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Humans have a natural sweet tooth. And nothing brings it out like Halloween – arguably the most sugar and sweetener-filled celebration out there.

But our fond memories of Trick or Treating isn’t actually the origin to our penchant for all things sweet.

When something in nature has a sweet taste, it’s a good source of energy. This used to be crucial for survival.

We still have this preference encoded in our DNA. The problem is, there’s too much sugar and sweet stuff everywhere. We know we should watch how much we eat and that sweeteners can lighten our calorie intake. But it’s hard to know what to choose with so much confusing information out there.

Bear in mind that any sweetener is an extract. What follows applies only to these concentrated extracts, not to naturally occurring sugars such as in fruit.

Basic sugar molecules

When it comes to good old sugars, there are three basic sugar molecules. Understanding these will help you make sense of the rest:

Glucose

Glucose is a sugar naturally present in many foods. It serves as the main source of energy for our metabolism. When we talk about blood sugar, it means glucose. In response to absorbing glucose from food, our bodies release insulin which allows glucose to enter our cells. Excess glucose that can’t be used immediately is stored in the form of glycogen in our muscles. It also turns into fat.

Fructose (Natural sugars in fruit)

Fructose is a type of sugar that we can find naturally in fruits and vegetables. Your body doesn’t use it as the main energy source and it absorbs in the same way as glucose. That’s why fructose doesn’t produce high blood sugar levels and doesn’t rely on insulin. It can still cause weight gain if eaten in excess. Many processed food use high-fructose corn syrup and that’s certainly not a healthy option.

Sucrose aka Sugar

Sucrose, aka table sugar, has molecules made up of glucose and fructose joined together. Sugar is usually extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet. When you eat sucrose, the enzymes in your gut split the molecule into glucose and fructose. Each then follows its own absorption route – glucose goes directly into your bloodstream whilst fructose is processed by the liver. Eating more than just small amounts of sucrose can cause weight gain.

Molasses contains a lot of sugar but is also rich in iron, magnesium, potassium and manganese (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Molasses aka Black Treacle

Before sugar cane becomes sugar, it goes through several stages of processing. Molasses is one of these stages and contains many vitamins and minerals naturally present in sugar cane. It is known for its dark dark, thick, and syrup like texture.

Sugar beet molasses isn’t very palatable so the stuff you find in shops often comes from sugar cane. It contains a lot of sugar but is rich in iron, magnesium, potassium and manganese. If you like the taste of molasses, use it when baking. It’s definitely healthier than other sweeteners!

White, Brown, Cane and Muscovado Sugar

These are all varieties of the same thing but there can be huge differences. White sugar is essentially just sucrose, everything else has been stripped off. Leave this kind of sugar for special occasions as it holds no health benefits whatsoever.

Brown sugar – unless carrying a specification – is not much better. It’s simply just white sugar with a tiny bit of molasses added.

Raw cane sugar and its varieties (muscovado, turbinado and demerara) are somewhat healthier as they haven’t been so highly processed. Therefore, they retain some natural vitamins and minerals.

These sugars have one more advantage too – they are always vegan-friendly because they haven’t been bleached. White cane sugar can be bleached using bone char made from cattle or through other methods that don’t use animals.

Coconut sugar

Popular product available in most health food shops, palm sugar is less refined than ‘normal’ sugar. It contains small amounts of minerals, such as iron, zinc, potassium and calcium, trace amounts of antioxidants and fiber. 

However, it’s mostly sucrose, about 75-80 percent so it’s no miracle sweetener. It can still contribute to weight gain, blood sugar highs and lows and tooth decay.

Coconut sugar is about about 75-80 percent sucrose (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Golden Syrup

Golden syrup is nutritionally no different to sugar. The only difference is that golden syrup is liquid because it contains invert sugars. This is made by splitting sucrose (sugar) into its component molecules of glucose and fructose.

This syrup is then mixed with sucrose syrup to achieve the final product. Both sugar and golden syrup contain 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose – same thing!

Agave Syrup

Agave syrup is everywhere these days, advertising itself as a healthy sweetener. But is the reputation justly earned? Agave contains most of its sugars in the form of fructose, which absorbs in the body more slowly than glucose . It also doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes. However, that’s about the only benefit. Despite ‘natural’ claims, it’s still a very processed product and holds minimal amounts of nutrients.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is made by extracting maple sap and boiling it to reduce water content. The main component in the finished product is sucrose (sugar). It also contains small amounts of the sugar component molecules – glucose and fructose. Maple syrup is surprisingly rich in riboflavin (vitamin B2), mineral manganese and contains some antioxidants. However, its high sugar content doesn’t make it a healthy sweetener. Overall, it’s only a little better than regular sugar.

Stevia

Stevia, aka candyleaf, is a plant, native to Brazil and Paraguay, with super-sweet leaves. The leaves contain compounds known as steviol glycosides, which taste very sweet but contains zero calories. Most stevia-based sweeteners are purified stevia leaf extracts, which are 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.

