What is the safest alternative sweetener
WHY DO OUR PRODUCTS CONTAIN STEVIA?
An evidence-based review of stevia versus other sugar-free sweeteners.
The most common question asked about our products is why we use stevia over other sweeteners.
Finally ... there are quite a number of options to choose from. Just take a look at other products on the market and you will find sweeteners from A-Z that claim to be a healthy alternative to sugar. So why do we choose stevia of all things?
Based on years of research, we believe that stevia is the healthiest and safest sweetener on the market, which is why we use it in our products. In this article, I'm going to show you the evidence that led us to make this decision.
I'll also take a closer look at the research behind other popular sweeteners like sucralose, thaumatin, and xylitol so you can see why we continue to prefer stevia over other sweeteners.
If you're unsure which sweeteners are safe to consume and which are best avoided, I hope this article can help you!
What is stevia?
To understand why we use stevia in our products, we first need to understand exactly what stevia actually is.
Unlike man-made artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, stevia is an herb that originated in South America. Stevia has been used traditionally as a sweetener and even as an herbal medicine for centuries, and in recent years it has gained popularity in the western world.
Stevia is naturally very sweet and is considered to be up to 200 times sweeter than sugar, but it contains extremely few calories and does not increase blood sugar levels. This is why stevia has quickly become a popular alternative to sugar and is found in many foods and beverages today.
Is Stevia Healthy?
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled study lasting 2 years, researchers found that stevia consumption helped lower blood pressure in patients with mild hypertension .¹
In another study published in 2010, researchers found that consuming stevia resulted in lower post-meal blood sugar levels compared to sugar and the artificial sweetener aspartame
A third study found that stevia may have the potential to reduce breast cancer growth, but more research is needed to confirm these claims .³
Stevia has been tested for safety across the EU, North America and Australia for over 30 years. This makes it one of the most intensively researched sweeteners on the market. Not a single researcher has been able to find credible evidence showing negative health effects of stevia consumption in humans.
There is a study in rats that shows that excessive consumption of stevia can cause DNA mutations. This happened when the intestinal bacteria of the rats die Steviosides in stevia in a new compound called Steviol converted - which is also toxic to humans.
But it turns out that when the researchers called it excessive stevia consumption, they really meant it. The rats were fed stevia, which would be almost impossible for humans to obtain on a normal diet
According to the latest research by the World Health Organization, stevia does not cause any side effects when consumed below 4 mg per kg of body weight. I weigh 75KG, so I would have to consume 300mg of stevia daily to be above the upper limit. To put that number into perspective, it's roughly the equivalent of 28 of our protein shakes.
Stevia also doesn't seem to have any negative effects on our gut bacteria, which, as you'll learn later in this article, is a common topic with many other sweeteners.
All the evidence currently available shows that stevia is a completely safe and healthy sweetener. That is why we use it in our products and I recommend it to people as an alternative to sugar.
As with all of our ingredients, we promise to remain open to new research, so if anything is proven to make stevia appear unhealthy in any way, we would do everything possible to replace it in our products immediately.
Now that we've covered the topic of stevia, let's take a look at the other top sweeteners out there so you can understand why we're using these do not use.
One of the most widely used sweeteners on the market is called sucralose. Sucralose is a substance extracted from sugar using a complex chemical process that replaces hydrogen-oxygen atoms in the molecule with chlorine atoms. Because it is a chemical disorder, sucralose is considered an artificial sweetener.
Research on sucralose is mixed at the moment, but it's important to note that much of this has been funded by Splenda, the largest producer of sucralose in the world. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to suggest that these studies might be skewed in favor of a positive result to help sucralose gain more popularity. This is one of the reasons why the use of sucralose remains very controversial.
When it comes to maintaining an optimal weight, sucralose seems like a better option than sugar. Sucralose consumption appears to have little or no effect on blood sugar and insulin levels
Sucralose can also help obese people lose weight when used as a direct substitute for sugar.⁶ This makes sense as it contains no fewer calories than sugar.
However, recent research suggests that consuming sucralose may affect the health of our gut. A 2017 study of the microbiome found that sucralose consumption reduced the number of beneficial bacteria in the gut by up to 50%. Additionally, researchers found that the bacteria had not recovered 12 weeks after stopping sucralose consumption. Given the enormous importance of gut health to our overall wellbeing, this is one of the main reasons I avoid sucralose.
