Artificial or natural sweeteners: which one is the best choice?  The low-down on 14 low-glycemic sweeteners

Artificial or natural sweeteners: which one is the best choice?

For several decades, there's a disturbing trend in which the majority of the population has gained weight as a result of overeating and/or underexercising.
Most experts agree on how a big part of the over consumption is caused by ever larger portion sizes of junkfood. Junkfood is very cheap to make, as it can be stored for such a long period of time and lacks in the most expensive macro nutrient: protein and has virtually zero micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals and most of all, the precious antioxidants we derive from vegetables and fruits.

An ongoing discussion is how to stimulate lower calorie intake as well as making exercise more attractive.

Do we guide the general public by offering colour codes, in which green colour signifies the 'right' choice and a red colour the 'wrong' one, whatever the guidance may be. Don't get me started either on fake margarine being promoted and real butter and coconut oil being damned as 'evil saturated fats'.

Or do we punish the industry by banning over-sized junkfood? It isn't even so long ago when the standard sized bottle of lemonade was 'only' 1 litre or less! Now 2 litres is quickly becoming the norm. 

A few weeks ago the Dutch government published her decision to stimulate the choice for lower- and zero calorie drinks by lowering the taxation on mineral water as well as that of artificially sweetened soft drinks.

In the light of the upcoming 50% increase of taxation on all foods from 6% to 9% as of January 1, 2019, the majority of people was outraged!
How is it possible outright beneficial health foods such as vegetables and fruits aren't subsidized and get 0% taxation?

A lot of people stipulated how artificial sweeteners are not good for your health, while others reassuringly sussed these complaints, stating that e.g. aspartame has been researched for decades and barely any negative side-effects have been reported.

Hence why we are on a quest to find out more about low-glycemic low-caloric sweeteners. Are they good substitutes for real sugar?

Why do non-caloric sweeteners have zero calories?

To understand how something can taste sweet and yet add no calories to the diet, we should address two questions. First, what are calories, nutritionally speaking? Second, what constitutes a sweet taste?

Calories are a measure of the energy made available when we digest and metabolize food. The energy drives the replacement of molecules we have lost, enables us to move, and so forth; we store excess energy as fat. A substance that we do not metabolize releases no energy it "has no calories" and is not a food.

A sweet taste results from the binding of molecules to specific receptor proteins in our taste buds. Sweet-taste-sensory cells in the taste buds have these receptor protein molecules embedded in their plasma membranes. Binding of a molecule to a receptor protein initiates a cascade of events within the taste-sensory cell that eventually releases a signaling molecule to an adjoining sensory neuron, causing the neuron to send impulses to the brain. Within the brain, these signals derived from the taste bud cause the actual sensation of sweetness. Other sensory cells, with different receptor proteins, report on other taste modalities: salty, sour, bitter, and "umami" (also referred to as glutamate, or "meat").

The events that occur between binding by the "sweet receptor" and the sensation in the brain have nothing to do with whether a molecule can be metabolized to yield energy and thus "has calories." The only factor in taste is whether the molecule can bind to the receptor.

So, what determines this binding ability? A protein, dubbed T1r3, appears to be the primary receptor for sweet substances. Like all receptor proteins, T1r3 has a well-defined "pocket" where smaller molecules may enter and perhaps bind. Binding depends on a good fit of molecular shape and the presence of groups that interact chemically to stabilize binding.

Sucrose, the sugar in the sugar bowl, binds fairly well to T1r3 and hence leads to a sweet sensation in the brain. Enzymes readily metabolize sucrose, releasing energy and, if our diet contains excess calories, causing fat deposition.

Saccharin, once the most popular artificial sweetener, binds to T1r3 much more strongly than does sucrose, owing to the differing structures of the two molecules. Therefore, we sense saccharin as being approximately 300 times as sweet as the same amount of sucrose. Moreover, saccharin passes through the body without being metabolized and thus has no caloric content.

Aspartame, currently the most-used artificial sweetener, also binds to T1r3 more strongly than sucrose does and tastes nearly 200 times as sweet.
Unlike saccharin, however, aspartame is metabolized, yielding methanol and the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Further metabolism of these products does yield calories, but far fewer than those obtained from the amount of sucrose required to produce the same sweetening effect.

Now we know there doesn't need to be a relation between a sweet flavour and energy content, let's move on to low-glycemic sweeteners that are often preferred by only one of two 'camps' depending on what priorities they have.

Zero calories or all-natural?

