Dear JJ: I'm seeing more natural sugar alternatives on my grocery shelves these days like stevia and monk fruit. Are these sweeteners a free pass, or should I be as wary of them as artificial sweeteners and sugar?
Let's look at five popular sweetener alternatives and then consider how to differentiate between marketing hype and genuine healthiness.
1. Monk Fruit. Alternately marketed as "lo han sweetener," as an extract monk fruit is 300 times sweeter than sugar. Rich in antioxidants with anti-inflammatory benefits, one study indicated that monk fruit might offer anti-cancer and anti-diabetic benefits.
2. Erythritol. This sugar alcohol naturally occurs in some fruits and fermented foods. Studies show erythritol is tooth-friendly and does not contribute to dental problems like sugar does. Another study showed erythritol (along with xylitol) inhibited caries formation. Erythritol makes an ideal sweetener for people with diabetes: One study showed this sugar alcohol had no adverse effects on blood glucose levels.
3. Xylitol. Another naturally-occurring sugar alcohol with 33 percent fewer calories than sugar. Whereas xylitol used to come from birch trees, now it usually comes derived from cornhusks or as a blend of corn and birch. Because it doesn't raise glucose like sugar does, xylitol makes an ideal sweetener for people with diabetes. Xylitol has an impressive history of reducing occurrence of cavities. The FDA allows manufacturers to claim xylitol does not promote dental caries.
4. Stevia. An herb that grows in North and South America, stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar. One study found stevia could enhance glucose tolerance and improve metabolic syndrome, making it ideal for people with insulin resistance and diabetes. Most stevia studies involve rodents, but human studies show similar promise. While labeled "stevia," commercial sweeteners actually use rebaudioside A, derived from the stevia plant yet the FDA claims is not stevia but "a highly purified product."
5. Glycine. Because it has a sweet flavor, this amino acid makes an ideal sugar alternative. One study found this amino acid improves insulin sensitivity in mice, whereas another concluded along with the organic acid taurine, glycine improved hyperglycemia in diabetic rats. A human study with 74 diabetic participants found glycine improves immune responses and may help prevent inflammation-triggered tissue damage in patients with Type 2 diabetes.
As you can see, all these sweeteners offer some benefits and, used judiciously, can become a smart alternative to sweeten your coffee, tea, or wherever you formerly opted for sugar.
Unfortunately, purchasing these sweeteners can become confusing since manufacturers rarely sell 100 percent pure versions. To simplify shopping, follow these five rules when you purchase natural sweetener alternatives:
1. Read your ingredients. Many natural alternative sweeteners, especially those in packets, contain bulking agents like dextrose (sugar) and maltodextrin (corn). One brand, misleading called "In the Raw," actually contains dextrose as its first ingredient in its packets! You'll also find mysterious natural flavors -- usually proprietary, meaning the manufacturer will not disclose where the come from -- in many commercial sweeteners. Some sweeteners likewise include lactose (milk sugar). While less ubiquitous, look for 100 percent pure sweeteners with no bulking agents or additives.
2. People experience natural sweeteners differently. Some find stevia's taste pleasant, whereas others get a bitter aftertaste. Sugar alcohols like erythritol present no problems for some people, whereas for others even a little bit leaves them running to the bathroom. Your mileage will vary, so experiment with these sweeteners and learn what work for you.
3. Consider sweetener blends... Especially if you find 100 percent stevia or other pure sweeteners have un unpleasant aftertaste, look for a product that combines natural sweeteners like erythritol, stevia, and glycine. The same ingredients rule applies: pure sweeteners with no bulking agents or additives.
4. ... but beware of sweeteners blended with sugar. One commercial monk fruit extract contains erythritol (good) but also sugar and molasses (not good). Just because a sweetener says "zero calories," "no added sugar," or some other health claim does not make it healthy. Bears repeating: Read your ingredients!
5. Easy does it. Natural sweeteners become dose-dependent. Just because a little doesn't raise blood sugar doesn't mean larger doses won't create problems. If you're extremely sugar sensitive, even healthy sweeteners can trigger cravings and other problems. Know yourself, use these sweeteners judiciously, and learn to appreciate the natural sweetness of real foods like vanilla or almonds.
Do you consider the increasing array of natural sugar alternatives a good or bad thing? Share your thoughts below. And please keep your great questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.