What's the safest sweetener?

Lisa Guy, nutritionist
Monday, May 3, 2010

Choosing a sweetener can be very confusing with so many choices available. With an array of natural and artificial sweeteners all boasting different health benefits, which are best for your health and which should you avoid?

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose could potentially have the most adverse health effects of any substances added to our foods.

These chemicals have flooded our food supply and have become popular with people trying to lose weight because they add sweetness without extra kilojoules. Diabetics also like to use these sweeteners as they don't affect blood sugar and insulin levels like simple sugar.

Long-term safety of these artificial sweeteners is unknown as the results of only a few human trials have been published. However, studies conducted before the US Food and Drug Administration approved aspartame revealed a high incidence of brain tumours found in animals that had been fed aspartame.

A recently published long-term study of aspartame indicated that aspartame caused dose-related and statistically significant increases in the incidence of several types of tumours. This has unfortunately been ignored by food regulators.

Aspartame becomes methanol after exposure to heat or during prolonged storage, which is potentially toxic to the brain, retina and nerves. The regular use of these artificial chemicals especially in a child's diet could therefore disrupt normal growth and development.

Artificial sweeteners are hidden in most "sugar-free" and "diet" products, including soft drinks, flavoured milks, yoghurts, chewing gum, breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits, ice-cream and frozen desserts.

As we don't really know the long-term effects of consuming these artificial sweeteners, why take the chance with your health? Read food labels carefully and avoid foods containing these types of sweeteners.

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Refined sweeteners

Unfortunately sugar has become an integral part of most of our lives and is a significant source of energy in the Australian diet. Sugar is a hidden ingredient in many commercially prepared foods. Refined sugars such as sucrose (table sugar), glucose, dextrose and fructose (corn sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup are added during processing to increase food palatability and sometimes to add bulk.

These types of refined sugars are robbed of their natural and valuable nutrients during the manufacturing process and a diet high in these foods increases your risk of becoming overweight or obese, developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, weakened immune function, leaving you more vulnerable to illness and increasing the likelihood of tooth decay.

Fructose and high-fructose corn syrup

When reading fructose in an ingredient panel, most people think it the natural sugar from fruits. This is not really the case. Yes fructose is a simple sugar primarily found in fruits, however the fructose and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) added to processed foods and sold as an alternative to table sugar are actually refined commercial sweeteners made from corn.

Fructose and HFCS are routinely added to a lot of processed foods and beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juice, breakfast cereal, yoghurt, sauces and many so-called "health products". Food manufacturers like using HFCS because it's sweeter, has a longer shelf life and it's cheaper than sucrose.

Fructose has been marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar for diabetics as it is broken down slower than sugar and therefore doesn't cause the sharp rise in blood sugar and insulin levels.

However, the real health issue with fructose usage is that large quantities of fructose, especially in HFCS, are unknowingly consumed by the general public, due to it being "hidden" in so many frequently consumed processed foods.

High consumption of fructose and HFCS has been linked to heart disease, and high cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Researchers at Princeton University have recently found that high-fructose corn syrup promotes considerably more weight gain than table sugar. Scientists have suggested that HFCS could be one of the major contributors in our obesity epidemic.

Natural sweeteners


Raw honey is a natural alternative to refined sugar. Raw honey is a natural and unrefined product that does not contain any harmful chemicals or additives. Honey contains small amounts of nutrients such as amino acids, magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

Raw honey, especially darker shades of honey, possesses phytochemicals which act as antioxidants. When raw honey is processed and heated, however, the benefits of these phytochemicals are largely eliminated.

Choose a raw, organic, 100 percent-pure honey and avoid commercial honey that has been heated to keep a clear, smooth consistency. Even though honey is natural it is still considered a sugar and should be eaten in moderation.

Xyltiol and stevia

Xylitol is a natural substance found in certain fruits and vegetables. It has 40 percent fewer kilojoules than sugar and is absorbed and metabolised a lot slower than sugar, making it ideal for diabetics. This natural sweetener has actually been shown to help prevent tooth decay in children.

Stevia is another natural sweetener that is safe for children and suitable for diabetics. Made from a South American herb, stevia can be used in place of sugar in cooking and to sweeten beverages.

And the winner is …

Refined sugar in small quantities as part of a well-balanced diet won't harm your health. It does become detrimental to your health however when you regularly consume processed foods that contain these added sugars.

Ideally we should be eating a diet rich in nutritious foods like wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts and seeds. We should be aiming to reduce sugars, curb our sugar cravings, and limit processed foods and beverages that contain high levels of these "empty kilojoule" refined sweeteners.

Natural sweeteners such as raw honey, xylitol and stevia however can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy diet — used in porridges, smoothies, baked goods, desserts and beverages. Diabetics or people trying to lose weight should choose xyltiol or stevia over artificial sweeteners.

By Lisa Guy
Naturopath and nutritionist
Art of Healing
E: lisaguys@hotmail.com

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