On one side, you have the 'zero calorie' camp which is anti-carb, anti-calorie, and anti-sugar.
Their main issue is that when we consume too much sugar, it causes our blood sugar to spike and crash, our bodies to build up an insulin resistance by which we can no longer properly metabolize sugar, storing it as fat instead, and ultimately causes us to rapidly gain weight.
Their solution is to replace sugars with artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. Because these sweeteners stimulate your sweet-taste signals without being broken down by your body, they allow products to maintain an appealing taste without calorically widening your waist or adding to your health issues.
The 'all-natural' camp however, has doubts whether these sweeteners really don't cause health issues.

On the other side, you have the 'all-natural' camp which prefers plant-based sweeteners. Their main issue is that food is way too processed and artificial. It's because added sugars are refined into their simplest form that we gain weight so easily; when these added sugars are extracted from their sources (like fructose from fruit), they lack both their fiber, which helps slow digestion, preventing blood-glucose spikes, insulin spikes and liver damage, as well as their beneficial antioxidants, essential vitamins, and minerals—truly making them 'empty calories.'
If you're going to sweeten your food, you should use products in their natural forms or those that are naturally produced, so they retain their appealing nutrients.
This time, the other 'zero calorie' camp, accuses the 'all-natural' camp to close its eyes to the high caloric content of some of those sweeteners. Just because these sweeteners are natural doesn't mean they're health foods.

Both are right when it comes to the evils of added sweeteners, but whose solution is better?

Why fructose is not a good choice

For a long time it was thought fructose was the better choice versus regular sugar, because of their low glycemic index value.
However, fructose must be metabolized in the liver and is not as easily used as an energy source but instead stored as fat (actually as glycerol) in fat cells.
Countless studies in humans have shown that high doses of fructose can result in insulin resistance, high cholesterol and triglycerides, belly fat accumulation, and elevated blood pressure—in as little as 10 weeks.
For this reason, high-fructose sweeteners are a poor choice, even when they are all-natural fruit syrups.

We present to you several different low-GI choices, ranked from high to low in alphabetical order.

14 Low-GI sweeteners  

Honey (GI=50; all-natural)

Honey is a combination of 5 different sugars, but it's primarily fructose (50 percent) and glucose (44 percent). Because the fructose is "free" and there's more of it, gram for gram honey tastes sweeter than sugar, so you end up using less of it. It contains trace amounts of proteins, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, of which many are beneficial polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenoids.
A study suggested that honey's moderate levels of fructose are beneficial in slowing down the rate of digestion, which ultimately contribute to its glucose-lowering effect.
Not to mention, its antioxidants can both lessen harmful oxidative stress in the pancreas, kidney, and liver as well as act as prevent the growth of pathogens that cause ulcers, and its high levels of oligofructose can increase levels of the beneficial gut bacteria, bifidobacteria, of which low levels have been tied to obesity. This makes honey a perfect companion for yoghurt.

Medjool Dates (GI=42; all-natural)

Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree (which also provides us with palm sugar). Just under 90 percent of the carbs in dates are from sugar, which is split nearly 50/50 between glucose and fructose. Luckily, the final 10 percent of carbs are mostly fiber, which should help stabilize blood glucose levels. Adding dates to your diet can significantly increase the total phenols and vitamin C content of your food. Dates also contain muscle-relaxing potassium and copper, a mineral essential to scavenging free radicals from your body, along with iron and B vitamins. To use dates as a sweetener, soak them for 10 minutes to soften the skin. Remove the pit and then blend in a food processor to make a paste.

Coconut Sugar (GI=35; all-natural)

Coconut (palm) sugar is derived from the nectar of coconut tree blossoms—which, unfortunately, means the blossoms can no longer produce coconuts once it's harvested. The manufacturing process is quite natural, allowing the water to evaporate from the syrup at a low temperature so the leftover sugars crystallize.
It tastes similar to brown sugar, which is why many use it as an alternative in baked goods. Coconut Palm Sugar contains mainly sucrose (75-80%). It scores well on the glycemic index list, at 35, which is due to the small amount of soluble fiber (inulin) present. Compared to other nutritive sweeteners, coconut sugar is highest in potassium, nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, sulfur, and even provides some Vitamin C.

Agave Syrup (GI=15; almost-natural)

Agave is considered a modified sugar because the sugars aren't available through a simple extraction. Agave juice is extracted from the core of the plant, it's filtered, and then heated to break the longer chains (polysaccharides) of sugars into simple sugars. And these sugars are mostly fructose.
Like, 90 percent fructose, which can be worse than most high fructose corn syrups. And while some argue agave is still a healthier sweetener because it's sweeter than sugar and doesn't spike your blood sugar, studies suggest we really should be worried about the high fructose content, which is associated with health issues like liver and kidney disease, high blood pressure, and even signs of premature aging.

