Lose weight by going sugar free - Sugar alternatives put to the test

Most of us avoid sugar when we are trying to lose weight, which is sensible. But the sweet stuff simply taste so good. The sugar industry wants us to believe that sugar is the number one energy supplier and increases our performance. There are few topics which create as much confusion as that of sugar substitutes.

We want to put an end to that! This article debunks the myths surrounding sugar and shows you how you can live healthier without having to give anything up. We take a close look at sugar substitues and answer the following questions: are there a healthy sugar alternatives? What lies behind sugar alternatives? And are they really so much healthier than industrial sugar?


Standard household sugar - why is it unhealthy?

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Before we turn our attention to healthy sugar substitutes, we need to understand why household sugar is bad for us in excess amounts.

The two best known types of sugar are glucose (grape sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar). They are both carbohydrates and belong to the so-called “simple sugars” (monosaccharides).

Humans need carbohydrates to ensure the basic functioning of their bodies e.g. for brain and organ function. Would you like to learn more about carbohydrates? You can find out everything you need to know about short- and long-chain carbohydrates and how they are used in your body here.

Do you need sugar to function at your best?

No, your body does not need any extra sugary, high-calorie foods to be efficient. It draws glucose from normal foods that are consumed through a balanced and healthy diet.

Hence ‘sugar is the number one energy supplier’, is a nonsensical argument. Moreover, this energy is bad for our circulation, as it is digested far too quickly and thus immediately raises our blood sugar levels. This in turn causes a serotonin release in the body, which makes us feel sluggish.

Sugar is pure energy, in a very simple form, which the body cannot do much with. We can benefit from the instant energy supply from sugar after a hard workout or during an endurance run, but even in those cases, there are better solutions than industrial sugar.

Glucose and fructose are combined to form sucrose (a dual sugar) which is the common household sugar we know. Sucrose is found in sweets, fruit juices and soft drinks. It is an unhealthy sugar which can lead to dental caries, diabetes and high blood pressure. It is also high in calories and is therefore unhelpful if you are trying to lose weight.

1g household sugar = 4 calories, 1g carbohydrates, 1g sugar

The high sugar consumption in our society is causing a rise in obesity and type II diabetes. Here you can find out how to eat healthy and tasty food despite diabetes.

You should strike industrial sugar – in the form of highly processed foods – from your shopping list. Give it a try!

The exception: fruit. A healthy fructose?

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Fruit does not contain glucose, but fructose. However, according to nutritional science, not all fructose is the same. The UK department of health recommends we consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day (about 650 g in total).

However, vegetables should make up a larger proportion of your “5 a day” than fruit. In addition the vegetable portions should be larger than the fruit portions. Vegetables in particular provide us with important vitamins and micronutrients and have a positive influence on our health.

Not all fructose is equal.

Industrially produced fructose in the form of chocolate, soft drinks, ready-made sauces or artificial fruit smoothies can have considerable negative effects on our health in the long run. Artificially produced fructose syrup or fructose-glucose syrup is hidden in many ready meals.

This syrup is even cheaper to produce and sweeter than sugar. One would have to eat several kilos of fruit every day to even come close to the critical range that would cause fatty liver disease or diabetes. However, with products containing fructose-syrup, this threshold is quickly reached.

What you need to know about household sugar

We have put together a few facts below to encourage you to stay away from household sugar when you next go shopping:

  • Acid formation from the metabolism of sugar causes dental caries.
  • Excessive and frequent sugar consumption is often linked to obesity.
  • Sugar can be addictive – if consumed regularly it creates an addictive state.
  • Too much sugar is a risk factor for many diseases (including type 2 diabetes and colon cancer).
  • Sugar often gets added to products during their production stage making the proportion of sugar or sugar substitutes unnaturally high in many foods.
  • Sugar and other sweeteners manipulate our sense of taste – the more sweetness we taste, the more hardened we become to it and the more we need of it to experience the sweet taste.

Recommendations for the dosage of sugar in our diet

The UK government recommends that free sugars should not make up more than 5% of the calories we get from food and drink each day. For adults with a total energy intake of 2000 kcal/day, this recommendation corresponds to a maximum intake of 30 g free sugars per day.

The reality, however, is quite different: per capita sugar consumption in England is about 100g per day. This estimate only includes household sugar, sugar substitutes are not included.


Why do we consume so much sugar?

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The high consumption of sugar in today’s society is mainly due to the increasingly processed nature of foods. We have gotten used to the sweet taste. Our tolerance for sugar has gotten very high which means we need our foods to become sweeter and sweeter for us to notice the sweetness. The food industry reacts to this by adding more sugar or sweeteners to our foods.

Sugar is often given a different name.

