Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sugar, Artificial Sweeteners & Natural Sources


There really are a number of reasons why making your home a sugar free one has enormous health benefits for adults and children alike...

And for all of you sceptics out there, it really is do-able. After you have gone sugar free for a couple weeks, you will notice that you crave less and your taste buds will become much more sensitive to sweet – meaning once you have sugar again, it takes very little to do the trick.

What's so wrong with sugar?
It's really all about the amount of sugar we are eating. Among one of the most concerning side effects, in my opinion, is sugar's effect on the immune system. Research has clearly shown that sugar slows the immune response. Glucose also leads to increased insulin release, which prevents the synthesis and release of growth hormone. Growth hormone, as the name implies is responsible for normal growth and development and without it, growth deficiencies develop. The impact that sugar has on the immune system is the most profound at approximately 2 hours after ingestion, when immune cells are at their lowest. What I find even more concerning is that at 5 hours, although better, this suppression is still noticeable. If you are someone that enjoys a little sweet with all of their meals or snacks, your immune system could actually never be working at its full capacity!!!

There is also a growing concern in today's society about obesity and maybe most concerning, childhood obesity. We have come to understand over the past decade that this may have much more to do with sugar than it does with fat. Foods high in sugar/glucose force the body to release insulin in high amounts in order to get glucose into the cells to use for energy. What we do not use immediately gets stored as fat or triglycerides. Regular ingestion of foods that are high in sugar or cause an extremely quick or high rise in blood sugar will lead to more triglycerides being produced than the body can ever manage to use. In this sense, a high sugar diet will lead to weight gain and most likely cardiovascular issues down the road.

Where is the sugar?
A lot of sugar can be hidden in products that there is simply no need for sugar to be. The highest source, by far is Pop (Soda), followed closely by sports drinks, fruit juice, prepared or ready made foods, ketchup, peanut butter, breakfast cereals and virtually anything that is advertised as low fat. These sugars are commonly in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This is why label reading is so important, anything that lists corn syrup, sugar, sucrose or a similar "_ose" in the first 3 ingredients, is going to be very high in sugar. Keep in mind, this also means it is bound to be pretty high in calories, as well.

As a general rule, stay away from anything that says high fructose corn syrup (or just corn syrup) on the label, not only is it extremely sweet but it is nutritionally deplete and has a very high glycemic index, meaning it quickly and significantly increases blood sugar.

Here are some 'better for you' sugar alternatives...

Agave nectar - This is a syrup made from the sap of the blue agave plant. Agave is slightly sweeter than sugar, but very low on the glycemic index. Can be substituted for sugar in baking. It is recommended that you use ¾ cup of agave for every cup of sugar and cut the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. Because it is a liquid and has no aftertaste, it is also a great for sweetening coffee or teas. Beware of "RAW" agave products. It is important to understand that there are no rules in terms of labelling a substance raw. Although I still believe Agave to better for you than refined sugar, do not be fooled. It must still be heated to high temperatures to exist as it does on the shelves today. Whether the label reads raw or not, there is still some processing that makes the substance shelf ready and therefore some nutritional properties that are lost.

Xylitol - A sugar alcohol that is low in calories and absorbed slowly, meaning it does not cause spikes in blood sugar, despite the fact that it is much sweeter than table sugar. It is recommended that you use 1 tsp. For every cup of sugar called for. As an added bonus, it is dentist approved and will not cause cavities, in fact there is evidence to suggest it helps prevent the bacteria that causes cavities from adhering to tooth enamel. Introduce Xylitol to the body slowly. It can cause rash, loose stool and abdominal pain in large amounts.

Stevia - Stevia is a calorie and carbohydrate free natural sweetener. It can be used wherever sugar is called for in baking, but keep in mind it is said to be 300 times sweeter than sugar, so you'll want to use significantly less. That being said, stevia does not effect blood sugar the same way that sugar does and is safe in moderation for diabetics.

