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Other Sweeteners to Consider: Fructose, Xylitol, and Sucanat

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Last week we looked at two sweeteners that you may not be using but that are growing in popularity. This week, let’s look at a couple more.

Crystalline fructose
Fructose has been in the news a lot, thanks to the controversy about high-fructose corn syrup and possible (but as yet unproven) harmful side effects. Fructose is a natural sugar found in fruits, vegetables, and honey. It’s about twice as sweet as table sugar. It’s not the same thing as high-fructose corn syrup, however. While both of these sweeteners are usually made from corn, crystalline fructose, which is in the form of a fine, white powder, is processed to make it nearly 100% pure fructose. High-fructose corn syrup is 55% fructose and 45% glucose.

Like agave nectar, crystalline fructose has a low glycemic index of 22. Food manufacturers have started to use this sweetener in baked goods, frozen foods, candy, and beverages, as it is inexpensive and also provides flavor and texture. One tablespoon of crystalline fructose contains about 45 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate, roughly the same as regular sugar. But because this is a very sweet product, you likely would end up using less for the same amount of sweetness.

Is crystalline fructose safe to use? Well, we know that fructose does not require insulin to be metabolized, or processed, unlike other types of sugars. And because of its low glycemic index, the impact on blood glucose is likely less (although keep in mind that other sources of carbohydrate in a product sweetened with this sweetener WILL impact blood glucose). But some of the worries surrounding fructose include an increase in insulin resistance (and subsequent risk for Type 2 diabetes), weight gain, liver disease, kidney disease, and high cholesterol. Is it worth trying? Perhaps. Using a small amount of crystalline fructose as part of an overall healthy eating plan is unlikely to be harmful.

Xylitol is what is known as a “sugar alcohol” or a “polyol.” It’s a natural sweetener found in berries, fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms, as well as the bark of birch trees. This sweetener is considered to be safe to use and has received a nod of approval from both the World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration.

Xylitol is as sweet as regular sugar. One teaspoon contains 10 calories, compared to 15 calories in a teaspoon of sugar. It also has less carbohydrate than table sugar and has a glycemic index of 7. Being a sugar alcohol, xylitol has less of an effect on blood glucose than sugar. One of the downsides of xylitol, though, is that because it’s a sugar alcohol and therefore not completely digested, high amounts can cause gas, cramping, and diarrhea.

Some of the other benefits of xylitol include fighting tooth decay. For this reason, xylitol is used in some toothpastes and chewing gum. Xylitol may also be helpful in treating middle ear infections, fighting off upper respiratory infections, and even preventing osteoporosis by helping to build bone.

It’s important to note that xylitol should not be given to dogs, as it can be quite toxic. And you might be interested to know that Gwyneth Paltrow uses xylitol in her recipes from her new book, It’s All Good.

Sucanat (which is an acronym for “sugar cane natural”) is a less refined form of sugar cane. In a time when refined foods are frowned upon, Sucanat is a product that has appeal to many people. Sucanat is made by extracting juice from crushed sugar cane and heating it until it forms a syrup. The syrup is then allowed to dry. This is a grainy type of sweetener with a strong molasses flavor, and it contains less sucrose than table sugar. Sucanat doesn’t work so well in baked goods as it is less sweet than sugar and can give the product an odd texture.

One teaspoon of Sucanat contains 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate, just like sugar. It also contains minerals. Sucanat costs up to 50% more per pound than regular sugar. So, while this sweetener is less refined and is organic, it’s still sugar and will still have an effect on blood glucose.

Remember that you have a choice when it comes to sweeteners, which is a good thing. Some people prefer to use more “natural” types of sweeteners, like the ones I’ve mentioned, while others may choose to use nonnutritive sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and stevia. Remember that if you’re baking, some sugar is necessary, but you can usually cut back on the amount by one third to one half. Each sweetener has it pros and cons, so decide what will work best for you.

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