Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Alternatives to Sugar?

White sugar is the commonest sweetener used in our daily life. From morning coffees to evening tea, sugar plays a very crucial role in our cuisine. But the sweet lifestyle is also the main reason for increase in obesity, diabetes and other health problems among us.

"brown sugar is not healthier than white sugar, as the mineral content is very little to have any beneficial effect"

Sugar is made out of sugar beet, a type of plant which contains a thick syrup that’s converted to sugar. Refinery processes remove molasses (a dark brown by product) and the thick dark syrup is converted to white sugar. If the molasses is left in the mixture, then brown sugars are made.  

Brown Sugar VS White Sugar

The difference between White Sugar and Brown Sugar is the refinery process involved as mentioned. Brown sugar has some molasses left, while white sugar is well refined.

In terms of nutrient content, brown sugar has more minerals compared to white sugar. Thanks to molasses it has iron, magnesium and other mineral whereas white sugar has none. Calorie value of both types of sugar are the same. So, one teaspoon of white sugar gives same amount of energy as white sugar, and increases blood sugar level equally.

Essentially, brown sugar is not healthier than white sugar, as the mineral content is very little to have any beneficial effect.

Alternatives to sugar


Is honey a healthier alternative to sugar?

The short answer is no. 

Honey contains sugar too. Before the creation of sugar from sugar beets or sugarcane, honey was used as sweeteners. The calorie value of honey is almost similar to sugar, if not more depending on the manufacturing process. But honey also contains many vitamins especially Vitamin B and minerals such as calcium.

"The calorie value of honey is almost similar to sugar, if not more depending on the manufacturing process"

So, adding honey instead of sugar might give the additional benefits of vitamins and minerals but it does not make much difference in terms of calorie and the rise in blood sugar level. 

Thus honey is not a good alternative for people with diabetes or those who want to prevent diabetes.

Artificial sugar

Artificial sugars such as saccharin and aspartame (Equal brand) are commonly used as sugar alternatives. How does it work?

Artificial sugars are not absorbed in our gut, thus it carries zero calorie. It does not cause an increase in blood sugar level.

Aspartame has been heavily used until studies suggested the linkage between artificial sugars and cancers, especially bladder cancer and blood cancers such as leukemia. Association of bladder cancer in rats with saccharin (a type of artificial sugar) was first reported in 1978 by Reuber MD. 


He reported that high dose of saccharin leads to bladder cancer in rats. In response to this, the US Congress mandated that saccharin carries a hazard label stating it’s possibly hazardous for consumption at that time.

But many other studies fail to prove the same among humans. It was found that rats respond to chemicals in the urine differently than human, so humans have no risk of bladder cancer when saccharin is consumed.

What about Aspartame? 

Heavy artificial sweetener use (>1680 mg per day) leads to an increased relative risk of 1.3 for bladder cancer in humans

Aspartame is the common artificial sugar used in brands like Equal. Aspartame has been linked with blood cancers previously but many subsequent studies have failed proof that claim.  A review on artificial sugars in Annals of Oncology concluded that there is no risk of cancer by using Aspartame or Saccharin as artificial sugar. 

But the author also warned that “Heavy artificial sweetener use (>1680 mg per day) leads to an increased relative risk of 1.3 for bladder cancer in humans” but no specific artificial sweetener can be identified as the culprit. For comparison, one packet of Equal brand artificial sugar contains 1000mg of sugar. FDA recommends us not to take more than 40mg/kg of aspartame.

According to American Cancer Society, after looking at several strong researches, people who drink aspartame containing beverages did not have increased risk of cancers.

So, the studies are controversial. Most say it’s harmless, some say it’s harmful.

But are they beneficial? Not many scientists agree that it is. For example, Swithers SE in Appetite journal argue that artificial sugar is not the answer to reducing the prevalence of obesity among children. 

He claims that artificial sweeteners will lead to overeating as people won’t be worried about adverse effects of sweetened food or beverage anymore.  A team of scientists recently discovered that artificial sweeteners can actually lead to diabetes by causing changes to the bacteria that live in our digestive tracts. 

This is supported by Taylor Feehley from University of Chicago, who wrote a commentary piece on this issue. She mentions that “artificial sugar consumption correlated with disease markers linked to obesity, such as elevated fasting blood-glucose levels and impaired glucose tolerance”. Both are related to diabetes mellitus.

In conclusion, there is no evidence based healthier alternatives to sugar. Honey and brown sugar are often called as natural sweeteners and people assume it’s healthier than white sugar. It is not. Artificial sweeteners on the other hand do provide zero calorie sweetness but it’s safety is very controversial, till today.

The best method would be to reduce the amount of sugar in our food and be mindful of what we consume. We must keep in mind high carbohydrate diet also be converted to sugar in our body. So, even if we go sugar-free, we still need to keep in mind on how much carbohydrate we consume per day.

For further reading

1.       FDA Article on Artificial sweeteners

2.       Review on Annals of Oncology on artificial sweeteners

3.       Artificial Sweeteners linked to change in gut microbiota

4.       Artificial Sugars and Childhood obesity

5.       American Cancer Society on Aspartame

6.       Commentary on artificial sweetener

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