Editor’s Note: Virginia is a Christian mom living with her husband and four kids in Minnesota. You can find her blogging about faith, food, family, and life after depression over at GeorgeTown, MN and on Facebook.
Sweeteners. Honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, xylitol, and stevia all tout their health benefits. Some are zero calorie, low-glycemic, or “natural”. And while we’re talking about sugars, how about fructose, dextrose, sucrose, glucose, and maltose? Confusingose.
Each of these sugars behave differently in our bodies, and the form in which we ingest them matters as well. Just as vitamins are better absorbed when they’re consumed in whole food form, sugars have a lighter effect on our bodies when consumed as a whole food. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m going to talk about the 3 “major” types of sugars: sucrose, glucose, and fructose. Fructose and glucose are both monosaccharides, which means they are made up of one basic molecule that can’t be broken down into other sugars. Sucrose, however, is a disaccharide, which means it is made up of 2 monosaccharides. Sucrose, or basic table sugar, is one glucose and one fructose molecule that have bonded together and are broken down into their monosaccharide molecules during digestion.
My grandmother is diabetic and has been on insulin injections for more than 20 years. This last year we learned my father is pre-diabetic. I’ve learned bits and pieces along the way about blood sugar or blood glucose, appropriate levels, and ways to keep it regulated. One way of managing blood glucose levels is to use sugars that don’t break down into glucose.
During digestion, the body breaks complex sugars down into glucose which is the body’s main source of energy. Blood glucose levels are a measurement of the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. When glucose levels spike, the pancreas releases insulin into your bloodstream to aid in transporting the glucose into your cells to be used as energy.
The goal is to maintain stable blood sugar. Perhaps you’ve had a “sugar high”, followed by the “crash”. There is a growing movement to consume sugars that will not cause that “high” and maintain a steady blood glucose level while still consuming sweet treats. Fructose is one such sugar.
Fruits are our major natural source of fructose. However, in recent years with the invention of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), we eat fructose in just about everything. It’s cheap and it makes stuff taste better. One problem with excessive fructose is that it doesn’t signal satiety to the brain like glucose does, making us more likely to overeat.
Perhaps what’s more concerning is the way fructose is metabolized. Instead of being ushered into cells by insulin for use, fructose is processed in the liver. When the liver receives more fructose than it can adequately process it turns the excess into fats and releases them into the bloodstream in the form of triglycerides, increasing the risk for heart disease. These fats can also be stored in the liver and lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Because fructose cannot become glucose and therefore cause spikes in blood glucose levels, it has become popular amongst the diabetic crowd. Interestingly, there is growing evidence that excessive fructose consumption can lead to insulin resistance, the very condition that has caused the leap in popularity of fructose based sweeteners.
So what about so-called natural sweeteners? Are they all bad? Which should we use?
Agave nectar is made from the agave plant, and it’s not nearly as “natural” as one might think. It is not made from the sap of the succulent, but from the root bulb. The starch undergoes an enzymatic reaction converting the starches to man-made fructose. When all is said and done, agave nectar is about 70-85% fructose. Most of the HFCS used in sodas comes in at 55% fructose while table sugar is 50% fructose.
According to several studies, honey has a lesser effect on blood glucose levels than table sugar does, gram for gram. This is perhaps because honey is a whole food. While it still contains about 50% fructose, studies have suggested that honey doesn’t promote inflammation like fructose does, and it was shown to lower triglycerides in lab rats.
Honey is approximately 80% sugar, 18% water, and 2% vitamins, minerals, protein, and pollen. Many people have reported using local raw honey has helped minimize their allergies. Raw honey contains live enzymes and is often used medicinally.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. Trees can only be tapped in particular climates where the temperature gets warm during the day and below freezing at night.
Maple syrup is approximately 66% sugar and vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, and 33% water. Almost all of the sugar in maple syrup is sucrose, which is 50/50 fructose and glucose. There is no such thing as “raw” maple syrup as syrup is maple sap that has been boiled down and concentrated at a ratio of approximately 40:1 sap and syrup. There are, however, different grades of syrup based on their coloring. Grade A is light and has a milder flavor while grade B is darker and has a more maple-y taste. Some people find with grade B syrup they use less and therefore consume less sugar.
In a not-so-little nutshell, that’s the basic rundown on 3 common “natural” sweeteners. Knowing the effects fructose (not just HFCS) can have on our bodies, it’s a good reminder to use sweeteners sparingly even if they are “natural”.
Do you use sweeteners or avoid them altogether? Which is your favorite?