Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sugar and its Effects: Not All Sweet

Many of you in the natural health community have expressed a lot of interest in the topic of sugar and sugar alternatives. With the many forms of sugar available, from table sugar, to high-fructose corn syrup to agave and honey, understanding the differences between sugars and their effects on the body is not all sweet. Any form of sugar, in excess, weakens the immune system, causes inflammation in the body, and increases the risk for serious health conditions such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. When American individuals  consumed only 5 lbs of sugar per year, prior to the 1900s, incidences of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease were rare. Today it is estimated that the average American consumes more than 135 lbs of sugar per year! I recently posted about sugar and its link to metabolic syndrome, as well as research showing that cancer cells utilize fructose to proliferate. So what is the most healthful sweetener to use in moderation, and which ones should you avoid?

Forms of sugar that are not processed are better choices than highly processed and refined sugars, for several reasons. Highly refined sugars tend to produce a much higher spike in blood glucose levels than do unprocessed or unrefined sugars. They are also lacking in the trace nutrients that can still be found in unrefined, more natural sugars. Highly refined sugars are very difficult for the body to process, and therefore deplete your nutrient reserves as your body struggles to re-balance itself after ingesting these chemicals.

For natural sweeteners, I recommend raw honey, real maple syrup (grade B contains more trace minerals) and unprocessed stevia. Again, even these sweeteners should be minimized and if you are diabetic or fighting cancer, all sweeteners should be avoided. After you rid your body of these addictive substances, the cravings will subside and you can better appreciate foods that are naturally sweet on their own.

Raw, unprocessed honey contains a variety of antioxidants, enzymes and trace amounts of vitamins like thiamin and niacin.  It also has antioxidant and antibacterial properties, both internally and externally. Raw honey can help to heal wounds because it contains an antiseptic substance called inhibine which acts to promote healing and prevent infection. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that help soothe a sore throat or congested bronchial and nasal passages during a cold.  Studies have also shown it to have anti-tumor potential, and some research suggests that consuming local, raw honey prior to the spring can help blunt seasonal allergies. Raw honey contains an enzyme that makes it much easier to digest than regular sugar, therefore lowering it’s effects on blood glucose levels.

Maple syrup and maple sugar is another alternative to processed sugar. But you have to make sure it’s authentic maple syrup from trees, not flavored and filled with high-fructose corn syrup. Although more expensive, maple syrup and sugar are good sources of zinc and manganese, as well as trace amounts of calcium, iron, and magnesium.

The stevia plant is native to South America and is extremely sweet in comparison to table sugar.   Steviosides and rebaudiosides are the natural compounds in stevia that create it’s sweet taste, but contain much fewer calories than sugar. It’s important to buy the actual dried herb or ground, green stevia, and not the white stevia, as this is a tell tale sign of bleaching and processing. I would also avoid liquid stevia.

One sweetener I do not recommend is agave nectar, even though it is heavily marketed as natural, and supposedly low on the glycemic index. Agave is, in fact, highly processed in a way similar to corn syrup, and is a new to the human diet. The original, traditional version of agave is the sweet water from the agave plant, called aguamiel. Native Mexicans have used this light, natural sweetener for hundreds of years, however, agave has been a manufactured product only since the 1990s. Through industrial processing, the agave extract becomes highly concentrated in fructose, and depending on the manufacturer, can contain 55% fructose, the same amount in high-fructose corn syrup, all the way up to 90% fructose! Consumption of concentrated amounts of fructose, such as high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar, greatly stresses your pancreas and liver, and can lead to blood sugar spikes and associated side effects such as inflammation, fatigue and metabolic syndrome.

Artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose, cyclamate, aspertame, and saccharin are highly controversial, and many, especially aspartame have been directly linked to neurological disorders and other serious problems. These chemicals have can wreak serious havoc on the body and should be avoided completely.

The question of why we consume so much sugar requires a complex answer, one that I hope to delve into with greater detail in the future, involving a multitude of physiological, psychological and environmental factors.  However, as we educate ourselves as to the effects of such over-consumption, and make healthier choices, we can help others to do the same, thus spreading awareness and strengthening ourselves and communities with empowerment and knowledge.


  1. What about Xilytol? It used to be made from inner birch bark but is now made from King Corn. My husband has been suing this recently, but I find it irritates my system. How does it rate compared to the other sweeteners? Thank you

  2. I second the last comment, I would really like to hear your thoughts on xylitol, the area of what sugar/sweetner is better for us is very confusing, I am using Xylitol at the moment.

  3. Hi there, Xylitol is an alcohol sugar but still better as compared to all the refined stuff. Opinions vary on it. I like to bake with it but don't really use it for teas and such, here we go with raw honey. Maybe part of it is too, that it is made from corn...but I know not enough about it. Dr Mercola is a good source when it comes to to dos and donts of sugar. I recall he talks about Xylitol, maybe you can check it out and find a reason for why it irritates your system...Blessings