A review of the different types of sweeteners and the controversy surrounding most of them

by Lara Greguric

Are sugar plums, maple fudge and nanaimo bars your idea of heaven?  Well, you’re not alone.  According to recent USDA figures, the average American consumes approximately 153 pounds of sweeteners per year, including 67 pounds of sugar from sugar cane and/or sugar beets, 85 pounds of corn sweeteners and 1 pound of other sweeteners, e.g. honey, maple syrup, etc.  Where does this mountain of sugar come from? Today’s consumers have a variety of choices when deciding on one lump or two:

White sugar (sucrose) Common table sugar. Highly refined so that it contains no fibre, no vitamins and no minerals. Translation – no nutritional value.  Vegetarians beware, white sugar may be processed with bone char.
Brown sugar White sugar coated in molasses syrup. No healthier than simple table sugar.
Honey Very similar in composition to table sugar but considerably sweeter, so people tend to use less of it.
Granulated cane juice Whole cane sugar with the water removed. Slightly healthier than table sugar, as it contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Fruit juice concentrate Still fairly refined and high in sugar. May contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Maple syrup Made from the sap of sugar maple trees. Less refined than white sugar, but at roughly 65% sucrose, is basically a sugar equivalent.
Rice syrup & barley malt Derived from grains and maintains a percentage of complex carbohydrates. Absorption rate is slower than that of white sugar, minimizing the roller-coaster effect of high then low energy levels.
Molasses By-product of sugar cane or beet sugar refining.  High in B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chromium, manganese and zinc. The blackstrap variety is less refined and higher in nutrients. Be sure to buy unsulphured molasses, as sulphur can be toxic in high doses.
Aspartame Why is this stuff still on the market? Sold commercially as Nutrasweet and Equal. 180 times sweeter than sugar.  Composed of aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol  (wood alcohol, which gets broken down into formaldehyde in the body – eew!) Possible side effects include rashes, mild depression, headaches, nausea, ringing ears, vertigo, insomnia, loss of motor control, loss or change of taste, slurred speech, memory loss, blurred vision, blindness, seizures, brain tumours – ‘nuf said?
Agave Just because agave is a raw food product don’t assume it is healthy. According to Wikipedia: “…its glycemic index and glycemic load are lower than many other natural sweeteners on the market. However, the extremely high percentage of fructose (higher than that of high-fructose corn syrup) can be deleterious and can trigger fructose malabsorption, metabolic syndrome, hypertriglyceridemia, decreased glucose tolerance, hyperinsulinemia, and accelerated uric acid formation.” Also see an article on NaturalNews.com titled Agave Nectar, the High Fructose Health Food Fraud.

Although all sugars are carbohydrates and contain only 4 calories per gram, consumers may be getting more than they bargained for when reaching for that Twinkie. Highly refined sugars contain no nutrients and are empty calories. Sugar calories may crowd out the more nutrient dense calories contained in whole foods, resulting in a nutrient deficient diet. Additionally, sugar is usually coupled with large amounts of fat in low fibre foods, contributing to the likelihood of overeating and obesity.

Sugar also poses a barrage of health threats. Undisputedly, consuming large quantities of sugar causes dental cavities. More interesting are the numerous health problems possibly caused by sugar that experts can’t seem to agree upon. Sugar is accused of causing both hypoglycemia and diabetes. When simple sugars are ingested, they are absorbed into the bloodstream quickly and the blood sugar level increases.  The pancreas detects the increased level of blood sugar and secretes insulin to bring blood sugar back to normal. When large amounts of simple sugars are eaten repeatedly, the pancreas can become overstimulated and secrete too much insulin.  In turn, this causes blood sugar to fall below normal, resulting in hypoglycemia. If this pattern continues, the pancreas becomes overworked and is no longer able to produce adequate amounts of functioning insulin, leading to elevated blood sugar levels and the possible onset of Type 2 diabetes.

Glucose is also the body’s main source of energy. Blood glucose gets converted to glycogen, which fuels our daily activities. Sharp increases in blood glucose caused by consumption of simple sugars, followed by sharp decreases in blood glucose once insulin is released, lead to roller-coaster-like energy highs and lows. Surely we’re all familiar with the classic sugar high and the subsequent sugar crash 20 minutes later.

More controversially, sugar has been linked to constipation, poor digestion, a weakened immune system, kidney and gall stones, hyperactivity, arthritis, asthma, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.

Of course, the established medical community and the agriculture industry refute all of these claims.  A recent joint study performed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization “…disassociates, completely and explicitly, sugar from chronic diseases and ill health problems, and exonerates sugar from being a major factor in obesity.  As for dental caries, it is pointed out that prevention programs should focus on fluoridation and not on sucrose content alone.”  This little gem was on the website of the Public Relations Office of the Sugar Industry (PROSI).

Where there is controversy, it is better to be safe than sorry, especially when dealing with your health.  Follow the already well-proven precepts of good health. Generally, unrefined is better than refined, as chances are these sugars may still contain some nutrients. Nonetheless, limit your intake of all simple sugars. Obtain most of your nourishment from whole foods.  A diet high in complex carbohydrates, low in fat and with a variety of fruits, vegetables and legumes is conducive to wellness.

Bottom line: Limit sweets to one snack or dessert per day. In addition to some of the less refined options above, try dates or pure fruit juice. Don’t be fooled by how natural the form of sugar is, or is claimed to be.

From the November / December 1998 issue of Lifelines. Update added Jan 1, 2010 for agave and the bottom line.