Often we aren’t even aware that we are eating something containing sugar. This is because food manufacturers only have to put the term “sugar” on the label if the product contains sucrose (the combination of glucose and fructose). However, there are many other sugar compounds which are equally harmful to the body but go by different names. You need to look out for these in the list of ingredients.

Manufacturers even advertise that they have not added any sugar to their product, only for it to appear under the guise of another sugar compound. When you look at the list of ingredients, look out for the following, which are essentially sugar under a different name:

  • Glucose-fructose syrup
  • Fruit sweetener
  • Barley malt extract
  • Dextrose
  • Sweet whey powder

What do I need to know about sugar alternatives?

In order to enjoy sweetness despite being on a diet, and without endangering your weightloss success, you may choose to use sugar alternatives. When looking for a suitable sugar substitute, a distinction should be made between sugar alternatives and sweeteners/ sugar alcohols:

Sugar alternatives vs. sweeteners/ sugar alcohols

Sugar alternatives are another form of conventional sugar, so are not a real substitute. They still have a certain sugar content and are high in calories. They are only marginally “healthier” than industrial sugar.

Sweeteners and sugar alcohols, on the other hand, are much lower in calories and in most cases (at normal dosages) do not have the unhealthy effects on our health that industrial sugar does.


Comparing sugar alternatives

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Here is an overview of the most popular sugar alternatives:

Honey - a healthy sugar alternative or a tempting sugar trap?

Honey is a common sugar alternative and a naturally sweet substance produced by honey bees.

There is also mass production in the honey industry.

Due to mass production and artificial honeycomb production, honey has lost its nutritional quality.

Honey has a very sweet taste and fewer calories than conventional household sugar – yet the sugar content is relatively high, which does not make it the optimal solution as a sugar substitute and is only a partly healthy sugar.

Honey
Sweetening power Less sweet than sugar, relatively neutral taste, the darker the syrup, the stronger the taste.
Environmental impact Not a sustainable product, due to long transport distances and the resulting high energy consumption.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 300 kcal
Carbohydrates: 75 g
Of which sugar: 75 g

Is agave syrup a healthy sugar alternative?

Agave syrup is obtained from various Mexican agave plant species. The plant juice is dehydrated by heating, which results in the thick, sugar-rich agave syrup.

Compared to refined sugar, agave syrup contains more minerals, secondary plant substances and trace elements. In addition, it contains fewer calories, but it should still be enjoyed in moderation because the total calories and sugar content are still high (100g offer a full 300 calories and 75g sugar).

In addition, agave syrup is not a regional product, the great demand has lead to the formation of many monocultures in the producing countries, which effects the ecological balance in those countries. Long transport distances and the resulting high energy consumption makes agave syrup a rather unsustainable product.

Agave Syrup
Sweetening Power Less sweet than sugar, relatively neutral taste, the darker the syrup, the stronger the taste.
Environmental impact Not a sustainable product, due to long transport distances and the resulting high energy consumption.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 300 kcal
Carbohydrates: 75 g
Of which sugar: 75 g

Is coconut syrup a healthy sugar alternative?

Coconut syrup is the thickened and crystallized juice of the coconut palm. It consists mainly of sucrose (household sugar) and therefore has as many calories as household sugar. Saying that, coconut sugar has a low glycaemic index and therefore hardly causes the blood sugar level to rise. The sweetening power is slightly less than that of normal sugar. Contrary to what the name might suggest, the syrup does not taste like coconut, but rather caramel.

Although the calories in coconut sugar are comparable to that of household sugar, the syrup is the least processed of the sugar alternatives. So if that is important to you, then this is a good alternative. However, the syrup has to be transported thousands of kilometres from the countries of production to end up on our shelves, so the impact on the environment is bad.

Coconut syrup
Sweetening Power Slightly less sweet than normal sugar, caramel taste.
Environmental impact Rather bad – is transported thousands of kilometres from the countries of production.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 302 kcal
Carbohydrates: 74 g
Of which sugar: 69 g

Is rice syrup a good alternative to sugar?

Rice syrup originates from Japan and is made from rice flour or rice grains. Although rice syrup contains fewer calories than industrial sugar, it is also much less sweet. This means that much more of the yellow-golden thick juice has to be used to achieve the same level of sweetness as from sugar.

This means that you may end up consuming even more calories than if you were to use normal sugar. In addition, the syrup has a high glycemic index, even higher than that of household sugar, so rice syrup causes the blood sugar level to rise rapidly and is not suitable for diabetics. Rice syrup tastes mildly sweet and has a slightly nutty-caramel flavour.

The rice from which it is made must be imported from Asia. The brown rice syrup in particular may contain high traces of the heavy metal arsenic. However, unlike industrial sugar, rice syrup contains a number of healthy micronutrients, such as potassium.

