Artificial vs. natural sweeteners: plant-based alternatives
An introduction to sweeteners: Why isn't our food sweet enough?
The sweeteners that you commonly find in many foods and drinks have been subject to scrutiny in recent years. These sugary and synthetic compound-laden foods and beverages are considered unhealthy and have long contributed to obesity, diabetes, and insulin resistance in civilizations throughout the world.
With this article, we would like to outline the history and negative health effects of added sugars while discussing healthier alternatives that can be you can source primarily from plants. As we navigate the sweet world of artificial and natural sweeteners, our hope is that you find one that is right for you!
The creation of sugary soft drinks and the role of plants
Early soft drinks were known to be much different from the sugary beverages you see in the supermarkets today. Many early soft drinks were sweetened with cane sugar, a plant-based commodity that was commonly sourced from India, China, and southeast Asia in the early 1800s. Kola nuts, which are native to Africa, along with coca leaves from the Erythroxylem coca plant native to South America, are two other popular ingredients that helped create the iconic first version of ‘Coca-Cola’. Notably, the use of coca leaves ceased in Coca-Cola production in the early 1900s. However, these leaves continued to be utilized with the active cocaine compounds extracted and are now exported to pharmaceutical companies solely for medicinal purposes.
The debut of high-fructose corn syrup: friend or foe?
As the consumer market for sweetened beverages expanded and sought more inventive and cost-effective soft drinks, one plant in particular led to the shift to unhealthy artificial sweeteners: corn, which was cultivated in the United States. Corn began to be grown at a quick rate in the United States as it became a staple food item for much of the country. Corn exports from the United States increased dramatically in the early 1900s, at a period when sugary soft drink manufacturing was at an all-time high. As new applications for corn in food, fuel, and animal feed were discovered, one application revolutionized the way we sweeten meals and beverages: high fructose corn syrup. It is now widely utilized as a sugary and calorie-dense filler in foods and beverages around the world.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made of both fructose and glucose. Fructose, found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, is the sweetest naturally occurring carbohydrate known to man. Corn is a well-known and popular source of fructose, a monosaccharide sugar that is mixed with glucose and processed to form HFCS. But this syrup has been criticized for its consumption as it affects your blood sugar levels, promotes insulin resistance, and has proven to contribute to weight gain and obesity. Today, HFCS is regarded as an unhealthy food additive, and its use may have inspired a wave of healthier alternatives to be used as food and beverage sweeteners.
For the love of sweets: plant-based alternatives
There is no need to give up your love of sweets when there are so many healthy choices to consider! One such sweetener is ‘stevia’ which is made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a plant native to South America that has been used for food and medicine for thousands of years. Its effects on blood sugar and insulin levels are known to be far less harmful for diabetics, and it can help you consume less calories while still getting the sweetness you love in foods and beverages. Popular uses for stevia as a sweetener include coffee, tea, breads, baked goods, and desserts. With a unique and highly sweet flavor at a fraction of the calories of regular sugar, stevia may become your new favorite food and beverage sweetener.
Allulose, commonly known as D-allulose or psicose, is a lesser-known plant-based sweetener. Allulose occurs naturally in wheat, corn, and beets and has a substantially lower glycemic index than HFCS and common cane sugar. In case you didn't know, glycemic index is the term used to measure the effect that certain foods have on our blood sugar levels. Foods that have a low glycemic index release elevate blood sugars more gradually, while foods with a high glycemic index lead to quick spikes in blood sugar levels.
While allulose is still relatively new to the consumer market, it is swiftly gaining popularity as a healthy and wholesome ingredient used to sweeten a variety of foods to be enjoyed on a daily basis. While we look for alternatives, several other natural sweeteners can be excellent substitutes for common and unhealthy sugars when they are consumed in moderation. These alternatives are:
- Honey, which is not plant-based, but still considered a much healthier sweetener when eaten in moderation (but not for infants under one year of age);
- Maple syrup, a thick, sugary sap to be gained from the xylem part of certain kinds of maple trees native to North America;
- Molasses, a surprisingly healthy by-product of the manufacturing process of table sugar that is used in many applications, and contains a healthy amount of iron compared to other sweeteners;
- Monk fruit, a plant native to South Asia and China that contains compounds called mogrosides and has long been used in traditional medicine;
- Berries, commonly known to contain healthy antioxidants and fiber (such as blueberries and raspberries) and which are sure to give a healthy sweetness to a variety of foods; and
- Other natural fruit sugars found in fruits such as apples, pears, bananas, grapes, and plums.
In contrast to traditional sugar, concentrating on healthier sweeteners, such as those derived from fruits and vegetables are much more beneficial. They may supply you with plenty of dietary fiber, essential vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants which can help you lead a healthy lifestyle. If you are choosing to try new sugar alternatives, keep in mind that you should do it in moderation.
While sugary foods are not for everyone, those of us with a sweet tooth may want to cut back on sugar and try to discover healthier alternatives to the sweeteners we love (or despise). Many plant-based sweeteners are available to diabetics, the health-conscious, and those of us who are otherwise negatively impacted by the regular use of cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup in our diets. In the future, you may consider using these plant-based sweeteners to make healthier lifestyle choices while still seeking that sugary fix.
For more interesting articles on plant-based food and beverages, keep checking this space.
By Greyson Phillips | 10-May-2022
About the author
Greyson is located in the stunning Pacific Northwest and has recently graduated from Washington State University. He has thoroughly enjoyed his time working in plant research with fruit varieties like apples, cherries, and grapes. Greyson hopes to one day have his own orchard so he might make contributions to plant science and work on the development of the ideal apple pie.
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