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The human body needs a certain amount of salt, but we do not need refined sugar. This type of sugar only provides calories and has no nutritional value.
However, not everyone needs to quit sugar. Most healthy people can get away with occasionally adding sugar to their diets for flavor.
So are there any sweeteners or sugars that are less harmful or even beneficial? The answer is yes.
‘Sugar Substitute’ Is Not Necessarily a Good Sugar Substitute
When it comes to reducing sugar intake, many people first think of sugar substitutes. While replacing sugar with “sugar substitutes” sounds wonderful, artificial sweeteners should be chosen carefully.
Sugar substitutes can be divided into artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners—the former are synthesized from chemicals, while the latter are obtained by fermentation or plant extraction.
“Zero-calorie” artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin have adverse effects on the body and can lead to metabolic syndromes such as insulin resistance and diabetes. There are three mechanisms by which artificial sweeteners impact metabolic function:
- Interfere with glycemic control and energy homeostasis
- Disrupt gut microbiota and induce glucose intolerance
- Interact with sweet taste receptors expressed in the digestive system, thereby interfering with glucose absorption and insulin secretion
In addition, a study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2021 proved that the artificial sweetener (aspartame, sucralose, or saccharin) in two cans of sugar-free drinks was sufficient to turn normal and healthy gut bacteria into pathogenic bacteria that invade the body’s intestinal epithelial cells.
The types of sugar substitutes used in major brands in the U.S. artificial sweetener market are as follows:
- Sucralose: Splenda
- Aspartame: NutraSweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin
- Saccharin: Sweet’N Low, Necta Sweet, and Sweet Twin
In the product ingredient list, the sugar substitute numbers 950, 951, 952, and 954 represent acesulfame potassium, aspartame, cyclamate, and saccharin, respectively.
Stevia and Monk Fruit Sweeteners Are Less Harmful to the Human Body
In contrast, some sugar substitutes derived from natural plants are less harmful to our bodies. For example, stevia and monk fruit are both natural sweeteners.
Stevia is a sweetening ingredient extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana. It has zero calories and does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels. It may be a good sugar substitute for diabetics and obese people.
A meta-analysis of nine studies with 756 participants showed that the intake of stevia can significantly reduce blood pressure and fasting blood glucose; the blood pressure decreased by an average of 2.98 mm Hg and the largest reduction was 6.23 mm Hg.
In fact, previous studies have shown that stevia can stabilize insulin levels.
It is worth noting, however, that stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
A review article published in Scientific Reports indicated that monk fruit could be the second-best natural sweetener after stevia.
Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from the fruit of Luo Han Guo. Current studies have found that it has anti-tumor, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidative properties.
It is also zero-calorie and will not be absorbed and metabolized by the body, so it will not affect blood sugar and cause obesity.
Monk fruit sweetener is a sugar substitute suitable for a wide range of people; its sweetness is relatively pure, close to that of white sugar. In addition, monk fruit sweetener can inhibit the growth of Streptococcus mutans and reduce its acid production and adhesion ability, which is beneficial to our oral health.
Stevia in the Raw, Pure Via, Truvia, and other sugar substitute brands use stevia in their recipes, while Monk Fruit in the Raw, Lakanto, etc., use monk fruit sweetener as raw material.
Natural Sweetener Products Have Other Ingredients Mixed In
However, it is worth noting that the sweetness of stevia and monk fruit sweeteners reach or even exceeds 300 times that of sugar. Due to various reasons such as taste, usability (difficulty of dosage control), cooking effect, and pricing, these sweetener products are usually mixed with other ingredients, even sugar itself (such as sucrose and glucose).
Stevia or monk fruit sweetener products labeled “sugar-free” are also mixed with many other types of sugar substitutes. Erythritol is one of the more common ingredients, and it generally accounts for up to 99 percent of the ingredients in these products.
According to a 2023 Nutrients paper, erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol that is about 70 percent as sweet as sucrose. Sugar alcohols are also called hydrogenated sugars; substances like xylitol, sorbitol, and mannitol are all sugar alcohols. Similar to xylitol, with which people are more familiar, erythritol is also produced through microbial fermentation.
Compared with xylitol, erythritol is less irritating to the human digestive tract and has a lower rate of adverse reactions. According to a paper in the British Journal of Nutrition, only about 10 percent of erythritol enters the colon, while 90 percent is absorbed by the body and excreted through urine without being utilized by cells. At present, erythritol has not been found to be harmful in human studies.
A clinical study published in June 2021 reported that healthy subjects who received erythritol ranging from 10 to 50 grams had no significant changes in blood glucose, insulin, glucagon, blood lipids, and uric acid. The secretion of gut hormones for satiety increased in the subjects, indicating that erythritol may also reduce appetite. Another human study showed a significant reduction in serum ghrelin and an increase in satiety after consumption of an erythritol-sweetened beverage compared to aspartame, but this study only involved nonobese subjects.
