Healthy Sweeteners versus Artificial Sweeteners: The Pros and Cons of Each

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


Sugar, common but not considered one of the healthy sweetenersSugar has become a buzzword regarding the Western lifestyle, and there is a constant debate about which are unhealthy and healthy sweeteners.

Most people are able to consume sugar in small amounts with no problems. However, alternatives are needed by many people who experience negative effects from sugar, including those who are diabetic, insulin resistant, or suffer from Adrenal Fatigue.

There is a large variety of sweeteners available on the market that can be used to substitute sugar. These sweeteners are often used in prepared food and bottled or canned beverages. Some of them are healthy sweeteners, but many are not so healthy. Some are natural, while others are artificial. Yet these terms can be confusing and misused: what should be considered a ‘healthy sweetener’ often depends on whether an individual has any conditions that affect how their body reacts to sugar or other sweeteners. To add to the confusion, while some manufacturers promote their brand as ‘natural,’ their products are often either processed or refined, as is the case with certain stevia products. Certain artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, are actually produced from a natural substance such as sucralose, which is derived from sugar.

Artificial Sweeteners

Man dropping synthetic sweetener in tea instead of healthy sweetenersArtificial sweeteners are, in essence, synthetic substitutes for sugar, although they may be derived from a natural sugar source. Many people use them in place of natural sugar because they have few calories and are often sweeter than sugar. They are found in much of the processed foods we consume, including dairy products, candy, beverages, canned foods, and even jellies.

Pro’s of Artificial Sweeteners:

  • They are reported to help with weight control. They contain almost no calories.
  • They can be used by diabetics and pre-diabetics because they do not raise blood sugar levels.
  • They do not contribute towards tooth decay.

Cons of Artificial Sweeteners:

  • Some research has linked them to weight gain.
  • Studies have linked certain artificial sweeteners to health problems, e.g. saccharin has been linked to cancer of the bladder.
  • Contain synthetic chemicals that the human body was not naturally designed to handle.
  • They do not satisfy sugar cravings, and so may lead to over-eating.
  • Studies have shown that those who use artificial sweeteners are at a greater risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
  • Your body loses its natural ability to adjust to glucose and energy, thereby losing its internal equilibrium.
  • They alter your gut flora.

Although the FDA currently recognizes artificial sweeteners as ‘Generally Regarded as Safe’ (GRAS), numerous studies have linked them to various diseases and cancer. It is likely that the results of future research could have them taken off the list and even banned in the United States.

Natural Healthy Sweeteners

Naturally occurring sweeteners are often seen as the healthier option. Some of these healthier sweeteners do, however, undergo considerable processing and refining. It is usually best to look for those that are unrefined.
These healthy sweeteners have a variety of uses. In addition to being used at home, they are also found in certain processed foods, where they are often described as ‘added sugars.’

Pros of Natural Sweeteners

  • Do not cause sudden, large spikes in your insulin levels
  • Do not contribute towards insulin resistance
  • Do not overburden the pancreas
  • Reduced risk of developing diabetes
  • Reduction in mood swings
  • Reduction in energy swings

Cons of Natural/Healthy Sweeteners

  • Over-use can lead to tooth decay
  • Over-use can lead to obesity
  • Over-use can result in poor nutrition
  • Possible increase of triglycerides

Examples of Healthy Sweeteners

1. Raw Honey

A jar and spoonful of honey, one of the most well known healthy sweetenersRaw honey—meaning pure, unprocessed honey—has a number of health benefits. It is high in antioxidants, gives the immune system a boost, is great for digestion, and has antibacterial properties. As it is low on the glycemic index, it will not lead to a sudden drop in energy after a few hours.

Although honey is considered a ‘healthy’ sweetener, it still should be used in moderation. It is similar to sugar also broken up into glucose and fructose. Raw honey has a higher calorie content than sugar and may contain bacterial spores that could produce the botulism toxin.

2. Date Sugar

Date sugar is not, strictly speaking, a sugar at all. It is an extract from dehydrated dates. Although great for baking, it is not a good substitute for all purposes—such as your coffee–because it does not melt easily.

This healthy sweetener contains many essential minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, and selenium. It also helps to maintain blood pressure, improves cognitive functions, boosts the immune system, and relieves asthma, migraines, and sore muscles.

3. Stevia

A sweet, natural herb, stevia is considered one of the healthiest natural sweeteners out there. It is a great alternative for diabetics because it has no calories and does not affect blood sugar levels in any way.
Added benefits of this plant are that it actively helps with dental problems, stomachaches, acne problems, digestion, and dermatitis.
Many stevia-derived products, however, have additives that are questionable. The liquid form of the product is the safest option. Stevia is suitable for a wide variety of recipes.

4. Molasses

Molasses is a by-product of refining sugar. It is considered a healthier alternative to artificial sweeteners and sugar. It is both high in iron content and low in calories. It makes an excellent substitute for sugar, although it is not recommended for diabetics.

5. Pure Maple Syrup

A mechanism collecting maple syrup, one of the popular healthy sweetenersMaple syrup can be substituted for sugar in most instances and has a number of beneficial properties. It gives the immune system a boost, promotes a healthier heart, and may lower one’s risk of prostate cancer. It is lower in calories than sugar and has more minerals than honey. It also contains enzymes that fight type-2 diabetes.

Be aware, however, that many brands of maple syrup are not 100% maple syrup, but instead contain corn syrup with a maple syrup flavoring.

6. Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar has traces of zinc, calcium, potassium, and iron, as well as antioxidants. It also contains inulin, which slows down the absorption of glucose. It is a healthy option for baking, but not suitable as a sweetener for coffee or tea.

7. Agave Extract

Another healthy alternative to sugar is agave extract, which is a syrup derived from the agave plant. It has a similar taste to honey and is low on the glycemic index. As it takes longer to be absorbed into the bloodstream, it is considered a healthier sweetening option for those who wish to lose weight. It is also thought to relieve inflammation, lower the risk of cancer, enhance one’s immune system, and help with the absorption of nutrients such as magnesium and calcium.

Most agave nectars, unfortunately, are high in fructose, which goes directly to the liver and is converted into triglycerides, which increase the risk of heart disease. The high fructose levels also make it unsuitable for diabetics.

Metabolic Syndrome as a Factor

Sugar and artificial sweeteners have links to metabolic syndrome, a condition that develops over time. It is linked to obesity, inactivity, and insulin resistance. Both sugar and artificial sweeteners cause the release of insulin and cortisol, which increases your craving for sweets while putting a strain on the adrenal glands.

Since artificial sweeteners alter your gut flora, they interfere with the digestive process, thereby causing side effects that include migraines, allergic reactions, and digestive stress. These side effects force the adrenals to work harder to compensate.

For the most part, healthy sweeteners do not have this negative effect on your metabolism, and many of them are very beneficial.

Sugar Effects on Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS) and the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response

A container of multiple packs of artificial sweeteners, worse for the body than healthy sweetenersIt is not only the physical environment that puts the body in a state of stress. What you eat can also play a role. Artificial sweeteners, unfortunately, put significant stress on the body. Much of the stress that we face on a daily basis is dealt with by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) hormonal axis, a component of the overall NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) stress response. When your body is functioning optimally, the adrenal glands can cope with stress-related events, but when subjected to a prolonged period of stress, the adrenals can be overwhelmed. This is what is known Adrenal Fatigue. When this happens, the adrenal glands produce less cortisol. Complications such as brain fog, food sensitivities, hypersensitivity to certain medications, and even paradoxical reactions can occur once the third or fourth stage of Adrenal Fatigue sets in.

Additionally, the metabolic system can be weakened, causing an imbalance of the microbiome, a slowing of the detoxification process, and a reduced delivery of nutrients that causes cellular respiration to be ineffective. As a result, the chemical reactions that form the HPA axis need to be carried out via other pathways to maintain bodily functions.

Your body responds to stress in a global fashion, meaning that when the body is under great stress, it is not only the neuroendocrine system that responds, but the primary organ systems as well. They work together as an entirety, known as the NeuroEndoMetabolic stress response system, in order to address a problem. Therefore, whatever happens in one organ affects all the other components on the NEM system. When one or more of these components is affected to such an extent that it no longer works as it should, the entire system begins to malfunction. This is why Adrenal Fatigue sufferers often have sugar cravings: their bodies have trouble maintaining healthy blood sugar levels.

Irregular blood sugar levels can also be caused by a lack of appropriate cortisol production—another symptom of Adrenal Fatigue. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid, meaning that part of its function is to help regulate glucose in your blood. Adrenal Fatigue results in low cortisol levels and thus difficulty in maintaining normal blood sugar.

A spoonful of sugar cubes which may harm the body compared to natural healthy sweetenersOne of the easiest ways to increase your blood sugar is, that’s right, eating sugar. Eating sugary foods, however, is not a recommended method of increasing your blood sugar levels if you have Adrenal Fatigue. It causes a quick spike in your blood sugar levels, but will rapidly fall again, leading to reactive hypoglycemia and fatigue. Natural, healthy sweeteners are better alternatives for those with Adrenal Fatigue. Always use protein and fat to balance the amount of sugar needed to fuel your metabolism: the exact optimal ratio of carbohydrates to protein to fat varies from person to person and is highly dependent on what stage of Adrenal Fatigue you are in. For example, those in a catabolic state typical of late stages of Adrenal Fatigue will have very different needs from those in earlier stages. The more advanced the condition, the more vulnerable you will be. Always consult a health professional with knowledge of Adrenal Fatigue for general dietary advice. Such dietary changes, including the use of healthy sweeteners, will help strengthen the body, avoid adrenal crashes, and support the recovery process.

© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


A jar and spoonful of honey, one of the most well known healthy sweeteners

DrLam.com
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I'm a licensed Naturopath practicing in Nova Scotia Canada. I want to commend you on the wonderful information on your site. I refer many clients to it for references regarding Adrenal disorders, reproductive hormone imbalances and much more. One client actually contacted you with some adrenal questions and was very excited to hear back from you, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to listen to her question and for responding.




2 Comments

  • Veronica Gonzalez says:

    I was in severe adrenal fatigue whe I started to be treated by a chiropractor. .All the symptoms. ..Dizziness, heart palpitations, digestive problems, food sensitivity, severe anxiety, headaches, just to name a few..He put me on on a strict diet..no dairy or bread pasta ect…only protein veggies and good fat..and some fruit like berries ..he also cut out caffeine and all sugar..no sugar whatsoever. .my question is should I or can I have some natural sweetner? I’ve started to feel some kind of normal again. So I’m very careful of what I eat..I this point I’m still intimidated by food. .it has been such a horrible experience. .I don’t know what I can or cannot have. .your advice would be greatly appreciated

    Veronica

    • Dr.Lam says:

      natural sweetener is ok if in moderation, provided that your liver is not congested and you are still strong.

      Dr Lam