What are the best sweeteners for people living with diabetes?

There is a lot of controversy regarding  sweeteners (sugar substitutes) and which is better for people living with diabetes. Retha Harmse simplifies the facts.


Sugar consumption

The dangers of excessive consumption of sugar is well-documented. Including how it negatively affects the health status of individuals but even more so for people living with diabetes.

The typical South African consumes 24 teaspoons of sugar daily. More than double of the World Health Organization guidelines for daily intake. Added to that, 7% of the South African population has diabetes (3,85 million people, aged between 21 – 79 years old).

In 1985, 30 million people had diabetes. Its prevalence has increased six-fold and today  425 million people worldwide are currently. If nothing is done now to prevent this, this number will continue to increase to 629 million people by 2045.

Sugars that increase blood glucose levels

Some foods will be labelled “no added sugar” but will still be high in natural sugar (e.g. fruit sugars). These natural sugars also raise blood glucose levels and should be monitored for people with insulin resistance and diabetes.

Sugar Forms & uses Other things you should know
  • Brown sugar
  • Maltodextrins
  • Icing sugar
  • Agave syrup
  • Invert sugar
  • Brown rice syrup
  • White sugar
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Maple syrup
  • Glucose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Lactose
  • Honey
  •  Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Sucrose
  • Barley malt
  • Used to sweeten foods and beverages.
  • May be found in certain medications.
  • There is no advantage to those with diabetes in using one type of sugar over another (in other words, one teaspoon of sugar has the equal effect of one teaspoon of honey).
  • Sugars may be eaten in moderation. Up to 5% of the daily caloric requirement can come from added sugar.
  • High-sugar diets are not recommended, since such foods could replace more nutritious foods and lead to deficiencies.

Sugars that don’t affect blood glucose levels

Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, stevia, xylitol, and neotame, are so popular due to it being approximately 300 to 13 000 times sweeter than sugar. Though, they don’t have any nutritional value (meaning no or low kilojoules).

Although artificial sweeteners may help to reduce total energy intake, the effectiveness in weight loss or diabetes management has not yet been established. We think fewer calories consumed equals less weight gained or more weight lost, right?

However, according to a recent review, regular consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners is related to an increase in BMI. This might be explained by sweeteners being associated with an amplifying of general cravings and appetite.

Despite this, and this is imperative: sweeteners are not all the same. They have different biochemical structures, with different routes of metabolisation and absorption. Certain sweeteners metabolise differently and are therefore better than others in maintaining blood glucose and weight management. Let’s look at a few different sweeteners and how they weigh up.

Sucralose

Sucralose (sold as Splenda) is 600 times sweeter than normal sugar. It’s mostly secreted which means it does not get absorbed in the body.

Although this might sound great, don’t be so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Sucralose has been associated with inflammation, and there is still ongoing research on whether it increases blood glucose level. The data is leaning towards a ‘no’ for people living with diabetes, as long-term use can cause insulin resistance.

It’s also worth mentioning that added table sugar, if consumed in excess, also causes inflammation and has also been associated with insulin resistance.

Conclusion: Consuming sucralose (or normal sugar) in excess over a long period of time has been linked to inflammation. Sucralose should rather be avoided if you’re diagnosed with any inflammatory diseases such, as rheumatoid arthritis or Crohn’s disease, as it can worsen the inflammatory state.

Aspartame

Aspartame is mostly used in sugar-free or low-sugar drinks and Iced Tea lite.

After the big media frenzy of aspartame causing cancer, recent human studies proved aspartame had no carcinogenic effect. However, it’s worthwhile to note that it’s still not beneficial for your health. More specifically gut health, as aspartame increases certain bacteria in your gut that are directly associated with weight gain.

Furthermore, the long-term (more than 10 years) use of aspartame has been negatively associated with cardiac health. Lastly, aspartame also leads to an increase in carbohydrate cravings, which can lead to increased appetite.

Conclusion: Although aspartame was set-free from being cancer causing, it still increases carbohydrate cravings and the effect it has on gut- and cardiac health shouldn’t be neglected.

Remember that moderation is key. Try to replace diet drinks with infused water or homemade iced teas (rooibos is such a good option). But if you still plan to consume aspartame, be sure to include extra fibrous vegetables, or even a probiotic, to keep the microbiota in balance.

Stevia, erythritol and xylitol

These three sweeteners have been categorised as natural sweeteners. The benefits of these sweeteners are that they don’t need insulin to be metabolised. Therefore, improves glucose tolerance and reduces insulin levels.

Stevia does have an undesirable bitter aftertaste, and erythritol and xylitol are quite expensive (roughly R150-160p/kg). But it seems worth it, because when consuming these natural sweeteners, the rewards system is activated leaving you feeling satisfied. And, in contrast to the previous mentioned sweeteners, they do not increase cravings.

Conclusion: Stevia, erythritol, and xylitol are superior. They can improve glucose levels and aid in weight management, in comparison to the other artificial sweeteners.

Still, moderation remains a key factor in any healthy diet. Therefore, using it sparingly will benefit your health as well as your wallet.

MEET OUR EXPERT


Retha Harmse (née Booyens) is a registered dietitian and the ADSA public relations portfolio holder. She has a passion for informing and equipping in the field of nutrition. She is currently in private practice in Saxonwold, Houghton and believes that everyone deserves happiness and health and to achieve this she gives practical and individual-specific advice, guidelines and diets.


LIKE THIS? ------------------------------------------------

SUBSCRIBE to our FREE Diabetes Focus Newsletter.