Increased nausea and borborygmi (the sound made in your stomach or intestines when gas or fluid moves through them) have been reported with the consumption of a single oral dose of 50 grams of erythritol. While it seems unlikely that erythritol will be fermented in the gut, as stated in the British Journal of Nutrition paper, it is not known whether long-term consumption of erythritol could lead to an imbalance in the gut microbiota, and according to the Nurtients paper, the effect of erythritol on body weight and risk for metabolic diseases remains to be discovered.
In addition to these almost calorie-free plant-derived sweeteners, there are also naturally occurring sugars. They too can sweeten our diets and offer health benefits when used in the right amounts.
Honey Can Fight the Flu and COVID-19
Honey is made up of about 82 percent carbohydrates and 17 percent water—of the carbohydrates, fructose accounts for about 40 percent, and glucose accounts for 30 percent. It also contains 4 to 5 percent fructooligosaccharides, which are probiotic agents. The physicochemical properties of honey can vary depending on the botanical sources, so its glycemic index (GI) varies between 32 and 85.
Honey contains about 180 different substances, including organic acids, enzymes, proteins, amino acids, minerals, vitamins, etc.
Compared with processed honey that has been sterilized at high temperatures, raw honey retains more nutrients. In particular, probiotics such as Lactobacillus and amylase are retained. Raw honey is also generally considered more nutritious and provides more health benefits.
A systematic review and meta-analysis study published in the journal Nutrition Reviews in 2022 showed that within a healthy dietary pattern, eating unprocessed raw honey provided better blood glucose and lipid control compared with eating processed honey. The subjects’ fasting glucose decreased by 1.05 mmol/L, total cholesterol decreased by 0.61 mmol/L, fasting triglycerides decreased by 0.27 mmol/L, and HDL cholesterol increased by 0.11 mmol/L. These benefits were not seen in people who consumed processed honey.
Because of its broad spectrum activity against pathogenic bacteria, honey has been used for wound healing since ancient times.
An in vitro experiment found that honey can kill the influenza virus. The study tested five common kinds of honey, including manuka honey, buckwheat honey, honeydew honey, etc., and found that they all demonstrated strong inhibitory activity against influenza. In particular, manuka honey is the most effective type in killing the influenza virus.
In addition, a review study published in 2021 suggested that honey and its main components could combat COVID-19, and may also be effective against infection-induced pulmonary edema and fibrosis. Moreover, honey and its main components can suppress systemic inflammation in patients with COVID-19.
Glucose and fructose in honey can be directly absorbed by cells, and acetylcholine in honey has an anti-fatigue effect, so it can quickly restore physical strength and energy. The organic acids in honey can induce the secretion of digestive juices and promote digestion. Honey is also believed to promote bowel movements, relieve hangovers and protect the liver, moisten the lungs and relieve coughs, and boost immunity.
Traditional Brown Sugar (Non-Centrifugal Sugar) Has Health Benefits
Traditional brown sugar in the East is classified as non-centrifugal sugar (NCS) in the Western world. This refers to sugar obtained by traditional methods of boiling and drying sugarcane juice. Non-centrifugal sugar has different names in different countries, such as muscovado, panela, kokuto, jaggery, cane sugar, (ancient) brown sugar, brown sugar, and red sugar.
White sugar is made by boiling the sap of sugar-containing plants and adding ingredients such as decolorizers, then spinning it at high speed in a centrifuge to separate the sucrose crystals, while the remaining dark brown molasses are discarded. In contrast, brown sugar is reddish-brown because it retains molasses and has been boiled. It generally comes in the form of solid blocks or coarse particles, but some are in liquid form.
Brown sugar is rich in nutrients. It has been used since ancient times for its potential to treat and improve certain diseases, as it is rich in minerals, bioactive compounds, flavonoids, phenolic acids, etc.
Brown sugar contains more iron than refined sugar; it also contains selenium, which is an insulin mimetic. In addition, there are minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc in brown sugar.
Scientists have isolated about six antioxidants from Japanese jaggery (kokuto), including Syringaresinol, Coniferyl alcohol, and sinapyl alcohol.
There are 20 amino acids in brown sugar, among which is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can regulate neurotransmission, promote neuron development and relaxation, and prevent insomnia and depression.
Policosanols are also found in brown sugar and have cholesterol-lowering and lipid-lowering properties.
The conversion of sugar to acetic acid in the stomach increases enzyme activity, which improves digestion and stimulates appetite.
Animal experiments show that brown sugar effectively inhibits chromosomal aberration in cells caused by arsenic, which helps to prevent and treat arsenicosis.
Traditional Chinese medicine believes that brown sugar is a warming and tonifying food. Li Shizhen’s “Compendium of Materia Medica” records that brown sugar has the effect of “harmonizing the spleen and soothing the liver,” while “Truth-Seeking Herbal Foundation” describes that it can “nourish blood, improve blood circulation, and remove obstruction in collaterals.” A similar view is shared in traditional Ayurvedic Indian medicine; it also dictates that brown sugar can treat migraines and throat and lung infections.
In a review article covering 46 studies of non-centrifuged sugars, the most reported effects were immunological (26 percent of all studies), followed by anti-toxicity and cytoprotective effects (22 percent), anticario-genic effects (15 percent), and diabetes and hypertension effects (11 percent).
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