Date sugar - Date sugar is a great alternative to brown sugar, especially in baking. It can be used one to one with table sugar. It contains all the vitamins, minerals and fiber found in dates, so it's rich in nutrients and it is metabolized slowly, again preventing any quick spikes in blood sugar.

Raw Honey - Raw honey is rich in nutrients, sometimes referred to as a superfood. It also has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties and it is alkaline forming and helps to keep a balanced pH in the gut. It is sweeter than table sugar, but it is also higher in calories and carbohydrates. This is not the best substitute for individuals with blood sugar issues. Be sure to avoid processed or refined honey, as it has been stripped of all its nutritional value and medicinal properties. Similar to corn syrup, refined/processed honey is nothing more than empty calories, and a lot of them.

Molasses - All of the nutrients that are taken out or stripped from table sugar are combine to make molasses. It is nutrient rich, being a high source of iron, as well as containing calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium. Similar to raw honey, it has an alkalizing effect on the digestive system. Great for baking, although it does have a distinct taste.

Maple syrup - I have a personal weakness for maple syrup and although it is still a better alternative than sugar, absolutely, it is also a processed alternative. It is also a little higher on the glycemic index than some of the other alternatives I am mentioning here. All that aside, in moderation, maple syrup is nutrient rich and full of antioxidants.

Brown Rice syrup - Brown Rice syrup is low on the glycemic index, but still not recommended for diabetics, as it can cause spikes in blood sugar. It has a bit of a nutty flavour and is great for baking, especially in granolas and crisps. It is also less sweet than table sugar.

Artificial Sweeteners
Now that I have got your attention with some of the health risks associated with a high sugar diet, let me also say that artificial sweeteners in excess are also NOT the answer. And certainly, if you don't have concerns about blood sugar regulation, there is really no need to use them. Although they are certainly fewer in calories, more and more research is showing that artificial sweeteners do not lead to weight loss. Artificial sweeteners do an excellent job at confusing the body. Artificial sweeteners may not signal the same satiety hormones as sugar does, although our body still tastes the sweet and insulin is still released. Therefore we are more prone to overindulging in these 'low cal/sugar free' treats. The more sweet we eat, the more sweet we crave. Especially in the case of artificial sweeteners, which have such a low caloric impact. The over-use of artificial sweeteners simply increases cravings for more sugar and they cycle continues. Although the majority of the early studies which linked a number of artificial sweeteners to cancer have been disputed, the fact of the matter is, these substances are not naturally occurring in the body and our body is rather uncertain of what to do with them. As we are a society of excess and use of these artificial sweeteners increases, so must our recognition of the fact that we simply do not know what the ramifications of these substances are in the body. Best to use with caution, or don't use at all.

Here is some info on a few of the more popular artificial sweeteners:

Splenda (Sucralose) – Once thought to be the 'healthiest alternative', there is some evidence to suggest that Splenda actually contains a bulking agent made from derivatives of corn syrup (= SUGAR). Being 600 times sweeter than sugar itself, the amount of sucralose alone that would be necessary to sweeten your morning coffee is so minimal that it must be combine with a bulking agent in order to package. Although still very low in calories, this may have side effects for diabetics who are consuming splenda in large amounts.

Nutrasweet/Equal (Aspartame) – Aspartame is a combination of L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine. It has 24 calories per tsp. and is 180x sweeter than sugar. There have been claims in the past that aspartame can lead to brain cancer, but it appears that scientific research does not support these findings. That being said, individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU) need to avoid aspartame, as do individuals who are prone to headaches, as there is some moderate evidence to suggest it exacerbates this issue.

Sweet N' Low (Saccharin) – Around since 1879, saccharin contains 1/8 calorie per tsp. and it is 300 x sweeter than sugar. Again, there were studies in the 70's (leading to an FDA warning on the label, which has since been removed) linking saccharin to bladder cancer in rats. These studies have since been shown to be a poor quality. That being said, saccharin is known to have a bitter chemical aftertaste and not enjoyed by all.

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