One lump or two is no longer a casual question meant for tea time.
Those lumps, referring to sugar, have become quite the subject of intrigue…that is, once man invented a way to make this element of sweetness for foods and beverages calorie-free!
Since their invention, more than one hundred years ago, artificial sweeteners have been more and more prevalent. But, we’ve learned over time that this perk regarding calories isn’t as healthy as it may have seemed!
So then, surely you’ve heard of a few of the newest players in the sport of sweetness: monk fruit and stevia?
But, one has to wonder, are these also detrimental to our health? They’re certainly not listed as such!
So, are these natural sweeteners all they’re hyped up to be?
Are stevia and monk fruit the same as all the other artificial sweeteners out there today, or do they stand out above the rest, delivering low-calorie or calorie-free perks and containing real benefits to your health?
Let’s find out…
The Purpose And Posed Threats Of Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar isn’t only a crucial element of a child’s birthday party or an evening spent trick or treating near the end of October.
Sugar, natural or added, is a real part of our everyday diet.
And, we’re not only talking about cane sugar or the sugars found in cakes and pies. I mean delicious and healthy blueberries contain natural sugars, as do healthy vegetables like beets and peas.
But, like anything that can be good when natural or okay when consumed in moderation, sugar can be a detriment to your health.
Too much sugar can wreak havoc on your oral health, your weight (waistline, in particular), and it is thought to be a root element in the cause of many degenerative diseases as well, when consumed in excess.
And, it is likely due to these potential detriments of consuming too much sugar that many folks have chosen to seek artificial, non nutritive, options when it comes to sweetening their foods and beverages.
Artificial sweeteners are food additives that mimic the taste of sugar, but these substitutes have less food energy.
And unfortunately, to obtain this outcome, these sweeteners have been concocted within the confines of a lab…nope, nothing natural here.
The top 5 artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA are:
- Acesulfame potassium
Despite their allure, delivering sweet flavors without the high sugar, high calorie price tag, studies done on animals regarding the effects of artificial sweeteners have consistently proven them to have adverse effects on the health of consumers.
Such artificial sweeteners have been proven to cause:
- Weight gain (yes, despite the intention of allowing you to consume less calories by incorporating such substitutes)
- Brain tumors
- Bladder cancer
- Allergic reactions (leading to rashes, hives, itching, eczema, etc)
- Stomach distress (leading to diarrhea, nausea, stomach pain, dizziness)
And, aside from these already disturbing findings, new research has shown these artificial sweeteners to have damaging effects on the bacterial balance in the gut, leading to rising insulin levels, an increased risk of some cancers, and increased appetite (thought to be at the root of their role in weight gain).
Sadly, a substance invented to give people an option to enjoy sugar, while avoiding sugar, seems to have caused a greater hindrance to health than sugar itself!
So, just as the amount of research shedding light on the dangers of artificial sweeteners has increased, so has the popularity of other sugar alternatives, namely monk fruit and stevia.
Monk fruit and stevia are natural, not concocted in a lab, low or non-calorie sweeteners.
Even better, instead of posing risks, these may actually contain benefits to your health!
All You Need To Know About Monk Fruit And Stevia
Monk fruit and stevia are both natural sweeteners that are derived from plants.
Containing little to no calories, each has increased in popularity as healthy alternatives to real sugar, calorie dense natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup, and health hazards like the artificial sweeteners we named in the section above.
Here we’ll take a look at each one separately, discussing their benefits, potential risks, and reasons why they seem to live up to the hype.
Monk fruit is native to China. It is also known as swingle fruit, or lo han guo. Like stevia, monk fruit is not a new fruit, or new sugar alternative. It has simply grown in popularity as research consistently continues to prove the detriment to using artificial sweeteners.
Monk fruit received its name through the way in which it was cultivated, this vine growing gourd-like fruit often gathered by Buddhist monks.
And, as the fresh monk fruit tends to spoil quickly, it is most often dried.
Monk fruit extract contains substances called mogrosides, known for their intense sweetness.
Just how sweet, you ask?
The International Food Information Council Foundation states that “monk fruit is around 150-200 times sweeter than sugar.” In other words, a little goes a long way!
Most folks appreciate monk fruit sweetener for the following reasons:
- Monk fruit extract contains zero calories.
- It is available in many forms: granules, powders, and even liquids.
- There is no evidence of monk fruit causing any harmful side effects.
- It contains no carbohydrates.
- There is actually no sugar in pure monk fruit extract.
And, unlike artificial sweeteners, which pose great health risks, monk fruit can actually serve to improve your health!
Oral health can be benefited from the flavonoids in monk fruit as they seem to inhibit the growth of bacteria that contribute to both cavities and gum disease.
And, since there is no sugar in monk fruit extract, this natural sweetener does not affect blood sugar levels.