Xylitol (GI=12; almost-natural, almost zero-cal)

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol you can find in chewing gums that occurs naturally in strawberries, mushrooms and other fruits and vegetables, most commonly extracted from the pulp of a birch tree.
Unlike real sugar, sugar alcohols don't encourage cavity-causing bacteria. Many studies have found that xylitol can actually reduce the risk of cavities and dental decay that's associated with high intakes of sugar, and other studies show that it may improve bone density, suggesting it can play a role in preventing osteoporosis. Unfortunately, as with many sugar alcohols, it has a low digestive tolerance, and may cause laxative-like side effects in high doses.

Acesulfame K (GI=0; zero-cal)

A synthetic sweetener, acesulfame K has been linked to cancer in rodent studies. Because it's not too sweet and has a bitter taste, it's almost always combined with sucralose when manufacturers use it as a sweetener. This way, they each cancel out each other's bitterness.
Studies have found that artificial sweeteners like this one can cause glucose intolerance, which ultimately results in confused hormones and weight gain.

Aspartame (GI=0; zero-cal)

This sweetener was typically used in many soft drinks, desserts, and yogurts to lower their calorie and sugar count until much public outcry over its possible dangers.
People who have phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disorder, have a difficult time metabolizing phenylalanine, an amino acid component of aspartame. If you don't have PKU, you won't suffer from the same negative effects—that include brain damage and seizures. However, the Mayo Clinic advises that people avoid consuming this sweetener in high doses. This is because the sweetener can flood your brain with phenylalanine, causing feelings of anxiety and jitteriness.

Erythritol (GI=0; almost-natural, low-to-zero-cal)

The benefit of erythritol is that it doesn't cause the same digestive problems as other sugar alcohols. Because it's found naturally in many foods that humans have consumed for millennia—grapes, pears, melons, and even mushrooms—our digestive system is familiar with it. It's a popular, low-calorie polyol found naturally in foods that have been consumed by humans for thousands of years. Huge points for having no effect on our blood glucose levels and providing no belly-fat-inducing fructose. What's more, erythritol is an antioxidant polyol so it helps reduce oxidative stress in the body by scavenging free radicals

Inulin (GI=0; almost-natural, low-cal)

Inulin is a slightly sweet carbohydrate classified as a prebiotic soluble fiber, because it passes through the digestive tract without being metabolized until it reaches the colon.
Inulin is found in many root vegetables particularly chicory.
Inulin has a good taste but very low sweetness. It is not really of any use as a sweetener on its own, but because of it's unique properties it is often used in combination with other high-intensity sweeteners.

In the food industry inulin is used to bulk up products, while keeping the calorie count low. inulin is also used to provide fiber in health bars and snacks and added to some infant formula for the health benefits.

Inulin has less than one third the calories of sugar. Inulin has been shown to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon and assist the body's ability to absorb minerals from food, especially of calcium.
Inulin also has medicinal properties as it reduces high levels of triglycerides. Furthermore inulin is also useful in the treatment of constipation, particularly in elderly people.
Inulin is also credited with boosting the immune system, which if true, would really place it in the 'superfood' category.

Although inulin is not a sugar alcohol it has a laxative effect. As it is a fiber, it can cause cramps etc if consumed to excess, so it is best to not consume more than 30 gram per day.
People who suffer from fructose intolerance may not tolerate inulin either, because it is a fructan (fructo-oligosaccharide), it also falls into this category. Symptoms are not too severe, but can be similar to those suffering from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

Inulin is often found in plants with another prebiotic called oligofructose or fructo-oligo-saccharide, which is similar with a shorter molecular chain. Both of these carbohydrates are soluble fibers meaning that they dissolve in water.
They travel through the body undigested until they reach the colon. Here they undergo fermentation and this has a major effect on bacteria in the gut. It tends to promote beneficial bacteria but it also produces gas and can lead to flatulence. However, the body gradually adapts, and with long term use the benefits persist, but the undesirable side effects are reduced.

Lo Han Guo (GI=0, all natural, zero-cal)

Lo Han Guo is also called monk fruit because of its historic cultivation by monks in China. It has been consumed for several hundred years, having been used as a sweetener and a traditional herbal remedy.
This high-potency sweetener is about 200 times sweeter than sugar, so you'll use less of it when adding it to food. This fruit is also full of antioxidants in vitamins, making it a better choice if you're going with zero-calorie sweeteners.