Rice syrup
Sweetening Power Mildly sweet, with a slightly nutty-caramel-like aroma, much less sweet than sugar.
Environmental impact Rather bad – rice is imported from the countries of production so there are many food miles involved.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 316 kcal
Carbohydrates: 79 g
Of which sugar: 53 g

Sweetener and sugar alcohols in comparison

Sweetener and sugar alternatives

Sweeteners and sugar substitutes (bulk sweeteners) are grouped together as “sweeteners”. Like all other food additives, sweeteners must be evaluated and approved by the European Food Safety Authority before use. There are currently 19 sweeteners approved in the EU. Below we outline the most common ones:

Stevia

What is stevia? Stevia is one of the most popular herbal sugar alternatives. Stevia is extracted from the leaves of the Stevia plant. The production is highly industrial, and in some cases environmentally harmful substances are used. Stevia has only been approved in the EU and UK since 2011. It is cheaper and sweeter than normal sugar and has almost no calories.

Stevia has up to 450 times more sweetening power than household sugar.

Stevia has a different kind of sweetness to household sugar and tastes slightly bitter. While it has no added healthy minerals and cannot be used to replace sugar 1:1, Stevia is a good sugar substitute. There are many snack products on the market which contain Stevia instead of sugar, for example Stevia chocolate.

Only a very small amount of this sugar substitute is needed for sweetening. Stevia should therefore be used with a very delicate hand.

Stevia
Sweetening Power Very high sweetening power (450 times higher than household sugar), slightly bitter taste.
Environmental impact Highly industrial production process, use of environmentally harmful substances.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 0.6 kcal
Carbohydrates: 99,9 g
of which sugar: 0 g

Aspartame

Aspartame is a chemically produced sweetener and one of the most widely used sweeteners in the world. The production amounts to about 20,000 tons annually and comes mainly from Asia. Aspartame, like sugar, has four kilocalories per gram. So how is it possible that the sweetener is used as a “zero calorie” variant in so many foods and drinks?

Aspartame is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

This means that far less of it needs to be used for sweetening. It tastes “naturally” like sugar and has no unusual aftertaste. When you see products labelled as “zero”, “light”, “sugarfree” or “fitness/dietary/wellness”, it is very likely that they contain aspartame.

Aspartame has only been approved as a sweetener for general use since 1994; and is still a highly controversial sweetener even today. It has even been criticised for causing “aspartame poisoning”. The symptoms of an overdose can be described as headaches and dizziness, blurred vision, and destruction of the retina. However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has so far classified the sweetener as safe.

Is aspartame therefore healthier than industrial sugar? In pure calorie terms, yes, but the health risks of aspartame consumption as outlined above suggest we should enjoy in moderation!

When buying food, you can look out for the label “E 951”, which tells you that aspartame is contained.

Aspartame
Sweetening Power Very high sweetening power, 200 times stronger than sugar, no inherent taste.
Environmental impact World production is located in Asia, imports tend to leave a bad ecological footprint.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 400 kcal
Carbohydrates: 0 g
Of which sugar: 0 g

Sugar alcohol xylitol

Birch sugar, or xylitol, is a natural sugar alcohol, which has about 40% fewer calories than household sugar. It has a low glycemic index causing blood sugar levels to rise less. The sugar substitute is produced synthetically. Firstly the wood sugar xylose is produced with the help of caustic soda and sulphuric acid at high temperatures. In the next step it becomes the sugar substitute xylitol. The sweetening power of xylitol is equal to that of sugar.

Xylitol is up to ten times more expensive than normal household sugar.

A disadvantage of xylitol is that it is about ten times more expensive than household sugar. An advantage is that this sugar substitute does not cause caries, hence why it is often used in chewing gum. Whether xylitol is healthy or unhealthy remains a matter of constant debate. Its metabolism in the body has not yet been sufficiently researched so the effect the sugar substitute has on our health is still unclear. Too much xylitol (over 0.5g/kg body weight) can cause a flatulent and laxative effect.

Xylitol
Sweetening Power Similar sweetening power as sugar.
Environmental impact High energy consumption due to the complex manufacturing process.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 240 kcal
Carbohydrates: 100 g
of which sugar: 0 g
of which polyhydric alcohols: 100 g

Erythritol

Similar to xylitol, erythritol is a sweetener and sugar alcohol. The disadvantage of erythritol is that it is only about 70% as sweet as sugar. Erythritol is not digestible by the body, which is why it is declared as having 0 calories and only carbohydrates. Erythritol has no influence on our blood sugar.

