The 6 Best Alternatives to Sugar
I’ve done a 3-part series on the top 12 grain-free flours. Since holiday baking season is upon us, here is “the dirt” on baking’s sweet companion to flour: sugar.
There are 6 different Plant Paradox acceptable alternatives to sugar. This article will explain what those 6 sweeteners are, how they’re digested in the body, and how they’re made. Most importantly, you’ll discover whether they have any nutritional value whatsoever. The information you learn here can inform your baking decisions, and provide valuable insight into which alternative sweetener is best for you.
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What is Sugar
Let’s start at the proverbial “very beginning” with the most basic question: What is sugar and what purpose does it serve in the human body? Simply put, sugar is a carbohydrate that the human body uses or stores for fuel. Simple sugars are broken down into two components during digestion: glucose and fructose.
Glucose is the body’s primary source of energy. The human body works to maintain a constant level of it in the bloodstream at all times. Red blood cells and the brain rely solely on glucose for energy. Glucose from sugar consumption is “quick fuel”–it’s absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream. The body’s insulin response promotes its immediate use for fuel or stores it for later use. (1)
Fructose is, ultimately, used and stored the same way as glucose, but is metabolized more slowly. It gets trapped in the liver, where it’s converted into useable forms (including glucose). It causes a much lower insulin response than glucose. However, fructose affects the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream after conversion in the liver.
Fructose and glucose work together throughout the digestive and metabolic process. Each helps along the absorption of the other. Studies show that, when consumed together, the body burns the components for fuel at a much faster rate. In addition, fructose consumed on its own can sit in the small intestine unabsorbed, causing excess fluid, stomach pain, and diarrhea. (2)
The sole purpose of sugar is for immediate or stored fuel. Most of us readily have more nutritional sources of fuel available to us year-round. Therefore, is there any reason to eat it at all, from a nutritional standpoint?
Now whether you want to stop eating sugar, is another matter entirely. After all, our brains are hardwired to feel pleasure when we taste it. And, as with any other dietary component, sugar alone can not be blamed for all the ailments of an entire human population. Let’s consider the facts. (18)
We can glean from these different facts that, from an evolutionary standpoint, sugar was an important component of a human ancestral diet. Sugar is pure fuel, causes weight gain (energy storage), and rewarded the humans who ate it the most, by allowing them to survive the season of scarcity by using fat stores as fuel.
Now, however, most of us are so far removed from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it seems comical that we should fatten up during the “fruitful” season to avoid starvation during the winter. Most of the world’s population could completely do away with sugar. Our bodies are capable of converting other carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into the glucose our body needs to survive. Therefore, we have nothing to gain by eating sugar, fruit, or anything sweet.
Or do we?
When are Sweeteners not Sugar?
How can any form of sugar or sweetener be compliant with a lifestyle that only has room for nutrient dense food?
The answer is three-fold. There are some sweeteners that are hundreds of times sweeter than white table sugar, so we only need a tiny, un-caloric amount to taste it. Others contain long undigestible chains of sugar molecules that behave like dietary fiber and have actual health benefits. Still others are sweet-tasting byproducts of sugar fermentation that are not metabolized by the body. The acceptable non-sugar sweeteners can be broken down into three categories
Just as humans store sugar for fuel, plants use sugar to store important chemicals for survival when nutrients are scarce. One of these “storage units” is called a glycoside, which is a bond between a useful chemical (to the plant) and a sugar. When the plant needs the particular chemical, the sugar detaches, freeing up the chemical for the plant. (3)
The glycosidic units of certain plants are incredibly sweet. Their taste profile can be up to 400 times sweeter than white table sugar! This means we could use 1/400th the amount of sugar in a cookie recipe, and achieve the same sweet taste. This is how glycosidic extracts can deliver a sweet taste for zero calories and zero glycemic response. (4)
The alternative sweetener we know as “stevia” is the extracted glycosides from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant. These little storage units are 40 to 300 times sweeter-tasting than sucrose (white table sugar).
Stevia leaves can be dried out and ground up into a green powder or boiled in water and thickened to make a dark brown liquid. The flavor is reportedly unpalatable in this form, however, because of a strong, bitter aftertaste. The stevia we find on store shelves is usually the purified, concentrated glycosides of the stevia plant. (5)
Get my favorite brand of stevia HERE.
