Alternatives to sugar that would be better to avoid

It is possible that the new guide from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the use of sweeteners published last Monday has confused more than one.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
22 May 2023 Monday 14:53
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Alternatives to sugar that would be better to avoid

It is possible that the new guide from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the use of sweeteners published last Monday has confused more than one. In it, the body ensures that taking these substances with the aim of reducing body mass is a mistake and is based on the most recent evidence. But weren't they a better alternative to sugar? “The short answer and based on a weight-centered approach can lead us to think that no, that sweeteners are better, since they do not have the same caloric intake. The long answer is a bit more complex,” says dietitian-nutritionist Daniel Ursúa.

Indeed, sweeteners have fewer calories than sugar, which is why they rose as a valid substitute at a time when international health organizations were asking to reduce the consumption of sucrose (another name for sugar). In addition, Ursúa points out, "its metabolization does not imply the secretion of insulin, because it does not pass into the bloodstream in the form of glucose." However, research carried out over the years indicates that prolonged consumption of sweeteners may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"In some ways, artificial sweeteners can cause the very problems they are intended to prevent," warns Monte Folch, a physician and nutritionist. These compounds are present in many ultra-processed foods, such as pastries or soft drinks. Being sold as a healthier option than sugar, the population has trusted that eating products that include it does not pose a risk, and intake has increased. “To this we must add that starting the day taking sweeteners, for example, adding saccharin to coffee, makes the body ask for more sweetness during the day. That increases the chances that we end up eating unhealthy and sugary foods.” And this excessive consumption can increase the chances of being overweight and obese, as well as other diseases derived from them.

Another effect that sweeteners can have is that their high sweetening power alters our taste threshold. This, Ursúa points out, makes our palates get used to levels of sweetness that are difficult to achieve in fresh foods, making them less appetizing and making us eat ultra-processed products more frequently than we should. The fact that sweeteners reach our intestines without having been previously digested, which is not the case with sugar, can also damage the bacterial flora. “It has been observed that these bacteria can prevent diseases, so we are not at all interested in impairing them”, adds Folch.

These drawbacks are related to artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame K. But experts warn that natural ones such as stevia can also have that effect. "In the field of marketing, it has been led to believe that because it is extracted from nature, stevia is healthier, but it should be judged as just another sweetener," explains the nutritionist, food technologist and collaborator of this space, Aitor Sánchez. “In the end, it is a crystallization of glucose and steviol. That is, their composition is very similar”.

Natural sweeteners have also gained a lot of fame in recent years for their non-artificial origin. Although they may have some small advantage compared to regular sugar or sweeteners, nutritionists point out that they are not a saint's hand either. "Options such as panela, coconut sugar, brown sugar or natural fructose have a lot of sugar," warns Sánchez. “For this reason, nutritionists recommend that when adding a sweetener to coffee, it is still considered that sucrose is being taken. Wherever it comes from is sugar and therefore not healthy.”

Panela, for example, is a juice obtained from pressing sugar cane that is dehydrated and solidified to be sold in panels or granules. In other words, unlike white sugar, it does not go through a centrifugation or refining process and is not separated from the molasses, which gives it its characteristic brown color. The result is a less processed product, with a slightly lower calorie content and with more micronutrients such as calcium or magnesium. This does not mean that 100g of brown sugar contains 94.5g of sugar, which is equivalent to 23.6 lumps, according to sinAzú

And what about honey? “In the case of this sweetener, we have the problem that semi-medicinal properties are attributed to it and it has that halo of healthiness linked to its natural origin. But if we look at its composition, we will see that most of it is sugar”, warns Ursúa. “It has a lower concentration than other sweeteners, but it is still high. It continues to be a free sugar, not a superfood”, adds Sánchez.

At this point, the question may arise as to whether there really is a healthy alternative to sugar on the market. Although there are better options than others, experts recommend not looking for substitutes, but trying to reduce sugar intake. “We shouldn't go with the ultimate goal of replacing sugar. It is better to gradually get used to less sweet foods, with less intense and more real flavors”, recommends Sánchez. Úrsua, along the same lines, points out that our position in relation to sugar should be to eat as little as possible, the better. "If the intake of this type of product is occasional and anecdotal, it doesn't matter which version we take," he points out.

In the end, the idea is to progressively remove the products that add the most sugar to our diet, eating toast with strawberries or bananas instead of jam, or adding fruit to yogurt instead of white sugar. And whenever we consume a sweetener with or without sugar, do not fool ourselves by looking for its healthy side. "It can be consumed, but the harmful effects of excessive consumption must be known," concludes Folch.