Saccharin (GI=0 ; zero-cal)

Saccharin is a synthetic chemical that is structurally unlike any form of sugar our bodies can metabolize.
However, it still activates our taste buds, and does so at levels 200-700 times the amount sucrose does.
The U.S. National Cancer Institute noted that one of its own studies had found "some evidence of an increased risk of bladder cancer" in heavy saccharin users, "particularly for those who heavily ingested the sweetener".
And "heavy" only meant two or more 250ml servings of diet drinks daily, which we've known people to consume more of.

A 2015 review of all outstanding studies on saccharin concluded that with the degree of inconsistencies in results, people should still be careful about the consumption of this sweetener in terms of toxicity.
If that's not reason enough for you to avoid it, maybe a study that found saccharin consumption in both mice and humans enhances the risk of glucose intolerance by altering our gut microbiome. Researchers found an increase in bad gut bacteria that have previously been associated with type 2 diabetes.

Stevia (GI=0; almost natural, zero-cal)

Stevia is derived from a plant native to South America. It's been shown to help lower blood pressure and level-off blood sugar—making it a great choice as a non-caloric natural sweetener.
Many experts have speculated that because artificial sweeteners don't activate the release of satiety hormones, they may lead people to overeat at their next meal. However, a study in the journal Appetite found that might not be true. The research showed that whether you were healthy and lean or obese, drinking a cup of tea sweetened with regular old sugar caused participants to eat over 300 calories more throughout the day than those who consumed stevia. What's more, stevia actually helped minimize spikes in blood glucose and insulin levels after the meal. Watch out for how much you're using, the acceptable daily intake established by the FDA is no more than 9 packets.

Sucralose (GI=0, zero-cal)

Sucralose is a sweetener that's made from sugar, but the sucrose-molecule has been tweaked just enough that the resulting sucralose molecule still activates your sweetness-sensors, but your body can no longer break it down, resulting in zero calories. Sucralose also doesn't alert your body that you're consuming a food. This shouldn't be a problem when used to sweeten nutrient dense foods such as protein shakes, which can provide your body with satiety signals, but it will be if you're consuming a soft drink made up of potentially harmful additives.

The only fly in the ointment is that a recent study showed how sucralose could cause leukemia in male mice.
However, it was decided that the risk posed by overconsumption of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, far outweighs the cancer risk posed by sucralose and most other artificial sweeteners.

Ribose (GI <0, almost natural, zero-cal)

Although ribose is a sugar and therefore can be used as an energy source, ribose is dramatically different from other sugars. Although ribose is essential for energy production, the body does not recognize it as a fuel, so it actually is of no caloric value to humans.
While other sugars increase blood glucose levels, stimulate large spikes in insulin secretion, and hasten cellular fat deposition, ribose does not. Taken alone, ribose actually causes a small, transient decrease in blood sugar levels. When taken with other carbohydrates ribose helps modulate blood sugar spiking.

Ribose is a naturally occurring sugar made in the body from glucose and is an essential component of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), the compound that stores and delivers energy in all cells. Ribose also occurs in RNA (ribonucleic acid), one of the main information-carriers of living organisms. Because ATP is rapidly used by muscles in high-intensity workouts and because RNA is important in protein synthesis, ribose supplements and energy drinks containing ribose are being promoted for energy enhancement and better exercise performance. The supplements are said to speed muscle tissue recovery after exercise, and limit post-exercise fatigue.

Ribose supplements haven’t been extensively studied, but emerging evidence does suggest that they benefit patients with congestive heart failure, a serious condition in which the heart cannot pump sufficient blood to meet the body’s circulatory needs. In a study, ribose appears to improve heart function and quality of life among these patients by increasing levels and availability of ATP. Patients with congestive heart failure (or other forms of heart disease) should discuss ribose supplementation with their physicians. The supplements appear safe and side effects, if any, are minimal: lightheadedness and mild diarrhea. The maximum recommended dose is five grams three times a day, taken with food.

Some evidence also indicates that ribose may ease the pain and fatigue of patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Which sweetener is best for me?

The anser is: it depends!
If you are healthy and rarely consume baked goodies or other 'empty' calorie foods, you may be be able to can enjoy all-natural moderate to high calorie sweeteners. If so, you may consider honey as your favourite sweetener and eat some medjool dates instead of candy. We advise you to steer clear of higher fructose sweeteners such as agave syrup.

When you are keen to take advantage of health benefits from some sweeteners, try out xylitol when you want to limit tooth decay, take inulin to improve your gut flora, or ribose (along with creatine) when you are an athlete or have heart problems.

However, when you have a persistent sweet tooth, while you are also trying to lose weight and are worried about the possible negative effects of artificial sweeteners on your gut flora, you may be most interested in harmless (almost) natural sweeteners like lo han guo, erythritol or stevia.
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