Yes, ethanol is quite effective at purifying sugar molecules. It’s used in nearly every sweetener extraction method. The process of using ethanol to concentrate carbohydrate chains is called “ethanol precipitation.”
Basically, ethanol disrupts the interactions between the fructose molecules and the water molecules. This disruption causes the fructose molecules to “clump” together in the solution. The water and ethanol are then evaporated, leaving behind a pure extract. (6)
Let’s start by clarifying that luo han guo and monk fruit extract are the same thing. Luo han guo (monk fruit) is a perennial vine, native to southern China. The fruit of the plant contains glycosides, which, in pure form, are up to 400 times sweeter than white table sugar. (11)
Get my favorite brand of monk fruit extract HERE.
Extracted Glycosides a Good Alternative to Sugar?
Extracted glycosides are a good choice for anyone wanting to avoid all calories from sweetener. The concentration of sweetness is so much higher than white table sugar, that the amount we need to ingest to perceive a sweet taste is inconsequential.
However, a growing amount of evidence supports that any sweetener, caloric or non, may produce an immediate insulin response. This can happen within minutes of even tasting something sweet. It’s the body’s way of preparing to receive calories to convert into glucose. When the body doesn’t receive the calories it’s expecting to receive, it sends “what the heck” signals to the brain to eat more (sugar). This may interfere with the body’s natural feelings of satiety and trigger additional cravings for sugar. (13)
Despite the complicated name, FOS are still basically fructose. You may remember that fructose usually contributes to the body’s energy stores. However, this is an example of sugar not behaving like sugar. The fructose units in inulin are held together by as many as 60 molecular bonds. These long chains of fructose–or fructans–are indigestible by human enzymes. Instead of being absorbed into the blood stream, they pass through the upper digestive system to the colon. There, they feed and fertilize the gut flora. (7)
Certain plants store FOS in their roots as reserve energy. During periods of cold and drought, plants can use these fructan chains to increase their water-use efficiency. In fact, water stress leads to increased FOS content in many plant species. (12)
Yacón has the distinction of being the plant source with the largest concentration of FOS. The syrup is made by juicing the roots of the plant and concentrating it, much like sap is boiled to make maple syrup. (10)
The final product is not as concentrated as a chemically filtered extract. Yacón syrup is 65-70% carbohydrate, 25% water, 1-2% protein, 1% potassium, and less than .1% fat. The percentage FOS can vary greatly, depending on the variety of yacón root used to make the syrup. Some roots yield a syrup with as little as 10% FOS, whereas others yield nearly 50%. (10)
Get my favorite brand of yacón syrup HERE.
Inulin describes fructan chains that are more than 10 units long. Fructooligosaccharide describes fructans, including inulin, that are 2-60 units long. In other words, all inulin are FOS, but not all FOS are inulin. (9)
Most plants that contain FOS contain some inulin, though the percentage varies. The most common type of isolated inulin that humans consume as sweetener comes from chicory roots.
Extracted inulin may contain FOS that are less than 10 units long. Sodium hydroxide can be added during processing to destroy smaller fructan chains. The final product is called high-performance inulin, because it only contains the longer FOS chains. (8)
Get my favorite brand of inulin HERE.
Fructooligosaccharides a Good Alternative to Sugar?
Unlike extracted glycosides, alternative sweeteners with FOS provide about one third the calories of white table sugar. They also have a low sweetness intensity. Theoretically, this means the body would receive some caloric satisfaction from the initial sweet taste.
The benefits of FOS, however, come not from satisfying the body’s early insulin response, but from fermentation in the gut. Evidence shows that FOS have a prebiotic effect in the gut. Prebiotics improve mineral absorption and promote good bacterial growth. (9)
Sugar alcohols are produced when sugar molecules are reduced or fermented by yeast. They are a naturally occurring byproduct, found in nature in fruits, vegetables, and fungi. Their molecular structure partially resembles sugar and partially resembles alcohol. Therefore, the body mostly excretes them as waste through urination. Their calorie content ranges from 1.5 to 3 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for white table sugar. On average, they taste about 50% less sweet than sugar. They also have the added benefit of not causing tooth decay! (14)
There is no other bulk sweetener with as low a caloric value as erythritol. 90% of it gets absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted as waste. This is because the human body does not have the enzymes to metabolize it. The other 10% ferments in the large intestine. This fermentation process is notorious for causing gastrointestinal side effects. However, because so little erythritol reaches the colon, clinical studies show it has the highest digestive tolerance of the 5 most popular sugar alcohols. (15) (16)
Get my favorite brand of erythritol HERE.
