Time to read between the lines on those labels…
Most of us need to work on reducing the amount of sugar we consume on a day-to-day basis. According to the American Heart Association, men should limit their daily intake to 37.5 grams and women should keep it to 25 grams or less. The beverage industry is constantly looking for ways to help us do so without compromising on the sweet taste we’ve come to know and love (not to mention, take care of its own bottom line) by using a variety of “natural” sweeteners. But how much do you really know about the sugar alternatives your downing en masse instead? Let’s take a deeper look into a few popular natural sweetener options out there and how they stack up against traditional sugar.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol and low-calorie sweetener. It does exist naturally in certain fruits, but the kind used by drink manufacturers is industrially produced in a powder form so it can be used more efficiently. While sugar has 4 calories per gram, erythritol only has .24 calories per gram. And it’s 70 percent sweeter than sugar, so you only need a little to go a long way.
However, what the big players in the beverage industry won’t tell you is that the human body can’t process this sugar alcohol. When it’s consumed, your body absorbs it through your intestines but then excretes it from your kidneys fully intact. This is why when you overdo it with drinks and other products predominantly sweetened with erythritol, you can end up with not-so-fun digestive problems.
Xylitol is another popular sugar alcohol used in lieu of the traditional sweetener. It looks and tastes the same as sugar, but it only has 2.4 calories per gram, which is just two-thirds of the calories found in a gram of sugar. Similar to erythritol, xylitol naturally exists in the fibrous material of various fruits and vegetables, so beverage makers extract it to sweeten their products. Because it has a comparable sweetness to sugar, the adjustment your taste buds have to make is pretty minimal.
With that said, xylitol is another sugar alcohol that the human body can’t actually process. And because you can’t properly digest it, it’s not uncommon to experience stomach cramping, bloating and even diarrhea when consuming a fair amount of xylitol-sweetened beverages and other products. It might exist naturally in plants, but it’s not natural for your body to deal with it on a consistent basis from manufactured products as opposed to a piece of fruit or a plate of veggies.
Stevia is zero-calorie sweetener option that comes from the stevia bush, and the specific bush species we’ve come to rely on is native to Brazil and Paraguay. It has been used by local peoples for hundreds of years, and they even chew on the raw leaves for a sweet treat. The extract from the stevia leaf we use to sweeten our beverages is 200 times sweeter than traditional sugar.
However, unless the stevia you’re using is still green, it’s likely heavily processed, preserved and even bleached, which means you’re exposing yourself to unwanted chemicals and toxins. And if you do find a quality version, you might not like how it tastes. Stevia does not replicate the true taste of sugar, which, for many people, is a requirement in switching over to the world of natural, non-sugar sweeteners in the first place.
If you want truly “natural” sweeteners, you’re going to have a tough time avoiding calories and strange aftertastes altogether. But maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. Maybe it should be about picking a nutritive option like raw honey or local maple syrup and truly using it in moderation.