The human body loves sweetness, and we become more sensitive to sweet foods as we get older. This can result in a lifelong struggle with weight gain, which brings us to the question, “How can we use sweeteners to help control appetite and promote weight loss?”
The explosion of popularity of "natural" sweeteners has been documented by the large number of high-profile commercials that have aired on television. Today, there is an incredible variety of "natural" sweeteners available to consumers, with the most popular choices being stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol.
What are sweeteners?
Sweeteners are substances used to enhance the taste and shelf life of food products.
Sweet balances bitter, sour and salty, and most people prefer sweet flavors.
Due to their osmolarity (solvent concentration), sweeteners generally inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi.
Sugar occurs naturally in many plant foods; the most common sweeteners are obtained by processing these plants (such as agave, maple, sugar cane, coconut, sugar beet, and corn) to extract and condense the sugars. In the case of honey, bees extract the nectar from flowers and process it for us.
For example, we make maple syrup by collecting sap from the trees as it begins to flow in the spring, when the weather gets warmer. We then boil most of the liquid until we have a highly condensed sugar solution. You can also make maple sugar (crystallized syrup) by simply removing all the moisture.
In this article, we focus on sweeteners that are natural (i.e. of plant origin) and not artificial (i.e. produced in a laboratory).
It is usually a combination of glucose, fructose or sucrose.
A brief history of sweetening
Honey is probably the first natural sweetener we added to food/drink. But we probably didn’t eat it often – after all, you had to put your hand in the hive for it, and it was often only available in the warmer months.
The indigenous peoples of North America harvested the sap from the trees to make syrup, which they used as food and medicine, a skill they later taught to the English and French settlers.
Before the advent of the refrigerator, people dried fruit, soaked it in alcohol or boiled it in a condensed liquid (such as syrup or jam) to preserve it. These pickled fruits were often used as sweeteners.
But by far the greatest change in human nutrition has been the cultivation of and trade in sugarcane and refined sugar.
Around 6000 b. In some parts of South Asia, farmers have started growing sugarcane. According to some sources, granulated sugar was already used in India about 5000 years ago.
Arab traders introduced sugar to the region around the year 800. The cultivated plant quickly became established in the Mediterranean region, in Mesopotamia, Egypt, North Africa and Spain.
The colonizers brought sugarcane to the tropical areas they explored and colonized. Sugar cane has become a valuable cash crop (usually harvested with slave labor) in warm climates around the world. Trade records show, for example, that brown sugar and molasses made up more than 10% of the food imported into England from tropical countries in 1700.
After the establishment of the first sugar factory in England in 1544, the British, compared to the rest of Europe, became large consumers of sugar and consumed large quantities of sweet tea, rum punch, malt and malt liquor.
Corn sweeteners did not appear in foods until the 1920s. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was not discovered until 1971. In 1982, as the cost of imported sugar skyrocketed, it became cheaper to sweeten food/drinks with domestic HFCS.
Today, beet sugar accounts for about 30% of all granulated sugar in the world.
Why are sweeteners so important?
In the past, the consumption of sweeteners was limited to fruit and honey, although people in tropical regions could also use sugar cane.
Since 1970, the total energy consumption of all sweeteners has increased by 14%. Added sweeteners now account for almost 20% of our food. Yes, this means that almost a fifth of the food and drink we consume contains sweeteners.
How much sugar is in your lemonade?
Of all the carbohydrate products we consume, 32% are sweeteners. Let’s hope the other 68% is made up of quinoa and buckwheat.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
The development of HFCS has been one of the most significant changes in our diet over the past century.
HFCS is actually a combination of fructose and glucose, and there are different types of HFCS depending on the fructose content.
These different types are named for the ratio of fructose to glucose they contain. Thus, HFCS-50 is 50% fructose; HFCS-90 is 90% fructose. HFCS-50 is about as sweet as domestic sugar, which also consists of glucose and fructose (as sucrose).
HFCS in the US sweetener supply
Extensive research over the past two decades has revealed the large number of added sweeteners in food. Consumption of HFCS increased in the 1980s and 1990s only because it was used as a substitute for domestic sugar.
In fact, the consumption of HFCS has declined in recent years. And for those who like correlations: Body fat continues to increase in North America. So while some may claim that HFCS is the culprit in increasing body fat, this is not entirely true.
Still, it’s hard to see how the tendency to consume sweeteners benefits us.
What you should know
Natural = healthy ?
Technically, sugars are natural in the sense that they come from plants (or animals, in the case of sugars like lactose). However, the purification process leads to a chemical composition that is not natural (from our body’s point of view).
So just because sugar comes from plants doesn’t mean it’s healthy, especially in large quantities.
For example, if you eat 5 bananas, you get 85g of sugar. This is 3/4 cup of sugar. (In fact, eating too many fructose-containing foods, like sweet fruit, can also cause diarrhea – the fructose combines with fiber and water in the gut to create a perfect storm.)
However, this does not mean that we should be afraid of the small amounts of sugar that naturally occur in their original form – for example, in an apple or a carrot.
