by Megan Crockart
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is neither a sugar or an artificial sweetener. Xylitol is a simple carbohydrate alcohol and is usually found naturally in some fruits (plums), berries (raspberries), minor amounts in spinach, mushrooms and carrots but most commonly from the wood of birch trees. While the simple carbohydrate Xylose is removed from the tree (usually from the wood pulp of birch trees), it is then converted to xylitol with the help of yeast. Because of this process it can be metabolised differently and have favourable effects on blood sugar levels as it is not insulin dependent, making it an ideal natural sweetener for diabetics or for people wanting to maintain consistent blood sugar levels. It has an extremely low glycemic index of 7 with sugar being 100. It has a lower calorie and carbohydrate content compared with regular cane sugar (around 40% less calories and 75% less carbohydrates) even though it looks and tastes exactly like it. It is more slowly absorbed than glucose. It can be made from natural sources (the human body even produces it itself) but it can also be commercially produced. Extremely high doses have been known to cause gastric problems such as diarrhoea and/or weight gain. Although there are more health benefits than dangers such as it does not promote dental decay it can actually reduce it as it also has anti-bacterial properties (often added to chewing gum, toothpaste and mouth washes), stabilises blood sugar levels and hormone levels, it will reduce sugar cravings and will also alkalise the body (whereas sugar is acid forming). So instead of reaching for regular cane sugar when making your coffee or baked goods, reach for xylitol instead.
What is Agave syrup?
Agave is a commercially produced sweetener made from several species of agave plants produced in Mexico. It is a syrupy liquid thinner then the consistency of honey and can be dark or light depending on processing. It can either be produced by heat or without heat processing. Its comprised primarily of fructose and some glucose which makes its glycemic index lower than sugar (less than 30) making it absorbed in the bloodstream slowly and being an ideal alternative for diabetics. It doesn’t significantly raise blood sugar levels but maintains a consistent level providing a steady source of energy. It is about one and half times sweeter than sugar. It contains inulin (a type of fructan/fibre) which has health benefits such as lowering cholesterol and increasing absorption of certain nutrients such as calcium and magnesium. It contains saponins which have anti-inflammatory and immune enhancing effects on the body including antimicrobial. It can be a good alternative to honey for Vegans. The darker the colour the stronger the flavour. Light coloured agave is mild with a neutral flavour and dark coloured agave has a stronger caramel flavour and being unfiltered it has more minerals. Raw agave has its natural enzymes intact. Large consumption is not encouraged as high amounts of fructose can have damaging effects in the body similar to sugar.
What is Stevia?
Stevia is a natural and safe alternative sweetener derived from the herb Stevia rebaudiana (native to Paraguay) whose leaf is naturally sweet. It is commonly found as a powder, granulated, liquid or tablet form. It does not impact on sugar levels at all as it regulates the pancreas and blood sugar levels, making it ideal for diabetics or people with hypoglycaemia. It also does not help feed candidia like sugar does. The leaf is 15-30 times sweeter than sucrose (refined extracts can be up It can be up to 300 times sweeter) therefore not much is needed and it has no calories . It can help reduce sugar and fat cravings and does not impact on weight and is not addictive. It has high levels of phytonutrients such as beta-carotene, high in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc, rutin, vitamins A and C. It does not affect the body in the same way as sugar and other sweeteners in that the body doesn’t have a spike in high energy followed by fatigue. Stevia increases energy, aids digestion and gastrointestinal function, can also reduce plaque with many other health benefits. .
What is Sugar?
Sucrose (table/white sugar) is made commercially from sugar cane and sugar beets and is found in maple syrup, molasses, sorghum and pineapple. It is comprised of fructose and glucose. One tablespoon of cane sugar contains 50 calories and no other nutrition. Its glycemic index is 100 (this index is a rating on how fast a food is absorbed and how quickly it raises blood sugar levels with the highest ratings being between 100-150. Anything under 55 is considered low on the glycemic index any foods between 55-80 should be eaten with more caution). Sugar is highly addictive and has been implicated in such serious health conditions as obesity, tooth decay, diabetes, psychological and emotional problems as well as not so serious problems such as behavioural changes (difficulty concentrating/hyperactivity), yeast problems and excessive food cravings. It provides a peak in energy levels followed by fatigue, depression, irritability or anxiety. Sugar in one form or another is in just about every processed/packaged food on the market as our desire/addiction for it has encouraged the demand.
What is honey?
Honey is made naturally from bees mixing nectar from flowers with bee enzymes which gives it a concentrated source of essential nutrients such as vitamins B, C, D and E. As honey is mainly composed of fructose it contains 64 calories and has a glycemic index of 75. It should be used with care by diabetics and those with hypoglycaemia as it affects blood sugar levels much the same way as sugar does. It can contain spores of bacteria that can cause botulism so is not recommended for those under one year of age although this poses no problem for older children or adults. Fructose is not absorbed efficiently and can cause gastrointestinal problems in some people. Raw honey which has been unprocessed and unheated is loaded with enzymes that help us digest carbohydrates, it contains various vitamins and minerals, is anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal, has wound healing properties and many antioxidants. Honey is not generally suitable for vegans as it is an animal by-product.
What are artificial sweeteners?
The main artificial sweeteners are aspartame, saccahrin and sucralose (commonly known names are Nutrasweet, Equal, Splenda). These are chemically made sweeteners with no nutritional content at all. Some artificial sweeteners have been banned in the past due to studies showing cancer producing tendencies. They are generally not tolerated by most people and can irritate a person’s nervous system (eg headaches, insomnia and depression) also affecting their energy, similar to how MSG is not tolerated well. They are poorly absorbed by the body and cannot be metabolised to provide energy. These sweeteners were developed mainly to help with weight loss and regulate sugar levels as they contain no calories and are sweeter then sugar, but it has been proved that in the majority of cases they don’t make any difference to weight loss unless a person is eating a low-calorie diet. If weight loss is the main reason to look at artificial sweeteners, a diet high in whole grains, fruits, vegetables (naturally sweet) and fibre is more successful in weight loss than eating foods that contain artificial sweeteners.
If sweetness is required the best alternatives to reach for would be stevia and xylitol followed by agave. Limiting sugar in the diet is beneficial to everyone.