Many books have been written about the dangers of sugar consumption and its ability to depress the immune system, impede cellular function, and stimulate the overgrowth of candida (yeast). Even the US government is on a campaign to reduce sugar consumption because of the alarming increase in American obesity. Sugar-buster and high-protein diet gurus have attained celebrity status insisting that sugars and other carbohydrates stimulate excess insulin production that results in storage of sugars in fat cells, wildly fluctuating blood sugar reactions, and an increased incidence of cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Excess sugar consumption interferes with the body’s absorption of minerals (calcium and magnesium), raises cholesterol levels, and causes allergies, kidney damage, high blood pressure, and a host of other problems. This knowledge has led to the concept of low carbohydrate diets to control weight and prevent and cure disease. Nonetheless, people like sweet tastes. Children love sweet tastes, and children have a higher need for carbohydrates than adults. No one should eat added sugars on a regular basis. The sugars contained in fresh, natural foods are adequate to provide for everyone’s energy needs. If you must have additional sweets in your diet, here is a review of your options.
Refined sucrose made from plants (beets or cane) is depleted of vitamins and minerals. The refining process also adds several potentially toxic chemicals (bleaches and stabilizers). Natural sugars in the form of rice syrup, malt syrup, and raw honey are purported to have more nutritional value, but do nothing to reduce the deleterious effects of eating sugar.
High fructose corn syrup is 20 times sweeter than sucrose, cheaper to make, and convenient for food manufacturers because it retains moisture and blends well with other ingredients. The free fructose in corn syrup interferes with the heart’s use of minerals, depletes the ability of white blood cells to defend against infections, and raises cholesterol levels.
Honey should be used only in its raw form (not just uncooked honey) because the heating process destroys enzymes and vitamins natural to the honey. Honey stimulates insulin production with the same mechanism as other forms of sugar. Be aware that pesticides applied to plants have been detected in honey.
Maple syrup made from the sap of maple trees is up to 60 percent sucrose. It is essential that consumers use certified organic maple syrup because of the danger of chemical residues from forests sprayed with pesticides. Additionally, many maple syrup producers use formaldehyde pellets in the sap holes to prevent the holes from closing and formaldehyde in holding tanks as a preservative. Chemical anti-foaming agents may also be added to non-organic maple syrup.
Malt syrup is made from barley and contains primarily maltose, which is less than half as sweet as sucrose. Rice syrup is made from barley and rice. Date sugar is simply ground, dehydrated dates. Health food products often contain these foods used to sweeten packaged products.
Artificial sweeteners seek to provide the sweet taste of sugar without raising blood glucose levels. These alternatives to sugar tend to be hundreds of times sweeter than sucrose. Their safety has always been a matter of controversy. Studies have both identified saccharine (Sweet ‘N Low) as a carcinogen and also exonerated saccharine as safe. However US government reports of known carcinogens have continued to include saccharine in their lists since 1981. Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal) has been roundly condemned by many sources as a dangerous toxin capable of inducing hundreds of symptoms. It has been affectionately nicknamed Nutradeath. Besides causing headaches, allergic reactions, and symptoms that mimic autoimmune diseases, aspartame causes the accumulation of formaldehyde in the brain and other tissues, which can cause damage to the nervous system and immune system.
Because of the negative publicity about these sugar-free sweeteners, other alternatives have been developed. The newest kid on the block is sucralose (Splenda).
Sucralose is made by chlorinating sugar (sucrose). Three chlorine atoms substitute for three hydroxyl groups. Although Johnson & Johnson, the makers of Splenda, claim that sucralose is not absorbed by the body, the FDA has determined that up to 27 percent of ingested sucralose is absorbed. Other chlorinated molecules, such as the chlorinated pesticide DDT, are accumulated in body fat. Similarly, up to 30 percent of absorbed sucralose is metabolized and concentrated in the liver and kidney. Research in animals has shown that sucralose can result in shrunken thymus glands (up to 40 percent shrinkage), enlarged liver and kidneys, reduced growth rate, and decreased fetal body weight. No long term or independent studies on sucralose have been conducted on humans, and no organizations are monitoring health effects. Many individuals have reported adverse effects of sucralose, including anxiety, panic attacks, headaches, nerve, joint and chest pain, allergic type reactions, and diarrhea.
Xylitol is a five-carbon rather than a six-carbon sugar (glucose, fructose). The body produces several grams of xylitol every day, and ingested xylitol is converted to glucose. Many bacteria cannot metabolize xylitol, and its presence is harmful to some bacteria. For that reason it is promoted in sugar-free chewing gum to prevent plaque build-up and cavities. It contains the same number of calories as sucrose, but is absorbed more slowly, and it is safe for diabetics and hypoglycemics because of its insulin independent metabolism. Few adverse effects have been noted, even in volunteers fed daily does of 70 grams. Diarrhea is the only symptom commonly experienced by test subjects.
Sorbitol and Mannitol contain six-carbons like fructose and glucose, but with an additional hydroxyl (alcohol) group that make them independent of insulin metabolism. Sorbitol is a natural ingredient contained in many fruits that can cause diarrhea (prunes, apples, pears, peaches). The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has petitioned the FDA to require foods containing one or more grams per serving of sorbitol or other sugar alcohol, such as mannitol, to carry the following label: “NOTICE: This product contains sorbitol, which may cause diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal pain. Not suitable for consumption by children. To protect yourself, start by eating no more than one serving at a time.”
Plant derived sweeteners
Stevia is an herb native to Paraguay. It has no calories and manufacturers claim that the plant actually has health benefits. It contains vitamins and minerals. It lowers high blood pressure, discourages bacterial growth, and improves digestion. Some people object to its mildly bitter taste, but others find it perfectly palatable. Some brands are more bitter than others. Try KAL brand Stevia extracts (liquid or powder).
Stevia has not been approved by the FDA as a sweetener because of animal studies that showed fertility problems including reduced sperm production, increased testicle growth, and small offspring in rats. In the laboratory, steviol can be converted into a mutagenic compound, which may promote cancer by causing mutations in the cells’ genetic material (DNA). Rsearchers, however do not know if the conversion of stevioside to steviol to a mutagen happens in humans.
Lo Han Kuo fruit extract (SlimSweet) made from a Chinese fruit-bearing plant has zero calories, but very little data exists about any adverse effects. It is 200 times sweeter than sucrose.
Ki-sweet is made from kiwis and is purported to cause less insulin reactions than other sugars.
Many commentators on the sugar controversies have suggested a novel proposal, which is to avoid all sweeteners whenever possible. Rely on fruit for that sweet taste you crave and you will not worry about depleting vitamins and minerals. Fruit contains natural antioxidants, which will also help to counteract the negative consequences of eating other sugars.
Children become easily accustomed to foods in their diets. Feeding kids sweet foods will lead to more sweet cravings. Children are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of chemical additives, so avoid artificial sweeteners in kids’ diets. For an excellent discussion of sweets, and other children’s nutritional issues, see William Sears and Martha Sears, The Family Nutrition Book, Little Brown, 1999.
What are (relatively) safe sweeteners?
Raw honey (Do not give any honey to infants under 12 months of age because they cannot defend themselves against the presence of botulinum spores)
Organic raw sugar (sucrose)
Organic maple syrup
Xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol
Sweeteners to avoid
Refined sugar (sucrose)
Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup
Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
Saccharine (Sweet ‘N Low)