My main concern with sucralose is the lack of long-term research that has been done on the substance. It's easy to see that there were no changes in a patient in a 12-week study, but if you were to use sucralose for months or even years the results can be very different.
The truth is, knowing the effects a chemically modified substance like sucralose can have on our bodies is hard, especially considering it wasn't discovered until 1976. When comparing this to something like stevia, which has been consumed for centuries, it makes sense to stay on the caution side.
Conclusion: Possibly unsafe. More long-term research is needed.
Unlike other sweeteners that require more research, the jury has been looking at aspartame for some time. And the evidence is clear that this one should be well and truly avoided.
Aspartame is made by combining the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid using chemical methods. When your body processes aspartame, some of it is broken down into methanol. Methanol is toxic when consumed in large quantities, but smaller amounts in combination with free methanol are also a problem because of the improved absorption. When aspartame is heated, free methanol is produced. Free methanol is converted by our body into formaldehyde, a known carcinogen and neurotoxin.
Scientists began researching the potential negative effects of aspartame when people started complaining of headaches after consuming it. It has since been linked to depression, brain disease, and cancer, and has been identified by the FDA as a known trigger for epileptic seizures.
In a rat study, twelve of the 320 aspartame-fed rats developed brain tumors while none of the control rats developed tumors. Further human studies are currently ongoing, but the extent to which the studies can be conducted is very limited for ethical reasons. Therefore, many experts advise extreme caution when consuming aspartame.
Similar to sucralose, aspartame also appears to have a negative impact on our gut bacteria. According to research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, bacteria in the digestive system became toxic when exposed to doses of aspartine as low as one mg./ml.
Given the current research pointing to the dangers of aspartame consumption, I would strongly recommend avoiding aspartame whenever possible.
Xylitol, sorbitol and erythritol
Next, we'll look at a category of sweeteners known as sugar alcohols that are naturally found in a variety of fruits and vegetables but have recently been isolated for use as commercial sweeteners. These sugar alcohols appear to be much safer than artificial sweeteners, but they can cause GI exposure in sensitive individuals.
Common examples of sugar alcohols used in foods are xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol. They are considered to be "low-digestible carbohydrates" because some of them are absorbed in the small intestine by processes that require little or no insulin. This has made them a popular sweetener choice for diabetics. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories than conventional industrial sugar with the same sweetness.
The rest of the unabsorbed sugar alcohol is directed to the large intestine, where it is fermented by our intestinal bacteria. Consumption can lead to indigestion, gas, or laxative effects. Sugar alcohols are part of a group of foods called FODMAPS, which can cause indigestion in sensitive people.
Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are generally accepted as safe. In a long-term study on humans, 35 participants consumed xylitol as the primary sweetener with a content of regularly over 100 g per day for two years. Other than GI distress, no side effects were observed (and these symptoms disappeared over time, presumably as the gut bacteria adapting to the sugar alcohol) .¹⁰
With the research currently available, I consider sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, and erythritol to be safe unless you have sensitive digestive issues. The reason we don't use them in our products is that many of our customers have sensitive stomachs, so using a sugar alcohol can cause uncomfortable side effects in a large percentage of the people who use them.
If you decide to use sugar alcohols in your diet, I recommend starting with a small amount to see how your body reacts. From there, you can slowly increase the dose to give your gut bacteria time to adjust.
Conclusion: Sure, but can lead to GI exposure in sensitive people.
With the increasing demand for sugar-free sweeteners, there is a new ingredient that is gaining popularity. It will Thaumatin called, a protein obtained from the katemfe fruit native to West Africa.
At the time of this writing, I am unable to find any long-term human studies that can clearly show whether thaumatin is healthy or harmful. However, anecdotes show that thaumatin has been used in West Africa since at least 1800. But of course, more research is still needed before we can think about using thaumatin in our products.
