I am a Christian. I believe in the God of the Bible, in God the Father, in His Son Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit. I believe in Genesis 1:1 - "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (NIV)" I am a biochemist and a pharmacist by education. As such I have a desire to understand nature. I am writing this blog as my way to express the facts of true science as I understand them, from the perspective of one who believes that all things were created by God, for God and for His purposes.

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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Are Nature's Other Sweeteners Better?

The room had no windows. It was dark, except for a lone covered incandescent that hung by a wire from the ceiling. Its light shown on an old square table and a battered wooden chair in the middle of the room. Moving close, the detective grabbed the shade and bent the glaring beam into the face of the accused, getting almost nose to nose with the suspect sitting hunched over in the chair. "Where were you on the night of the 21st?" he asked in an accusatory tone. "I've been framed" said the perpetrator. The detective knew the case was weak but everyone was looking for someone to pin this crime on, anyone but themselves...

And so starts the story of how Sugar became a bad word in the dietary world and a string of alternatives were born. Are they any better? We will look at the natural alternatives to sugar in this story and see if we can find any benefits or uncover any harm to replacing sugar in our diets.

The main suspects in this story are:

  • Honey
  • Corn Syrup
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
  • Agave Nectar (syrup)

Honey is a sweet food made by bees from the nectar of flowers. The variety produced by honey bees (the genus Apis) is the one most commonly referred to, as it is the type of honey collected by most beekeepers and consumed by people. Honeys are also produced by other hymenopteran insects, though in much lower quantities and with slightly different properties compared to honey from bees. Honey bees convert nectar into honey by regurgitation and evaporation and store it as a primary food source in wax honeycombs inside the beehive.

Honey gets its sweetness from fructose and glucose. It has a slightly higher ratio of fructose to glucose than table sugar, close to 1.2:1, depending on the source. This makes honey slightly sweeter than sugar, thus less is required. Honey has attractive chemical properties for baking and a distinctive flavor that leads some people to prefer it over sugar and other sweeteners. Most microorganisms do not grow in honey because of its low water content (< 20%) but it sometimes contains dormant endospores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can be dangerous to infants (botulism). Because it is a natural product by definition, the types and percentages of sugars contained can vary greatly depending on the source of the honey. It also can contain other ingredients, such as organic and amino acids, antioxidants, proteins, as well as trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Honey is available in many forms and nectar types. The most common form is filtered and pasteurized honey, the kind usually found at the market, which is generally a clear or slightly opaque amber liquid. Another popular form is raw or unfiltered honey which typically will contain crystals of glucose and may appear solid.

The Problem is not the Sugars Themselves
It is Eating Too Many Empty Sugar Calories

Corn syrup is a food syrup which is made from corn starch. It softens texture, adds volume, prevents crystallization of sugar, and enhances flavor. It contains primarily glucose, maltose and longer chain oligosaccharides. It is made by enzymatically splitting the long chain starch molecules. It does not naturally contain fructose. It can be found in your local market flavored with Vanilla or Molasses. It is a pure syrup. It does not naturally contain any proteins, vitamins or minerals.

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn syrup that has been further processed by glucose isomerase to convert some of its glucose into fructose. HFCS was first marketed in the early 1970s by the Clinton Corn Processing Company, together with the Japanese research institute where the enzyme was discovered.

As a sweetener, HFCS is often compared to granulated sugar. Advantages of HFCS over granulated sugar include being easier to handle, and being less expensive in some countries. However, there is also widespread debate concerning whether HFCS presents greater health risks than other sweeteners. Use of HFCS peaked in the late 1990s; demand decreased due to public concern about a possible link between HFCS and metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes. It contains either 42% or 55% fructose, with the remaining sugar primarily as glucose. In reality it is much closer to table sugar in its fructose/glucose composition.

Agave nectar (more accurately called Agave syrup) is a sweetener commercially produced from several species of agave, including Agave tequilana (blue agave) and Agave salmiana. Agave syrup is sweeter than honey due to its higher fructose concentration and tends to be less viscous. Most Agave syrup comes from Mexico and South Africa. It is considered a "natural" sweetener by some but is more processed than table sugar.

Agave syrup has been marketed as a "healthful" sweetener due to the low glycemic index of fructose. This concept has been criticized due to its very high fructose content, even higher than high fructose corn syrup, and its potential to lead to insulin resistance and significantly increased triglyceride level, a risk factor for heart disease. Agave syrup, depending on the method of preparation, has anywhere from 56% to as much as 90% fructose.

Overall there is strong scientific evidence that the over-consumption of added sugars, as sucrose or any of these other sweeteners, is a major health problem. Consuming empty sugar calories, especially in the form of soft drinks, is strongly linked to obesity. The World Health Organization has recommended that people limit their consumption of added sugars to 10% of total calories, but typical consumption of empty calories in the United States is nearly twice that level.

Excessive sugar or glucose intake can lead to obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Fructose does not affect insulin levels, is metabolized mainly in the liver. It is converted into triglycerides and stored as fat. Excess fructose increases the likelihood of fatty liver disease and insulin resistance.

Fructose is sweeter than sucrose or glucose so products high in fructose taste sweeter and smaller amounts may be used. Percentages listed below can vary as some of these products are more natural or less processed than regular sugar.

Carbohydrate Percentages
    Fructose         Glucose       Sucrose     Maltose    Oligosaccharides 
Honey 38.2% 31.3% 1.3% 7.1% 1.5%
Corn Syrup 0.0% 26.0% 0.0% 24.0% 50.0%
HFCS 42% or 55% 53% or 40% 0.0% 0.0% 5.0%
Agave Syrup 56%-90% <20% 0.0% 0.0% 5%-30%

A plethora of variations of these syrups and other carbohydrates are used in the food industry to improve the sweetness, texture, appearance or shelf life of many products. Other than the fact that Honey does contain some beneficial impurities (amino acids, vitamins and minerals), and less fructose seems to be better, any of these can be used in place of sugar. The real perpetrator in this case is excess carbohydrate consumption and your body is the victim. You need to check the calories as carbohydrates and look at the ingredient list to see where sugar or HFCS is listed to help reduce your carb calories.

Proverbs 16:24 (NLT) - Kind words are like honey — sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.

Proverbs 25:16 (NLT) - Do you like honey? Don't eat too much, or it will make you sick!