October 25, 2011

Understanding Sweeteners: From Sugar to Honey

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With obesity rates of adults in the United States at slightly over 33 percent, weight gain is an important issue. Most nutritional scientists agree that the caloric intake of people in the United States is significantly higher than it should be. One potential factor contributing to these weight gain patterns is the overconsumption of various sweeteners. From table sugar to maple syrup to Splenda, each additive has its benefits and drawbacks.

The adverse affects of sugar come into play with the amount that is consumed. Although simple carbohydrates don’t usually harm anyone directly, increased caloric intake is a main contributor to weight gain, which creates many health issues.

The table sugar that many people are familiar with is sucrose, a disaccharide molecule composed of glucose and fructose bonded together. It is generally obtained from sugar cane and sugar beets, which store high amounts of sucrose in their biomass that can be easily extracted.

High fructose corn syrup is nearly identical in composition, though it is extracted from corn and is usually 55 percent fructose compared with 50 percent fructose in pure sucrose. Our bodies deal with both sweeteners in the same way. Glucose is metabolized in all somatic cells and fructose is broken down in the liver. Prof. Brian Chabot, ecology and evolutionary biology, said that in the process of refining both sweeteners, many of the plant components that could have positive health impacts are removed, leaving behind only the simple sugars. Thus high fructose corn syrup comes with the negative properties similar to sucrose and no real benefit other than the sweet taste.

Prof. Robert Parker, nutritional sciences, said that the sugar composition in honey is almost identical to that of high fructose corn syrup. However, unlike high fructose corn syrup, honey is neither synthetic nor heavily refined and thus contains components that are positive for human health. Parker said that honey has antimicrobial properties and traces of proteins, pollen, antioxidants and vitamins.

Maple syrup is another healthy option. According to Chabot, maple syrup has been used as a source of sweetness dating back to before the European settlement of North America. The sap of Sugar Maples is mostly water and only 2 percent sugar. The water is then boiled off, leaving behind a more concentrated sugary liquid that has been found to contain antioxidants and traces of minerals like calcium, potassium and zinc, Chabot explained. The sugar in maple syrup is mainly sucrose, with small amounts of free standing glucose and fructose which are more reactive than sucrose and contribute to the unique flavor.

According to Chabot, maple syrup is the most sustainable of our current sweetness production options. Where sugar beets, sugar cane, and corn are all cultivated through large scale agriculture requiring pesticides and fertilizers, Sugar Maples live naturally in the forests of the United States. A trait also unique to Sugar Maples, is that they can live their usual lifespan even when they’re tapped for syrup, while the others require that the plant be killed in order to extract the sugars. Chabot said that maple has the potential to be used as a primary source of sweetness, as it is the most abundant tree in the state of New York and we are currently tapping only 1 percent of the trees that we could be. “As a natural resource, maple has much more value than any of the other sources of sugar and is more than just a sugar source. It’s a source of high value wood products such as furniture, and a key part of the forest.”

Aspartame, discovered in 1965, is a zero calorie sweetener that is commonly found in diet soda drinks. Prof. David Levitsky, nutritional sciences, said that although some believe it to have negative impacts on human health, aspartame is one of the most studied additives in the nutritional sciences and is not nearly as bad as many make it out to be. He said that in studies where people consume significant amounts of aspartame over long periods of time, there are no reported adverse affects, adding that it’s a very safe alternative to the sugary drinks that have been shown to cause weight gain.

“In our culture, where obesity is the major nutritional problem, it’s probably better for people to drink a diet soda than a regular soda,” Levitsky said.

Levitsky and Parker agree that the only time aspartame has adverse health affects, is when people have a genetic condition called Phenylketonuria (PKU). People with PKU lack the ability to metabolize phenylalanine, an amino acid into which aspartame breaks down.

“There are people who don’t have the full genetic condition, but they have some genes that make them more vulnerable to high phenylalanine levels and for them the high phenylalanine will cause things like headaches,” Levitsky said.

Perhaps an even better alternative for zero calorie sweetness is sucralose, more commonly known as Splenda. According to Parker, sucralose is more reliable that aspartame because it is a more stable molecule. It can be used in baking and can tolerate a wider pH range. Though it’s composed of safe compounds, it isn’t recognized by the body as a carbohydrate, so the majority is not broken down or absorbed, thus the zero calorie nature of this sweetener. Parker said that sucralose is also safer for people with PKU as it does not contain phenylalanine.

Another natural, zero calrie sweetner that is becoming increasingly popular in American markets is Stevia. It is a plant glycoside that our bodies simply do not know how to break down. Parker explained that Stevia is composed of galactose, a monosaccharide, and a glucose with an additional three chlorine atoms attached that make it unrecognizable as a carbohydrate to enzymes in the human stomach. Parker said that we are able to perceive the sweet taste but since the molecule does not break down, our bodies excrete the extra calories associated with the sweet taste.

According to Parker, the food market today uses refined sugars so heavily that they are difficult to avoid. Since this is the case, it is up to individuals to make healthy food choices.

“If you must have sugar, a less refined type of sugar would be better,” Chabot said. Levitsky and Parker both supported the use of diet sweeteners, as these are an affective way to satisfy the sweetness craving without adding to caloric intake. All three agree, however, that the best nutrition choice is to avoid adding refined sugars to your diet.

Original Author: Shauntle Barley