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Sugar Coated – What You May Not Know About Natural Sweeteners

When I first started on my healthy eating journey, about twelve years ago now, the alternative sweeteners of choice were apple juice and pear juice concentrate. They were relatively cheap (you could even make them yourself by blending apples or pears!), marketed as diabetic friendly and did the job when it came to sweetening. I also caught on to stevia quite quickly as well as it was the only sweetener that did not seem to affect my sugar levels and had no nasty gastrointestinal side effects.

Fruit juice concentrates and stevia have lost their “flavour” of late, being replaced by exotic products such as coconut nectar, agave, pomegranate molasses and lohan guo. Below, I strip the “sugar coating” off three of the most popular sweeteners which are touted as “healthy”, natural and low Glycaemic Index and reveal a bitter sweet side not commonly associated with them.



Xylitol has been around since the 19th century, but was first popularised in the late 1970s in Europe as a sweetener that was “tooth-friendly” and “diabetic-friendly”.

Manufacturers of xylitol market it as derived from xylan, which is found in the fibers of many plants including berries, oats, beets, sugar cane, birch and corn. This would seem quite benign. However, commercially manufactured xylitol which you buy at your health food store is actually produced through the hydrogenation of xylan, which requires a catalyst. The catalyst used in the first stage of producing xylitol is a powdered nickel-aluminum alloy which is a heavy metal. The next step in the process of manufacturing is to remove the resulting acetic acid which is described a substance described as, “very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation.” Then the hydrolyzing acid and organic residues must be removed, this is done by heating the mixture and evaporating it. The resulting syrup is now free of acetic acid, hydrolyzing acid, nick-aluminum and other residues. The syrup is crystallized by stirring ethanol into it. The crystalline xylitol is then separated in a centrifuge from the ethanol and from the sorbitol remaining in solution. This seems to be a relatively extensive commercial process for a “natural” product.

You may have also picked up above that one of the sources of xylan used to produce xylitol is corn, which of course provides a cheap ingredient base for manufacturers. Therefore, unless the label of a xylitol containing product specifically notes that it is from birch, beets or some other non-GMO source, your standard xylitol is very likely from genetically modified corn.  At about this stage, xylitol is sharing some remarkably similar properties to High Fructose Corn Syrup.

Xylitol is also promoted as safe when it comes to candida as it does not feed yeast as such. It should be noted that whilst sugar alcohols like xylitol arrive in the intestines intact, a process called “passive diffusion” takes place in the gut whereby the xylitol draws water into the bowels.  This results in only partial breakdown of the xylitol.  The unmetabolized portion ferments; the perfect environment for undesirable bacteria to grow hence feed the candida in any case.

Agave Syrup

Many would know of the health concerns associated with agave so we will not dwell on this too long.

Agave nectar is commercially produced from the tequila plant. The leaves are cut off the plant after it has aged seven to 14 years and the juice is extracted from the core. The juice is filtered and then heated to separate polysaccharides into simple sugars (fructose). The process is far from natural and doubtfully “raw”.

Agave consists primarily of fructose and glucose. Sources vary on the ratio of fructose to glucose, with up to 90% fructose (note high fructose syrup contains 50%) so perhaps not the sweetener of choice if you are watching your fructose consumption.

Agave syrup whilst marketed as “Low GI” has the same amount of carbohydrates and calories of sugar, so will raise your sugars and calorie count. In fact, even the American Diabetes Association draws a comparison between the two:

1 tablespoon white or granulated sugar = about 49 calories, 13 grams of carbohydrates

1 tablespoon agave nectar = about 45 calories, 12 grams of carbohydrates

Coconut Nectar

Agave nectar has been replaced by coconut nectar and coconut syrup in many raw food and vegan food circles. Many people do not know much about coconut nectar and its properties. Coconut nectar is in fact made out of the sap of coconut flowers. Companies marketing sustainable coconut products argue that this is non-sustainable as it prevents the coconut tree from producing more coconut palms. I have not been able to verify this comment from my research. When it comes to the nutritional contents of coconut nectar, the breakdown of the nectar is as follows: glucose 8-10%, the fructose 10-12%, and sucrose 74%. Sucrose is actually half glucose and fructose so the fructose content of coconut nectar is also high. The presence of inulin and FOS (soluble fiber) within coconut nectar are the key factors that maintain the glycaemic index at an average of 35 GI, however the carbohydrate count is still up there with that of agave syrup (and table sugar) with 13 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon.


There is no doubt that there has been a lot of commotion about fructose lately with arguments including that it doesn’t stimulate the release of hormones that signal satiety or fullness, leading to over-consumption and how over-consumption of fructose triggers fat storage or even liver damage.  Most of this research is based on high fructose corn syrup which interestingly is lower in fructose than “healthy” sweeteners like coconut sugar and agave nectar.

My conclusion after assessing these alternative sweeteners is that no sweetener is a god-send and can be eaten to the heart’s delight (as sad as this is). The real problem here is not with fructose as such (or even sugar) but excessive consumption. All concentrated sweeteners, be it cane sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, agave nectar, molasses, honey, coconut sugar, palm sugar, date sugar, and fruit juice concentrate are best in moderation.  Furthermore, none of these sweeteners including the dreaded high fructose corn syrup would be that big a problem if consumed in small amounts. However, my preferred sweetener is stevia, if you are happy with a slight bitter after taste naturally present in the herb. Organic dates also serve as a great way of sweetening snacks/treats, providing blood sugar imbalances are not a problem.



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