Xylitol is produced by fermenting an extract called xylan, found in the plant cell walls of American hardwood trees and in corncobs. It has about 60% of the calories of white table sugar. Xylitol is not as readily absorbed into the bloodstream as erythritol. More of it is subject to fermentation in the gut (and subsequent fatty acid production). Unlike glucose from corn or wheat starch, xylan must first undergo several treatments before it is fermentable. Yeast will not ferment the initial extract because of the presence of certain acids, compounds, and heavy metal ions. (17)
Get my favorite brand of xylitol HERE.
Sugar Alcohols a Good Alternative to Sugar?
Not all sugar alcohols are created equal. Erythritol and xylitol are among the only ones not subject to fermentation by oral bacteria (which contributes to tooth decay). Other sugar alcohols, like sorbitol, are metabolized as fructose in the body. Gram for gram, they aren’t as sweet-tasting as white table sugar. The tendency to use more to achieve the same sweetness profile may be cause for concern. However, studies show that xylitol may suppress visceral (midsection) fat accumulation. And nearly all of erythritol is excreted unchanged in the urine. For those who have a sweet tooth, these are undoubtedly better options than white table sugar or industrial sweeteners.
Any Benefit to Sweet?
Are there any benefits to eating sweet-tasting things? As with any broad-sweeping dietary statement, the answer is more complicated than a definitive “yes” or “no.”
- No, because a sweet taste triggers an initial insulin response in the body that, when left unfulfilled, will cause more and more sugar cravings.
- Yes, because some sweet things like fructooligosaccharides are good for gut bacteria and encourage the growth of healthy flora.
- No, because sweet tasting things, overtime, dull the dopamine receptors, basically creating an addiction to sweets.
- Yes, because sweet things undeniably give us pleasure, and some can tolerate a pleasurable experience occasionally, without forming an addiction.
The only definitive conclusion we can reach is that sweet all the time is bad. The less we partake in the pleasurable activity of eating something sweet, the less likely we are to form an addiction. That being said, we’re human. We are literal servants to our brains. Once we’ve tasted the sweet, most of us want to partake in that happy experience every now and then.
Alternative sweeteners like extracted glycosides, the fructooligosaccharides, and sugar alcohols give us the opportunity to indulge occasionally in this pleasurable experience without contributing to fat stores, weight gain, liver overload, and disease.
- Kaiser Permanente: How Our Bodies Turn Food Into Energy
- Fructose Metabolism in Humans: What Isotopic Tracer Studies Tell Us
- Wikipedia: Glycoside
- ScienceDirect: Steviol Glycoside Biosynthesis
- Real Stevia: Extracting Steviol Glycosides from the Stevia Plant
- Wiley Online Library: Precipitation of Acidic Polysaccharides by Salts in Ethanol–Water Mixtures
- NCBI: Introducing Inulin-type Fructans
- JSIR: Preparation of Inulin from Chicory Roots
- NCBI: Dietary Fructooligosaccharides and Potential Benefits on Health
- Yacon Syrup: Principles and Processing
- Luo Han Guo: Sweet Fruit Used as Sugar Substitute and Medicinal Herb
- Journal of Experimental Botany: Water stress drastically reduces root growth and inulin yield in Cichorium intybus (var. sativum) independently of photosynthesis
- Science Direct: Cephalic phase insulin release in healthy humans after taste stimulation?
- Process and Composition for Syrup and Jam from Luo Han Guo Fruit
- IUPAC: Erythritol. Functionality in Noncaloric Functional Beverages
- Process for Preparing Erythritol Crystals
- Xylitol Production from Hardwood Hemicellulose Hydrolysates
- Chicago Tribune: What happens to your brain when you give up sugar?