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