One of the most important things to understand about sweeteners is that their chemical structure affects how the body processes and stores them. (See All About Carbohydrates and All About Fructose for more information).
As the table below shows, different sweeteners have different proportions of sugars.
For example, although honey and maple syrup are both natural, they have completely different sugar type profiles. Honey consists of about 50% fructose, while maple syrup consists mainly of sucrose.
Ratio of sugars in ordinary sweeteners
In a sense, sugar is sugar, and there is no difference between sucrose from sugarcane and sucrose from your sugar bowl. However, it is important to know that different sugars also work differently in the body.
What theglycaemic index doesn’t tell you
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food is broken down in the body into glucose. Although fruits and vegetables can be broken down to glucose over time, they have a low GI.
Some sweeteners also have a low GI. Here are the GI and glycemic load (GL) of the various sweeteners:
|Glycaemic index||Glycaemic load|
In most cases, a low GI is considered healthy – and this is usually the case with foods like cabbage and black beans. Foods rich in fiber, fat, protein and complex carbohydrates are digested slowly. They are not quickly converted to glucose, so their GI is low.
Why do many people claim that natural sweeteners like honey and agave or dried fruits like dates are healthier and/or better for people like diabetics?
This preference is in fact a misunderstanding of the meaning and operation of the GI index.
Agave has a very low glycemic index (GI). However, the reason for agave’s low GI is its extremely high fructose content. Fructose has a low GI because it is completely absorbed by the liver almost immediately without stimulating insulin secretion.
Once in the liver, fructose restores liver glycogen and then enters the pathways that supply substances for fat production. Fructose that is not needed for liver glycogen enters the bloodstream as fat.
Therefore, large amounts of fructose flooding the liver contribute to fat production.
This may explain why diets high in fructose (more than 50 grams per day) are associated with high blood triglyceride levels, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Fructose can also affect satiety signals. For more information, see the article All about fructose.
Fructose and its drawbacks
According to some experts, chronic consumption of more than 50 grams of fructose per day leads to the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. And it gets worse the more we consume.
Consumption of less than 50 grams per day, on the other hand, does not seem to have any negative health effects.
To get 50 grams of fructose, one would have to consume either 100 grams of domestic sugar, 91 grams of HFCS, or 60 grams of agave.
In the case of sweeteners, this equates to about 400 calories of direct sweetener. I think we can all agree that 400 calories of sweetener a day is preparation for bariatric surgery. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, 400 calories makes up almost 25% of your diet.
Making it happen Sweeteners in everyday life
Now let’s translate 50 grams of fructose into real food and drink.
- There are about 50 grams of fructose in 32 pounds of lemonade sweetened with HFCS.
- There are about 56 grams of fructose in 32 pounds of sweetened agave lemonade.
In any case, it is not difficult to save grams of sugar by using sweeteners.
But with whole, unprocessed foods, it’s much more complicated. For example, you’d have to eat about 10 apples… or an unimaginable amount of red beets.
It is still easy to consume too much sugar in processed foods, even those that are not obvious sources of sweeteners (e.g., soft drinks).
Let’s move on to the real world with some examples. Suppose someone eats the following:
|Power||Food consumed||Sugar content|
|Breakfast||Honey Nut Cheerios with sweetened soy milk
Glass of orange juice
|Starter 1||Nutrition bar||25 g|
|Starter 2||Thin and fast glass||34 g|
|Dessert||Bowl of ice cream or low-fat frozen yogurt||30 g|
That’s 134 grams of sugar, and while most of that is household sugar, about 65 grams is made up of fructose. And it’s certainly not a day of food madness in North America. Some people even consider it healthy.
Therefore, large amounts of refined fructose can be harmful to our health. And with a name like HFCS, this product must be loaded.
Agave = healthy food? No
According to the theory that too much fructose kills, agave and honey are worse than HFCS-50 or HFCS-42 (HFCS-90 is not normally used in food, but is used to make HFCS-50 and -42).
I have clients who are not even close to HFCS, but eat 3 servings of a dessert with agave or honey.
Is it better for the health of the planet? Maybe.
Is it better for the health of their bodies? I doubt it. It might be better for them to eat a portion of a dessert they really enjoyed.
But wait, agave is rich in antioxidants after all. Not really. The antioxidant content is actually minimal, as is that of corn syrup and refined sugar.
Justification of all costs
When comparing sweeteners, it seems that quantity is the most important factor in determining our health and body composition.
I mean you can get extra antioxidants from molasses, maple syrup, date sugar and/or honey. But yes, if your main source of antioxidants is a sweetener, you might want to make a deal with me.
Economic and environmental impact of sweeteners
Health aside, which sweetener is better for the planet? Probably agave or honey, because they are the least processed and don’t contain harsh chemicals.
The HFCS supports the subsidization of corn. This is part of a wider system of mismanagement on farms and in agriculture. Moreover, the extraction of HFCS from corn is costly from an environmental point of view.
Why is HFCS used? Mostly money. It is cheap because of subsidies on corn and the cost of sugar imports.
And let’s face it, there is a strong correlation (from my visits to the grocery store) between products containing HFCS and food companies that don’t care about our health/planet. If a product contains HFCS, it is probably a poor quality product that should be consumed regularly in any case.