Another thing that worries me about Thaumatin is the regulations governing its use in the EU. Thaumatin is incredibly sweet - about 2000 times sweeter than sugar - so it's only used in tiny amounts in food preparations. From my research, almost all of the thaumatin on the market is cut with a simple sugar like fructose, sucrose, or maltodextrin. But according to EU regulations, a sweetener only has to have 10% thaumatin in order to be labeled as thaumatin - which means that up to 90% can be sugar! So if you see thaumatin on a product, it is highly unlikely that it is just that ingredient.
Due to the lack of research and the unreliability and ambiguity of delivery options, at this point I do not believe that thaumatin would make a suitable sweetener in our products. With this I remain open to new research results and would consider using it if it proves to be safe and reliable and sustainable delivery options are guaranteed with pure thaumatin.
Bottom line: more research is needed
Monk fruit extract
Monk fruit extract, also known as Luo Han Guo, is a sweetener that I like.
The monk fruit is native to Southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a sweetener and in traditional medicine as a remedy for coughs, constipation and diabetes. The sweetener is made by removing the pips and pods from the fruit, crushing them, collecting the juice, and then drying it into a concentrated powder. This also makes it one of the least processed sweeteners on the market.
Although the monk fruit itself contains calories and carbohydrates, the concentrated sweetener is so sweet that it is considered a calorie-free sweetener. Estimated to be 250-300 times sweeter than sugar, only a very small amount of monk fruit is required to achieve a sweet taste in food.
Studies have shown that monk fruits have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer properties.1¹¹² Monk fruits can also be beneficial for diabetics as they can lower blood sugar.1³ Unlike thaumatin, I have found a lot of credible research on monk fruits that suggests that they are safe, along with the anecdotal evidence of their use in Southeast Asia for centuries.
So what's the downside you ask? Monk fruits still have to be approved for use in the EU! When new ingredients hit the market, it takes a long time for them to be approved by EU regulators that decide whether a food is safe or not. Of course, these tight security measures are a good thing, but it does mean it will be a while before we see monk fruit in products here in Europe. However, the developments look promising and I would not be surprised if monk fruits were allowed in the EU in the next few years.
(By the way, monk fruit was approved by the FDA in 2010, which is why it appears in food in the US).
Monk fruits are an ingredient that I am keeping a close eye on and that I would consider using in our products once they are fully approved in the EU.
Verdict: Sure, but no EU approval yet
Coconut sugar and date sugar
OK, so if most sugar-free sweeteners are no longer on the menu for safety or regulatory reasons ... would we surely consider a sugar alternative like coconut sugar or date sugar?
I like these sweeteners and use them myself from time to time. Coconut sugar has a lower GI than cane sugar, and date sugar contains some important minerals like potassium and calcium. When consumed in small amounts, they are perfectly safe for a healthy person. But including them in a protein powder just wouldn't make sense.
This is because these sweeteners are so much less sweet than stevia that it takes a significantly higher amount to get the same level of sweetness. Keep in mind that stevia is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. In theory, this means you would need 200 times the amount if you were using coconut sugar or date sugar. As a result, you'd be consuming extra sugar every time you had a protein shake.
By my calculations, if we were to use coconut sugar instead of stevia, our protein powder would provide 9-12 grams of sugar in each serving.For someone who consumes multiple servings of our products every day, those extra sugars would soon add up. Using coconut sugar would also mean less protein per scoop as the more functional ingredients have to make way just to soften for more sugar. As a result, you'd only get around 17g of protein per serving, versus the 25g you're getting in our current formula.
The reason we use stevia in the first place is because it delivers concentrated sweetness with no added sugar. This way you don't consume any extra sugar when you use our protein powder, but you can still enjoy a great tasting protein shake.
We use coconut sugar in our MAGIC products, but since the serving size is much smaller, you don't need nearly as much. In addition, MAGIC is less about achieving the perfect macro ratio and more about making the benefits of adaptogenic medicinal mushrooms tasty and easily digestible for everyone.
Conclusion: Safe, but not suitable for protein powder.
- With so many options on the market today, more than ever, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to sweetening our food and drinks. I hope this article has enabled you to understand them better so that you can make informed decisions about which sweeteners to use in your own diet.
Based on the research currently available, I am still very confident that stevia is the healthiest and safest choice for our protein powders. A little xylitol or erythritol won't harm most people, and sweeteners like coconut sugar and date sugar are okay in moderation. I will also keep a close eye on monk fruit for future product development.
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