Sweeteners explained

Sugar is getting a bad rap lately. Many scientific studies show that fructose,  which is a component of table sugar, is proving to be the bad guy as far as obesity and associated diseases (e.g. type 2 diabetes) are concerned. 

In the meantime, we outline 11 types of sweeteners, including some that have been described as healthy sugar substitutes, but which may not actually be the case. 

1. White sugar

White sugar, along with any other type of cane sugar, such as brown sugar, raw sugar and rapadura sugar (see below), contains 50 per cent fructose and 50 per cent glucose. It’s the most refined form of all cane sugars, devoid of any worthy nutrients. 

2. Maple syrup/sugar

Maple syrup is often used as a healthy sugar alternative. It is made from the sap of tapped maple trees, which is then evaporated to make a concentrated syrup or a granulated sugar. While it does have some health benefits, it still contains up to 40 per cent fructose.

3. Coconut sugar/syrup/nectar

Variations of coconut sugar are used in many health food products. Coconut sugar is made from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. Even though it contains valuable nutrients, unlike white sugar, it contains anywhere between 38–48.5 per cent fructose. 

4. Rapadura sugar

Also known as panela and jaggery, this sugar is made from the unadulterated juice pressed from whole cane sugar, which is then evaporated without separating the molasses. This way, the minerals stay intact. However, since it is a cane sugar, it contains about 50 per cent fructose. 

5. Raw honey

Raw honey is honey that hasn’t been pasteurised. Which means that it hasn’t been exposed to high temperatures, so the healthy enzymes are intact. It is believed to have medicinal qualities in many traditional cultures. However, the fructose content of honey doesn’t change whether it’s raw or not – it’s about 40 per cent fructose either way. 

6. Agave

This is a popular sweetener used in many raw ‘healthy vegan treats, namely chocolate. It is made from the same Mexican succulent as tequila, and contains up to an alarming 90 per cent fructose.  

7. Stevia

Stevia is a plant-based sweetener. It’s completely free of fructose and about 300 times sweeter than sugar. However, its use can lend a bitter aftertaste. Nevertheless, some people may find stevia helpful for certain conditions, such as treating candida, or managing sugar addiction or poorly controlled diabetes. 

However, the concern with stevia – as with all other sweeteners, regardless of their fructose content – is that it can enhance appetite (see below). 

8. Rice malt syrup

Rice malt syrup is made from fermented cooked rice, and is quite sticky but very mildly sweet. It’s a blend of complex carbohydrates, maltose and glucose, and is completely fructose free. It’s great for making one’s own muesli and muesli bars for it lends a crunchy texture.

9. Dates

While dates are often used to create ‘sugar-free’ treats, they contain about 30 per cent fructose. Therefore, they often need to be used in larger amounts to obtain the same level of sweetness. 

10. Aspartame

An artificial sugar, aspartame has been the subject of much controversy, especially in the US where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gets more complaints about aspartame than any other food or drink. Some of the symptoms linked to consuming aspartame include headaches/migraines, dizziness, seizures, nausea, numbness, muscle spasms, weight gain, rashes, depression, fatigue, irritability, increased heart rate (tachycardia), insomnia, vision problems, hearing loss, heart palpitations, breathing difficulties, anxiety attacks, slurred speech, loss of taste, tinnitus, vertigo, memory loss and joint pain. 

A long enough list to turn you off aspartame, no? 

11. Sugar sugars

Sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, sorbitol, isomalt and mannitol, are often used in foods claiming to be diabetic-friendly, as they provide fewer calories than sugar and have less of an effect on blood sugar than other carbohydrates. However, our bodies can’t digest these sugars well. What doesn’t get absorbed into your bloodstream feeds the bacteria in your large intestine, resulting in diarrhoea and gas. That’s why so many of these products warn of a having a ‘laxative effect’. 

So which sweeteners should you lean towards? Well, while it may make sense to choose low-fructose sweeteners such as stevia and rice malt syrup, it’s not as straightforward as that. That’s because a sweet taste, whether delivered by sugar or artificial sweeteners, still encourages sugar craving and sugar dependence. 

The only true ‘looking-after-your-health’ solution, regardless of the type of sweetener, is to retreat back to the adage of enjoying treats occasionally and mindfully. 

Written by YourLifeChoices Writers

YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.

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