In fact, research that has been conducted in animals shows the mogrosides in monk fruit can actually help to control blood sugar levels and may even help to prevent complications in people with diabetes.
Other animal studies also suggest that monk fruit may have great antioxidant properties, with results indicating the following in rodents:
- Improved insulin production and response
- A decrease in circulating sugar
- A decrease in the amount of oxidative stress in certain pancreatic cells
- A reduction in liver damage
Both the colon and throat have benefited from protection against disease due to mogrosides in rodent studies as well.
While these have yet to be tested in humans, such findings are promising.
Monk fruit can be used in many ways and in many foods and beverages, from hot and cold drinks, to smoothies and sauces, as well as baked goods and desserts.
One thing to be aware of if/when using monk fruit as a natural sweetener – some manufacturers add maltodextrin or dextrose to balance the taste of monk fruit and this could be detrimental depending on your nutritional needs.
So, when choosing monk fruit as a natural sweetener to replace sugar, be sure to carefully read the label.
Stevia is derived from the Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant, a shrub belonging to the sunflower family, native to Paraguay, Brazil, and other South American countries. Though it is now also grown in both Japan and China.
Like monk fruit, stevia has greatly grown in popularity over the past several years.
In fact, stevia can actually be purchased at some garden stores allowing it to be grown at home!
While stevia is technically not calorie free, its calorie content is so low per serving that it can be classified as a zero calorie, non nutritive sweetener.
This particular natural sweetener goes by multiple trade names, such as:
- Stevia Extract In The Raw
There are two steviol glycosides that are responsible for providing the sweet taste of stevia: stevioside and rebaudioside.
And, if you thought monk fruit was sweet when analyzed against table sugar, take a look at stevia:
- Stevioside is said to be 250-300 times sweeter than table sugar.
- And, rebaudioside is 350-450 times sweeter than table sugar.
Due to stevioside having a bitter aftertaste, most products sold to consumers are made up of the latter, rebaudioside.
Ah, but what about the benefits, right?
Stevia, like monk fruit, can provide benefits to your health in many ways:
- Being classified as a zero calorie sweetener, stevia can decrease unwanted calories in one’s diet (many are looking to stevia to replace high calorie sugars even in the diets of children).
- Some glycosides in stevia have been found to have favorable benefits on blood pressure as they are able to increase urine output, increase sodium excretion, and dilate blood vessels.
- Some studies have suggested that stevia may be able to regulate heartbeat and normalize blood pressure.
- Stevia contains sterols and antioxidant compounds, specifically kaempferol, which has been shown to reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer by up to 23 percent.
- Research has shown stevia to contribute no calories or carbohydrates, having zero effect on blood sugar or insulin, making them safe for diabetics to use.
- In one study, stevia was found to provide great reductions in blood glucose post-meals in diabetics.
- As the intake of added sugars is known to be a contributing factor in weight gain, stevia offers a calorie free option for those seeking to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight while still enjoying a variety of foods and beverages.
- When used in gum, stevia has been shown to reduce bacteria that contribute to tooth decay.
- Stevia is thought to have satiating properties, keeping you feeling full for longer periods of time.
- It can potentially keep cholesterol at a healthy level.
- Stevia has been known to benefit the bacterial balance within the gut.
Due to its versatility, you can use stevia in many ways, from making baked goods and desserts, to using it to sweeten both hot and cold beverages.
You may have even noticed multiple foods in your grocery store now contain stevia: from ice creams to yogurts, dressings to candies, gums and soft drinks, even prepared vegetables and pickled foods.
Unfortunately, despite its multitude of healthy benefits, and though stevia extract has been classified by the FDA as safe and being free of side effects, even determining that, by themselves, steviol glycosides are unlikely to cause allergic reactions when consumed in foods, there are some concerns to be aware of when using stevia.
- Originally, the indigenous peoples of Paraguay used the stevia plant as a form of birth control. It is the steviol glycosides, rather their steroidal structure, that can potentially act as an endocrine disruptor.
- Some of the stevia products on grocery shelves today, like Truvia, are highly processed, and contain very little stevia (some containing nearly 85% erythritol).
- Stevia may potentially increase insulin secretion.
- When stevia is combined with other sugar alcohols, it can potentially cause stomach distress.
- People with low blood pressure may benefit from avoiding stevia due to its potential to dilate blood vessels.
- As stevia is a diuretic, people on certain medications may need to avoid this natural sweetener.
As we’ve seen here when examining monk fruit and stevia, both are healthier alternatives to lab created artificial sweeteners, which are known to cause a variety of health concerns.
And, both of these zero calorie, zero carb, natural sweeteners boast multiple benefits to your health.
However, when choosing either of these, monk fruit or stevia, be sure to exercise caution regarding any potential concerns according to the information listed above (namely with stevia).
And, as with any products, be sure to read the packaging labels, being wary of other additives that could create cause for concern.
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