Most people enjoy the taste of something sweet now and then. Needing to restrict carbohydrates and particularly sugars for health reasons doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t enjoy something sweet once in a while. You just need to be clever about how you go about it. There are quite a few alternatives to sugar when it comes to sweetening foods and drinks.
Stevia is a herb in the sunflower family the leaves of which contain a variety of substances which taste very sweet, but have no calories or carbohydrates when used to sweeten food and drinks. It has been estimated that stevia is about 300 times as sweet as sucrose, or white table sugar. The two most abundant are stevioside and rebaudioside A and these are extracted and refined into commercial extracts for sale as a sweetener in many countries. Rebaudioside A is considered to provide the best taste with no bitter aftertaste.
In addition to being non-caloric, the studies done to date on Stevia indicate that it could have quite a raft of beneficial effects - antioxidant properties, improving glucose metabolism, revitalising the pancreatic beta cells which produce insulin, improving lipid profiles (cholesterol and triglycerides), stimulating the immune system, anti-tuberculosis activity,improving the solubility of other drugs, and even potentially inhibiting cancer development.
Some people find stevia has an unusual taste at first. It may help to mix it with other sweeteners at first, such as raw sugar, muscovado sugar or xylitol.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which is found naturally in the fibres of many fruits and vegetables. Commercially, it can be extracted from mushrooms, berries and oats as well as from fibrous materials like birch, corn husks and cane sugar bagasse. It has about the same sweetness as sucrose, however, it has 1/3 less calories and a very low glycaemic index of only 13. In addition, Xylitol has been found to be very beneficial for dental health.
All sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol etc can have a laxative effect when consumed in excess. If you are starting to incorporate xylitol into your diet, do so slowly. Start with no more than one teaspoon per day.
- helps to remineralise teeth
- results in a more alkaline saliva
- reduces plaque formation
- inhibits the growth of microbes
- attracts and then starves harmful micro-organisms which usually feed on sugar
- increases the activity of neutrophils , a type of white blood cell which fights many types of bacteria
- may be helpful in preventing or treating osteoporosis as it increases bone density in rats
- may help to prevent ear infections in children
Erythritol is another sugar alcohol which is commonly used in commercial goods as a bulking agent for the delivery of high intensity sweeteners such as stevia. It actually has a glycaemic index value of zero and 95% less calories than sucrose. It does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels and is predominantly absorbed in the small intestines which lessens the laxative effect that can occur with some other sugar alcohols which pass through the large intestine. After absorption into the blood stream, erythritol is mostly excreted intact in the urine. As it cannot be digested for carbohydrate value it has a similar effect on bacteria in the mouth as xylitol does and will not cause tooth decay.
Small amounts of erythritol are found naturally in some foods like grapes, melons and mushrooms as well as some fermented foods like wine, beer, cheese and soy sauce.
Honey is predominantly fructose and glucose with a small amount of other sugars like maltose and sucrose as well. It has a lower glycaemic index than sucrose, though depending upon the variety this can range from 31 to 78. It contains 82 grams of carbohydrate in the form of various sugars per 100 grams. It contains a very small amount of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other compounds which may be beneficial for health.
Agave syrup is manufactured from the agave plant and contains a high percentage of fructose. Isolated fructose is best avoided as a sweetener, as although it does not raise blood sugar nor stimulate the production of insulin, the way it is metabolised increases triglycerides (which women with PCOS are already at risk of) and is preferentially stored as fat, rather than burnt as energy.
Molasses is a byproduct of the cane sugar processing industry. Molasses is present in brown sugar, but not in white sugar, where considerable effort has gone to remove it through a multi-staged boiling process where the pure sugar crystallizes on top of the solution and is removed, leaving a progressively darker and more concentrated molasses syrup. Blackstrap molassses is the richest in flavour as it has been through a boiling and sugar crystal extraction process three times. Molasses contains more nutrients than sugar, it is high in calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron with a tablespoon providing around 20% of the RDA for each of these nutrients. Molasses contains about 75% carbohydrate by weight, over two thirds of which are sugars, with around half being sucrose and a quarter each from glucose and fructose.
Munro IC, Berndt WO, Borzelleca JF, Flamm G, Lynch BS, Kennepohl E, Bär EA, & Modderman J. (1998) Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data. Food and chemical toxicology : an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, 36(12), 1139-74. PMID: 9862657
“Nutrient data for 19304, Molasses”. USDA National Agricultural Library. Retrieved 25 March 2013.