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All sweeteners are not created equal

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People that are trying to become healthier, or those that are obese or overweight often turn to diet drinks as a substitute for sugary drinks. Artificial sweeteners are usually a better choice than high fructose corn syrup, but not that much better. This article discusses the various kinds of sweeteners and the pros and cons of each category.

Sugar is the oldest sweetener. Sugar was once used like salt and other spices. Making sugar the main ingredient in processed foods rapidly increased after WWII as processed foods became an increasing part of our diets. Sugar use has become an addiction, and the rate of incidence of diabetes has proved the adverse effects of over consumption of sugar and other carbohydrates.

There are many sources of sugar. Traditionally sugar came from sugar cane. Today, a large amount of sugar comes from corn as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and from sugar beets. A majority of corn and sugar beets are genetically engineered (GE), which does not impact their caloric value and glycemic index. There are major controversies about the safety of all GE foods.

There are two sugars that deserve some clarification, and show that glycemic index is not the sole variable in choosing a sweetener.

Agave syrup has a very low glycemic index. It does not raise blood sugar. Agave syrup passes through the stomach and then is absorbed in the small intestines. The agave syrup is metabolized in the liver and turned into lipids, where it raises triglycerides creating cardiac issues. Most commercial agave syrup is very similar in fructose content to HFCS, with the fructose source from agave instead of corn.

Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has this to say about agave syrup:

"Agave is almost all fructose, a highly processed sugar with great marketing."

Coconut palm sugar has about the same calorie content as refined sugar. It is healthier because it does contain B vitamins and some useful trace minerals, e.g. iron, calcium, potassium. Coconut sugar also contains a fiber called inulin, which slows the absorption and reduces the glycemic index (GI) to about 35.

The glycemic index (GI) shows a rating from 1 to 100. Pure stevia has a GI of 1. Pure glucose has a GI of 100. High fructose corn syrup has a GI of 87. White sugar (sucrose) has a GI of 80. Corn syrup has a GI of 75 and Turbinado (raw sugar) has a GI of 55. Any sweetener with a GI over 70 is considered to be a high glycemic index sweetener, and it will raise blood sugar levels.

With processed foods, juices, sports drinks and soft drinks, high fructose corn syrup is often the major ingredient. HFCS has no major nutritional value beyond providing calories. The Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University has this to say about diets with high glycemic index foods such as HFCS.

Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus

After a high-glycemic load meal, blood glucose levels rise more rapidly and insulin demand is greater than after a low-glycemic load meal. High blood glucose levels and excessive insulin secretion are thought to contribute to the loss of the insulin-secreting function of the pancreatic beta-cells that leads to irreversible diabetes (6). High dietary glycemic loads have been associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus (DM) in several large prospective studies.”

The conclusion of this study regarding HFCS is:

“When consumed in large quantities on a long-term basis, HFCS is unhealthful and may contribute to other chronic diseases besides type 2 DM, including obesity and cardiovascular disease.”

Cardiovascular Disease

Impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance are known to be risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 DM. In addition to increased blood glucose and insulin concentrations, high dietary glycemic loads are associated with increased serum triglyceride concentrations and decreased HDL cholesterol concentrations; both are risk factors for cardiovascular disease (14, 15). High dietary glycemic loads have also been associated with increased serum levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation that is also a sensitive predictor of cardiovascular disease risk(16). “

Pure stevia has the lowest glycemic index, and it does not contribute to lipids from digestion in the liver. That is the good news. The bad news is that most products labeled as containing stevia have stevia in very small quantities. The bulk of Truvia is erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol or polyol. Erythritol is produced from fermenting glucose with Moniliella pollinis, a yeast, and then by dehydrating the resulting product. There are several versions of Truvia that have a relatively low GI value.

There is one study done in Thailand that concludes that a stevia byproduct may be a carcinogen. The conclusions reached by this study were published by the National Institute of Health (NIH). The overall conclusion was that significant problems occurred when ingestion of the stevia derivatives exceed 80 times the normal daily recommended usage of stevia.

Pure stevia used in a common sense manner appears to be very safe. You can get pure stevia at Trader Joe’s in Columbus. One ounce costs about $10. A serving is 45 milligrams, which provides 622 servings. Stevia with Inulin, product 17682, can be ordered from Puritan’s Pride. You can get three 6 ounce bottles with shipping for about $25. Inulin is a naturally occurring fiber that claims to reduce cholesterol and is beneficial for the digestion system. You can buy a pound of 100% pure stevia powder from Mood and Mind for $42.95 plus shipping.

In conclusion, sugar should be used as a spice and not as a main ingredient. With a very high glycemic index, high fructose corn syrup contributes to obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Saccharin is the safest of the artificial sweeteners. Pure stevia is the best of the natural sweeteners. If you want a stevia product that looks and acts more like sugar, stevia with inulin is a good choice.

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