Man has a natural desire to have something better than what he needs. – Mark Twain

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Can sweet be healthy?

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Sugar is a ridiculous taste, but it hides a disappointing secret. Sugar disrupts the gut microbes that normally protect us from metabolic disorders, obesity and diabetes. Recently, we have learned that due to the connection between the gut and the brain, sugar consumption can also cause depression. That has convinced many people to skip sugar and look for a lower calorie alternative. Sadly, as discussed in my last article, new research is finding that some artificial sweeteners raise insulin levels and disrupt gut microbes just like the sugars they convert.

So, for people with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance, sugar is out, and artificial sweeteners are suspect. What options are left?

Natural Sweetness

In this article, we’ll look at some alternative sweeteners that are completely natural and, as a bonus, are also healthy for you. First, we need some clarification. There are several types of natural sweeteners, and we will look at each of them.

  • Non-nutritive nature high quality sweets include thaumatin, stevia, glycyrrhizin, and monk fruit.
  • Nutritional supplementsor sugar alcohols, include erythritol, xylitol, and maltitol.
  • Oligosaccharides include inulin, fructooligosaccharide (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), and xylooligosaccharides (XOS).

Top Sweets

Natural sugar substitutes, such as stevia and elderberry, are a hundred times sweeter than sucrose. That means you only consume a fraction of that amount, making them zero-calorie. Better yet, they can increase the microbiota—but in such small doses, maybe not much.

Monk fruit is generally easily purified, but stevia requires further processing to distinguish the two active sugars in the plant: stevioside and rebaudioside. The first sugar has bitterness associated with it, and so rebaudioside is the more popular of the two.

The amount you need to spend is ridiculous, though. For a teaspoon of sugar, the same amount of monk fruit will be a teaspoon 200 times smaller. So usually, these super sweets are combined with sugar alcohol to give them the same amount of sugar.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are natural sweeteners derived from fruits and berries. These include erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, and sorbitol. Some, such as maltitol and xylitol, can reach the colon and feed on microbes. That makes them prebiotics, supporting beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteriawhich can improve mood and cognition through the gut-brain axis.

Erythritol is well known by manufacturers of sugar substitutes. Most of it is absorbed in the small intestine and then excreted in the urine, so it is not a prebiotic, but it is essentially calorie-free. It is often the main component of stevia and monk fruit sweetness.

Caution: although xylitol has good antibacterial properties in the mouth (hence its prevalence in chewing gum), it can be dangerous for dogs, so it may be best for dog owners to avoid this.

Oligosaccharides

Simple sugars like glucose and fructose are monosaccharides. There are a surprising number of them; apparently, mother nature can’t get enough. They are the basic building blocks of other, more complex sugars.

disaccharides having two monosaccharides linked together. Table sugar is an example. Technically called sucrose, table sugar is made up of a glucose molecule attached to a fructose molecule. It is the most popular among disaccharides. Much of it comes from sugarcane, the world’s largest crop and a terrifying measure of our destruction. Other disaccharides include lactose (glucose and galactose) and maltose (two glucose).

oligosaccharides, from the Latin for “few sugars,” having three or more sugar ingredients. They are also known as fiber, and both have a more or less sweet taste. For some people, fiber binds the bark of a tree—and they’re not entirely wrong. Fiber is a strong building material for plants capable of growing redwood trees up to 300 feet tall. An impressive display of simple sugar chains.

Oligosaccharides include a combination of monosaccharides, including glucose, fructose, mannose, galactose, lactose, and more. That means there are millions of different oligosaccharides of different lengths and compositions.

Plants synthesize these structural sugars using enzymes, and generally, there is a special enzyme that can link any two sugars produced together. Likewise, there is another enzyme for hold on sugar chain between any two sugars given.

Humans do not produce much of these enzymes, but microorganisms do. They are experts in finding the last energy from the sugar chain, link by link. Since oligosaccharides cannot be broken down by stomach acid or pancreatic enzymes, they make it to the colon, where they are happily digested by specialist microbes. On the other hand, the microbes create fatty acids, like butyrate, which nourish and heal the intestinal lining. And that’s how fiber contributes to a healthy gut and why it’s called prebiotics: “an indigestible food ingredient that promotes the growth of beneficial microbes.” This sugar not only helps the medicine go down; that it is medicine.

In addition, oligosaccharides such as fructooligosaccharide (FOS) and galactooligosaccharide (GOS) have been found to have physiological properties, that is, the ability to encourage gut microbes to produce metabolites that act as antidepressants.

Caution

These sugars are not for everyone. People with IBS or Crohn’s flare-ups should be careful: Oligosaccharides can aggravate the condition. Many of these people are on a low FODMAP diet and must avoid these complete sugars: FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (sugar alcohols). This is a list of disappointments for those who crave sweets.

Many high-fiber foods that have been shown to improve mental health and gut health, such as asparagus, artichokes, onions, beans, and berries, are excluded from this extreme diet. However, the low FODMAP diet is meant to be temporary in recognition of how restrictive it is. When your gut feels good, and you’ve finished a meal, a slow introduction of high-fiber foods is what you want to help heal your gut.

We have to mention farting. You may notice excess gas when you are replacing oligosaccharides. This is a sign that your good bacteria are happy and producing more hydrogen and odorless methane. Many people live in a narrow food groove, and the addition of fiber can be uncomfortable, so start slowly.

Before there were “refined” foods, there was more gas in the world. Today’s refined food, with all gas-producing fibers removed, is a false Eden. Farting is funny; diabetes is not.

The Bottom Line

These natural sugar substitutes do not have the same problems associated with many artificial sweeteners, but they have not yet been studied. Like prebiotics, they can help your gut—even if they cut calories and lower blood sugar levels. Manufacturers are beginning to market some of these natural sweeteners with varying degrees of success.

Perhaps the best way for our health is to consume less sweets in general. I know I’m on thin ice here. Some people will fight if you try to take their candy. But treating candy as a staple may be overkill. If you must have a candy bar, try one with a natural sweetener and see if it hits that sweet spot.

There was a time when we ate too much salt, but most of the world has learned to eat less. It’s a matter of adjusting our taste, which only takes a few weeks. Once we control our sweet tooth, it’s no longer a big desire to give up a little sugar. Dark chocolate flavor is an example of how little justification we have for complaining. Reduce your sugar intake, and it can add several healthy years to your life. A little sugar, but not a little sweet.



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