Did you know that not all sweeteners are made equal? Sweeteners range in nutritional value, and they all work differently in the body. Have you ever seen a label that said “sugar-free, no artificial sweeteners, ” but the product still tastes sweet? Here is the truth about the sweeteners in our food. Additionally, we’ll also cover some alternative sugars.
What’s the difference between sugar-free and no-added sweeteners?
According to the FDA, “sugar-free” means that one serving has less than a half a gram of added or naturally occurring sugar.
On the other hand, a product can have “no-added sugar” whilst still having naturally occurring fructose (i.e sugar in fruit) (Surajeet, Patra, MD).
Finally, something can be sugar-free and still contain artificial sweeteners like sucralose aka Splenda. So, how can a juice that tastes sweet be “sugar-free?” Well, have you ever seen the words “contains 0% juice” on the back of the label? In many cases, the absence of juice allows the beverage to have no fructose, a sugar. Furthermore, you might also see the words sucralose or another artificial sweetener on the ingredient list. When something has 0% juice and includes artificial sweeteners, a fruit drink can easily be “sugar-free” (Surajeet, Patra, MD.)
So, what’s the difference between fruit sugar (fructose) and table sugar?
Photocred: Encyclopedia Britannica
Table sugar (sucrose) is also another source of fructose. Sucrose is a molecule made of both glucose and fructose. Table sugar is broken down quicker than fructose and often causes a spike in blood sugar or a “sugar rush.”
Having too much sugar in the blood for long periods of time can cause hyperglycemia and other health risks. But, unlike sucrose, fructose does not require insulin to be absorbed and therefore has a low impact on blood sugar levels. Insulin is a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose or sugar in the blood. Insulin helps move sugars to cells so they can be used as energy (Rippe; Angelpoulos, Cardiologist, 2013).
Depending on its source, fructose can be a natural sugar or an added sugar. It is considered a natural sugar when we consume it directly from plants. Research shows that naturally occurring fructose found in whole foods do not have a harmful effect on health when eaten according to guidelines (Kraft, Natalie, RDN 2022). On the other hand, it is considered an added sugar when fructose-containing sugars like high fructose corn syrup have been added during manufacturing (AllRecipes, 2021).
While fructose has a lower impact on blood sugar, too much fructose as added sugar can have detrimental effects (Lustig, MD Endocrinologist, The Guardian. 2013).
Is high-fructose corn syrup bad?
Photocred: Medical News Today
High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from cornstarch. It’s half sucrose and half fructose. During processing, the glucose (another type of sugar commonly found in starches) in the corn starch gets converted to fructose. High fructose corn syrup is largely found in soft drinks as a cheaper alternative to sucrose.
As mentioned before, high fructose corn syrup is half sucrose and half fructose. Manufacturers can also produce HFCS that has 90 percent fructose. When it has that much fructose, it can be put through additional processing to crystallize the syrup. After the crystals are dried, the resulting product is crystalline fructose which is 100 percent pure fructose (Hartford Healthcare, 2023).
So is natural fructose such as fruit the same as eating something with crystalline fructose?
Photocred: Dallan Stars Trading Co
In contrast to crystalline fructose or high fructose corn syrup, fruit has many other components that allow it to be digested differently. For example, ”A soda has about as much sugar as three or four oranges. And unlike soda, oranges include fiber, which slows down the rate at which the sugars are digested, and it has phytochemicals that counteract inflammation. As opposed to drinking a can of coke, it would also take quite a bit longer to eat four oranges. Thus, the speed of ingestion can help overwhelm the body’s ability to process sugars” (Butler, Natalie.RD Healthline, 2021).
Fruit also has a host of other health benefits. “Fruits are an excellent source of essential vitamins and minerals, and they are high in fiber. Fruits also provide a wide range of health-boosting antioxidants, including flavonoids. Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce a person's risk of developing certain health issuers” (Butler, Natalie. RD Healthline, 2021).
In simple terms, fruit is a much more “balanced” and “helpful” food than soda. Fruit helps to support the body while to some, soda is just fun to drink. In addition to fruit, here are some other ingredients that work as sweeteners.
Photcred: 100% pure
Licorice root is often used as a sweetener in beverages, candy, and medicine. It is 50 times sweeter than sugar. Moreover, licorice root contains over 300 chemical compounds and flavonoids which are known to have anti-inflammatory effects (Baby, Dany, MD. WebMD, 2022). Although licorice root is generally considered safe as a food ingredient, it can cause serious side effects, including increased blood pressure and decreased potassium levels when consumed in large amounts or for long periods of time (Baby, Dany, MD. WebMD, 2022).
You can get it in powder form. The taste is sweet and slightly bitter. You can bake with it, cook with it, and add it to teas. If sugar hurts your stomach or gives you a headache, licorice root might be a great alternative to sugar.
Monkfruit sugar has been around for centuries and was first used by traditional Chinese medicine, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) didn’t approve its use as a sweetener until 2010 (Brown, Jane. 2019, PhD). “ The sweetener is created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit and crushing it to collect the juice, which is then dried into a concentrated powder (Brown, Jane. 2019, PhD).”
Monk fruit contains natural sugars, mainly fructose and glucose. However, these are not responsible for monkfruit’s sweetness. Monkfruit get its sweetness from unique antioxidants called mogrosides” (Brown, Jane. 2019, PhD).
Coconut sugar actually retains many of the nutrients found in the coconut palm.
Coconut sugar has many minerals iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, fatty acids, and antioxidants. It also contains fiber called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption (Gunnars, Kris, BSc. 2018).
So, what’s the verdict on sugar?
There is no one-size fits all answer to this. Overall, “eating sugar stimulates pathways in the brain associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. Happiness and fulfillment are also very important parts of our diet" (Avena; Bartley. 2007).
“A large systematic review from 2020 (Plos, 2020) examined 119 studies about the connection between food enjoyment and a healthy diet. Fifty-seven percent of the studies found favorable associations between eating pleasure and dietary outcomes (Garone, Sarah. 2022).” Likewise, everything must be done in moderation, and enjoyment is very important to health as well. But, speak to your physician about what sugar intake, if any, is right for you.
Written by Kerri Hardy
This is not medical advice. Please speak to your doctor about what is right for you.
Butler, Natalie, RD
Surajeet, Patra, MD.
Brown, Jane, PhD. 2019.
Gunnars, Kris, BSc. 2018
Olsen, Natalie, RD.
Avena, Nicole, MD. Hoebel, Bartley, MD.
PLOS ONE medical journal, 2020