-sweeteners/

    • Please don’t give up your butter. Natural REAL butter made from sweet cream is very healthy. People that say otherwise are just on the media wagon. margarine and canola oi/ vegetable oil are one of the main causes of diabetes. These bad oils disrupt the electrical charge of our cells. It takes 6 months to undo the damage done by these oils. To fix the damage, discontinue all veg oils, canola, and margarine and buy cold pressed flaxseed oil and mix it with 2 to 4 percent milk fat cottage cheese. one tablespoon flax oil to 3 of the cottage cheese. Eat this 3 times per day. This is the budwig diet. It also helps end cancer.

  4. Nice and informative one about sugar and natural alternative sweetners. I believe the alternative sweetners are more chemical mixed than sugar. I have read many researches some shows sugar is harmful so we should not use it in our daily diet as it was given to patients in past 1930. But recently I have been reading a research paper saying if you drink milk with a spoon of sugar mixed in it will be great for you health so I sometimes stuck between different researches and mostly likes to go for organic food and Natural foods.

  5. Rosalie says:

    I don’t understand what is wrong with Truvia? My label says that it is stevia and erythritol, which are both OK on their own. Why would a combination of the two not be OK? I have discovered that mixing two sweeteners causes an effect that lets you use less overall.

  6. My cousin loves monk fruit that and she always buy one every month. I don’t know how she uses it but she told me that she shares it with her doormates.

  7. Great weblog right here! Additionally your site quite a bit up very fast! What web host are you the use of? Can I am getting your affiliate hyperlink to your host? I want my site loaded up as fast as yours lol

  8. I can’t use Stevia. Was all excited by it when I started buying “Clean Eating” magazine. So I bought it, used half a packet since it was WAY too sweet for me in just a cup of tea, and boy did I have explosive Montezuma’s revenge! The bad thing was, I never knew when it was going to happen, so I could never go out in public to do errands! I quite using it and stopped recommending it to people, especially those that worked. I could just imagine them in a meeting or doing a presentation and then they would end up pooping in their pants because they couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time. I would run from the kitchen or the basement or where ever I happed to be, to the bathroom when it happened to me, and I was lucky I made it without any accidents! I don’t understand why Tosca Renna or any other raw cookbook authors or health nuts recommend it when it causes problems like that.

  9. Hi JJ, I have been researching Monk Fruit and Lo Han but I can’t seem to find one that is pure, even with just silica or silicon dioxide, can you, or anyone recommend a brand for me please?

  10. Cindy Russo says:

    Hey JJ ;) How are you gorgeous?…so while googling “does monk fruit (and/or Xylitol) feed candida” Your article popped up..go figure!! I have stopped eating fruit and eliminated sugar completely. I am using a little monk fruit or xylitol (found some at Whole foods completely made from hardwood trees) in my coffee. I have found articles that Stevia does not feed candida (do not like the aftertaste!), but can’t find any info on xylitol or lo han regarding it’s effect or lack thereof on candida. Your thoughts?

    PS.. I love you ;)

    • Xylitol would probably have beneficial effects on candida. If you use it, just make sure it comes from birch tree and not corn. Thanks for your nice words!

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