Extensive tests revealed that stevia is safe to use for people of all ages. Your body rapidly breaks the molecules down without storing them (Momtazi-Borojeni, 2017). Stevia is a smart choice if you’re in need of sweetening your life the healthy way. Ironically, stevia can leave a bitter aftertaste and therefore best mixed with other sweeteners.

Maltitol

Maltitol is a sweetener that has 75–90 percent of the sweetness of sugar but half the calories. It’s made from maltose, a type of sugar consisting of two glucose molecules extracted from starch. Maltitol also undergoes a hydrogenation process. This changes its molecular structure so it’s still very sweet but not as calorie-dense as sugar.

Maltitol is often used in sweets, chewing gum, chocolates, and ice cream. This is because it does not break don from the enzymes in our saliva, unlike sugar. It also doesn’t promote tooth decay.

Because it absorbs more slowly than sugar, it has a lesser impact on your blood sugar. However, maltitol has a laxative effect if eaten in more than small amounts, causing diarrhoea and severe flatulence.

Xylitol is only partially absorbed after you consume it (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Xylitol

This low-calorie sweetener, extracted from a variety of plants, has been gaining in popularity as it doesn’t promote tooth decay.

Xylitol only partially absorbs after you consume it – what little gets through the gut wall, your liver converts into glucose. However, most of it ferments due to gut bacteria which releases beneficial byproducts as a result (Salli et al., 2019). It may seem perfect but beware… Too too much xylitol has laxative effects!

Warning: never give anything containing xylitol to your dog . It is highly toxic for dogs and can cause seizures and liver failure!

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is a low-calorie sweetener derived from glucose, also known as E420. It’s not as sweet as sugar and has about 30 per cent fewer calories. 

When eaten, it has a mouth-cooling sensation so it’s often used in toothpaste. Sorbitol also helps food retain moisture, making it a popular ingredient in baked goods that have a longer shelf-life.

If eaten in small quantities, it’s perfectly safe but large intakes can cause bloating and diarrhoea.

Aspartame has been approved as safe but there have been reports of health issues (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Aspartame

Aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®) is possibly the most controversial artificial sweetener. It causes cancer in animals but, as far as research goes, not in people and is approved as safe.

But, there are reports of health issues such as headaches, dizziness, anxiety, insomnia and other cognitive related effects following consumption. However, there isn’t enough consistent data (Choudhary and Lee, 2018). 

These effects are linked to aspartame increasing the levels of stress hormone, cortisol and free radicals in the brain. This disrupts its fragile biochemical balance.

When digesting aspartame, it breaks down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol – all of which your body can deal with. However, people who suffer with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot break down phenylalanine so they should avoid aspartame.

Acesulfame K

Also known as acesulfame potassium or E950, Acesulfame K is an artificial sweetener about 120-200 times sweeter than sugar. However, you cannot digest it so it’s calorie-free!

Health authorities declared it safe but it has many critics warning against it. There isn’t enough reliable data and needs more research. Consuming small amounts, for example in chewing gum or an occasional soft drink, should be perfectly safe.

Sucralose

Sucralos derives from sucrose (sugar) in a multi-step process. It’s calorie-free and up to 650 times sweeter! You may also know it under the trade name Splenda.

Unlike many other artificial sweeteners, it doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste. This makes it very popular for the use in fizzy drinks, chewing gum, baking mixes, breakfast cereals and salad dressings.

Your body absorbs only some of the sucralose, which enters the bloodstream. It is then excreted in urine. Scientific reviews concluded that sucralose is safe for humans (Magnuson et al., 2017). However, some people warn that it could be a migraine trigger.

The best choice of sugar or sweetener

The world of sweeteners is a sticky minefield. Each option has its pros and cons. Deciding which sweetener is best depends on how you’re planning to use it. 

For example, stevia is good for baking and mixing with some cane sugar. That way you won’t have the bitter aftertaste of stevia but you will cut the sugar content).

Molasses is great for biscuits. Raw cane sugar works well in small amounts for drinks. Save xylitol for chewing gum and agave or maple syrup for drizzling over the occasional treat. 

When it comes to fizzy drinks, whether sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, they’re not a smart choice. So try to break the habit if you have one!

Dried fruit is actually the best sweetener out there. It has some natural sugars, plenty of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and even small amounts of protein! Use it whenever you can to sweeten cakes, biscuits, porridge, smoothies, ice cream, desserts and more.

References:

Choudhary AK, Lee YY. Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2018;21(5):306-316.

Magnuson BA, Roberts A, Nestmann ER. Critical review of the current literature on the safety of sucralose. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2017;106(Pt A):324-355.

Momtazi-Borojeni AA, Esmaeili SA, Abdollahi E, Sahebkar A. A Review on the Pharmacology and Toxicology of Steviol Glycosides Extracted from Stevia rebaudiana. Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2017;23(11):1616-1622.

Salli K, Lehtinen MJ, Tiihonen K, Ouwehand AC. Xylitol’s Health Benefits beyond Dental Health: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1813.

Veronika Charvátová

Veronika Charvátová MSc is a biologist and Viva! Health researcher. She has spent years uncovering the links between nutrition and good health and is an expert on plant-based diets.