Better Than Sugar? The Truth About 6 Alternative Natural Sweeteners

Personal Health

It's been a wild week in the sugar wars. Disney just announced that it will ban ads for candy, sweet cereals and other sugary foods on all child-focused broadcasting. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a ban on the sale of large sugary drinks. On the heels of a brand-new UCLA study linking high-fructose corn-syrup consumption with memory loss, the USDA rejected a petition last Thursday from the Corn Refiners Association to change the name of high-fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar."

Every anti-sugar, anti-HFCS fusillade boosts a booming business sector: The global market for non-sugar sweeteners, now topping $9 billion, is expected to reach nearly $10 billion by 2016. We're spending big money on stevia and agave, and just starting to discover dark horses such as erythritol and monk fruit.

What's in this stuff, and is it worth the switch? Here are six to consider.

1. Stevia

Stevia gets most of the buzz and leads the industry, with stevia-sweetened products expected to comprise a $1 billion sector all its own by 2014. Up to 300 times as sweet as table sugar, powdered stevia extract is derived from the leaves of subtropical shrubs that have been consumed by indigenous South Americans for centuries. Yet it has virtually no calories and doesn't raise blood-sugar levels or promote tooth decay. The FDA approved stevia for food use in 2008; now Coke, Pepsi and Starbucks put it in drinks. What could possibly go wrong? Well -- a yucky bitter aftertaste. But two weeks ago, German researchers announced their discovery of two taste receptors on the human tongue that specifically detect stevia's aftertaste. This new data could revolutionize the way stevia is cultivated and refined.

2. Agave Nectar

Made from the sap of succulents native to Mexico, agave nectar is about 150 percent as sweet as sugar but lower on the glycemic index. Loaded with cachet -- evoking sunshine and tequila -- it's turning up everywhere: in Coca-Cola's Full Throttle Blue Agave energy drink, for instance. But agave is highly processed and about 90 percent fructose, "so it dumps right into your liver," warns wellness expert Maria Emmerich, author of The Art of Eating Healthy: Sweets (CreateSpace, 2011). "Things that are lower on the glycemic index are not necessarily better for your health. I received a huge box of agave nectar from a company to review for my blog recently, and I couldn't even bring myself to give it away for free."

3. Erythritol

Far less familiar is erythritol, a non-glycemic, virtually non-caloric, aftertaste-free polyol or "sugar alcohol" that occurs naturally in fruits such as melons, pears and grapes. About 70 percent as sweet as table sugar, whose taste it resembles, erythritol comes in white crystalline powder form and is a common ingredient in foods -- especially baked goods -- labeled as "light" and "low-calorie." Studies show that up to 90 percent of erythritol is excreted unchanged in human urine within 24 hours of consumption -- thus it's not absorbed into the body -- and that, like stevia, it does not harm teeth.

4. Monk Fruit (Lohan Guo)

Industry insiders predict that monk fruit, aka lohan guo, is on the verge of becoming stevia's fiercest new rival. Calorie-free, aftertaste-free and non-glycemic but about 300 times sweeter than sugar, liquid and powdered lohan guo concentrate is derived from the antioxidant-rich, lemon-sized fruits of trees that thrive in the hot, misty mountains of southern China and northern Thailand and were allegedly first cultivated by Buddhist monks 800 years ago. Its presence in Kellogg's Kashi Squares Berry Blossoms cereal and Kashi Cocoa Beach granola is just the beginning.

5. Tagatose

You've probably never heard of tagatose, but it's a low-calorie, low-glycemic, aftertaste-free, probiotic ... sugar. FDA-approved for US food use since 2003 but still seldom seen, tagatose is over 90 percent as sweet as table sugar, yet contains far fewer than half as many calories. Molecularly speaking, tagatose is a form of sugar that occurs naturally in dairy products. But the body metabolizes tagatose differently than it metabolizes sucrose, aka table sugar, so as to produce different effects: Amazingly, some studies suggest that tagatose actually lowers blood sugar. Thus it is being studied for use in anti-diabetes drugs.

6. Barley-Malt Syrup

Barley-malt syrup is made by soaking and sprouting barley grains, then drying and cooking them until the mash becomes viscous, dark and earthily sweet -- but not quite as sweet as table sugar. Relatively low on the glycemic index, barley-malt syrup digests slowly, thus guarding against blood-sugar spikes and crashes. It's a leading sweetener in the macrobiotic diet, which credits whole grains with fighting disease. "Flavorwise, barley-malt syrup is reminiscent of molasses and brown sugar," explains Barbara Johnston-Brown, who bakes with it at her vegan-macrobiotic Green Earth Café in Berkeley, CA. "It can be a little bitter if you overuse it, but used judiciously it heightens the richness of whatever you're making."

Wellness expert Emmerich, who favors erythritol, doesn't try to persuade her clients -- even the most obese ones -- to stop eating sweets. Rather, she educates them about non-sugar alternatives and suggests that they bake their own treats to keep in the freezer.

"If a donut or Pop Tart is screaming in your face and you can't resist the idea of a donut or Pop Tart, then I would prefer that you have a healthier version on hand. If you just tell people no, no, no, and give them no other options, they tend to give up and not even try."

She denounces the marketing tactics used by the alternative-sweetener industry -- which is an industry, after all.

"They promote honey instead of sugar. Well, honey is the highest-caloric sweetener out there. Why do you think the only animal found in nature that has tooth decay is the honey bear? And agave is widely promoted as being '100-percent natural.' Just because things are natural doesn't mean they're good for us. Heroin's natural, too."

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