Thanks to cheap or slave labour in the Caribbean, South American and South Asian colonies, sugar became more accessible to the average consumer from 1500 onwards; previously it had been a luxury product reserved for the upper classes.
In most places, sugar is still produced under poor working conditions. Most sugar comes from developing countries. Workers are not always paid enough for their work and are not always treated humanely.
Fair Trade certification means that workers receive fair wages and fair treatment. Is your sweetener Fairtrade certified?
Summary and recommendations
It doesn’t matter which sweetener you choose, the important thing is the amount.
If sweeteners, from any source, make up more than 5% of your total diet, it’s probably bad news for your heart, blood vessels, waistline and insulin sensitivity.
Let’s say you eat about 2,000 calories a day. 5% of this amount is 100 calories per day. Translation: 25 grams or about 2 tablespoons of added sweeteners.
Also when food or drink tastes very sweet, the appetite regulation is disturbed and we tend to eat more than we need.
Sprinkling date sugar on your oatmeal, adding agave to your green tea or eating a piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving is probably a good thing. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.
From an ecological standpoint, unprocessed sweeteners like agave and honey are best.
Some types of HFCS have been shown to be contaminated with mercury.
Sugar can be fermented to produce alcoholic beverages. The blue agave plant produces a liquid that is turned into tequila through fermentation. Honey can be fermented into mead. Molasses can be used to make rum. Canadians, however, are still dealing with maple syrup drinks.
In 1984, Pepsi and Coke replaced refined sugar with HFCS in their drinks. In the same year, the first Apple Macintosh went on sale.
Syrup is a by-product of sugar processing to which sulphur is usually added as a preservative. It was a very popular place until the end of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, it was the most popular sweetener in the United States. In 1919, a large barrel of molasses exploded at a Boston distillery. This major flood killed 21 people and dumped two million gallons of molasses into the streets of the city.
Honey has antibacterial properties. People have traditionally used it to prevent wound infections, and manuka honey in particular is effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA. (Maybe we should apply the honey to the body instead of injecting it into the body).
Honey tastes different, depending on what the bees have eaten.
Birch syrup (made from birch sap) is also popular in regions such as Scandinavia and northern Canada.
Click here to see the sources of information referenced in this article.
Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and slavery: An economic history of the British West Indies, 1623-1775. Canoe Press, 1994.
Phillips KM, et al. Total antioxidant content of refined sugar alternatives. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109:64-71.
Angelopoulos TJ, et al. Effect of high fructose corn syrup consumption on triglycerides and uric acid. J Nutr 2009;139:1242S-1245S.
Schaefer EJ, et al. Fructose and glucose in the diet have different effects on fat and glucose homeostasis. J Nutr 2009;139:1257S-1262S.
Bray GA. Fructose : Should I be worried? Int J Obes (Lond) 2008;32 Suppl 7:S127-S131.
Melanson KJ, et al. High fructose corn syrup, energy absorption and appetite regulation. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:1738S-1744S.
Brown CM, et al. Sweetened beverages in the pathogenesis of obesity and cardiovascular disease. Int J Obes (Lond) 2008;32 Suppl 6:S28-S34.
Johnson RJ, et al. Hypothesis: Can excessive consumption of fructose and uric acid cause type 2 diabetes? Endocr Rev 2009;30:96-116.
Duffey KJ & Popkin BM. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) : Everything you always wanted to know but were afraid to ask. High fructose corn syrup : Is that what’s for dinner? Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:1722S-1732S.
Anderson G.H. Much ado about high-fructose corn syrup in beverages: the bottom line. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1577-1578.
Sun SZ & Empie MW. No evidence of an association between obesity risk and usual consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in adults – primary analysis of the combined CSFII-1989-1991, CSFII-1994-1998, NHANES III and NHANES 1999-2002 databases. Food Chem Toxicol 2007;45:1523-1536.
Soenen S & Westerterp-Plantenga MS. There is no difference in satiety and energy intake after a preload of high fructose corn syrup, sucrose or milk. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1586-1594.
Forshee RA, et al. A critical review of the evidence regarding high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2007;47:561-582.
Stanhope KL, et al. 24-hour endocrine and metabolic profiles after consumption of fructose-, sucrose-, fructose-, and glucose-sweetened corn syrup beverages during meals. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:1194-1203.
Swarbrick MM, et al. 10-week consumption of fructose-sweetened beverages increases postprandial triacylglycerol and apolipoprotein B concentrations in overweight and obese women. Br J Nutr 2008;100:947-952.
Livesey G & Taylor R. Fructose intake and effects on glycation, plasma triacylglycerol and body weight: a meta-analysis and meta-regression models of intervention studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;88:1419-1437.
Niall M. Beautiful! 2008. Da Capo Press.
Johnson R.J. The Sugar Fix. 2008. Rodale.
Visawadia, Bhavin, Ian Honesett and Martin H. Dunford. Manuka honey spices : An effective treatment for chronic wound infections. British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery 46 no.1 (January 2008) : 55-56.
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