An overdose of erythritol can also lead to diarrhoea and flatulence, so it should be treated with caution – especially because it is not as sweet as sugar and is therefore easy to consume a lot of it. To produce it, carbohydrates are chemically converted using bacteria and enzymes. Erythritol may be called organic if it is produced from domestic and controlled organically grown glucose or corn and is not genetically modified.

Erythrite
Sweetening Power Less sweet than sugar.
Environmental impact Better for the environment than sugar if it carries the organic label.
Nutritional values per 100g Energy: 0 kcal
Carbohydrates: 100 g
of which sugar: 0 g
of which polyhydric alcohols: 100 g

Difference between sweeteners and sugar alcohols

11 Sweeters 8 Sugar substitutes/sugar alcohols (Polyols)
  • Acesulfame K (E 950)
  • Aspartame (E 951)
  • Cyclohexanesulfamic acid and its Na and Ca salts (cyclamate) (E 952)
  • Saccharin and its Na, K and Ca salts (E 954)
  • Sucralose (E 955)
  • Thaumatin (E 957)
  • Neohesperidine DC (E 959)
  • Steviol glycosides (E 960)
  • Neotame (E 961)
  • Salt of aspartame-acesulfame (E 962)
  • Advantam (E 969)
  • Sorbitol (E 420)
  • Mannite (E 421)
  • Isomalt (E 953)
  • Polyglycitol syrup (E 964)
  • Maltitol (E 965)
  • Lactite (E 966)
  • Xylitol (E 967)
  • Erythritol (E 968)

All of the above sweeteners have been tested in the EU and have been proven by expert bodies to be safe for consumption. In principle, all of them can therefore be consumed in moderate amounts. However, excessive consumption of sugar substitutes can cause diarrhoea and gastro-intestinal problems. That is why, all foods containing more than 10% of these sweeteners must bear the statement “may have a laxative effect if consumed in excess“.

Do sweeteners and sugar substitutes make us as happy as normal sugar?

It depends on which sugar substitute you use. Sugar alternatives that “only” represent an alternative because they contain less sugar and therefore fewer calories than normal sugar, naturally give you a similar high feeling. But sugar substitutes in the form of sweeteners or sugar alcohols, which do not contain any sugar, do not contribute to the formation of serotonin. Serotonin is the messenger substance in the body, which stimulates the happy feeling in our central nervous system through stimuli.

Sugar makes us happy – sweeteners & deceive us.

The mood brightening effect of an ice cream or slice of cake comes from the sugar it contains. The sugar stimulates our brain making us feel good and happy. It is important to be aware of this process in the body, and to deal with it consciously. It is perfectly legitimate to allow yourself a reward every now and then for example once a week.

Although sweeteners don’t give our body this mood-lifting effect, they can be a great help in the fight against our flab by reducing the number of calories we consume.

Are sweeteners and sugar alcohols dangerous to health?

Although experts classify the consumption of sweeteners and sugar alcohols in moderate quantities as harmless, their effects can vary from person to person. With these low-calorie sugar substitutes, a closer look should be taken at the digestibility and metabolism for our intestinal flora. Some sweeteners and sugar alcohols are even criticised for being even more carcinogenic than industrial sugar, although this has not yet been sufficiently scientifically proven.

The most commonly used and approved sweeteners in the EU are:

  • Aspartame (E951)
  • Acesulfame (E950)
  • Saccarin (E954)
  • Sucralose (E599)
  • Stevioside, also known as Stevia (E960)

Many experts suspect them of having an influence on our metabolism, the composition of the intestinal bacteria (microbiome) and our appetite. This is because sweeteners and sugar alcohols can have up to 3,000 times more sweetening power than household sugar and stimulate our sense of taste so much that we have an even stronger craving for sweets.

The sweet taste fools our body into thinking it is eating sugary foods, which leads to an automatic release of insulin. However, since the body doesn’t actually receive the sugar fix it was expecting, we get an even greater craving for something sweet later on.

Sweeteners & sugar alternatives bring on sugar cravings

We often experience food cravings after consuming zero and light products.


It's the sugar intake that counts.

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Many factors play a role in losing weight and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Healthy sugar should taste good, be affordable and easy to use. It is often a matter of trial and error to find one that works for you. However, no matter which substitute you choose, the quantity is important. Sugar is – in small amounts – completely harmless and should not be feared in your diet. The important thing is to find a healthy balance. Do not forbid yourself from eating sugar as it will only increase your desire for sugar laden foods. You can find many delicious recipes with great nutritional values for your diet in our large recipe database at Upfit. What will ultimately bring you to your goal is a knowledge and awareness of healthy eating and nutrition. Deprivation and blame are counterproductive. You can find everything you need to know about nutrition, training and motivation in our coach section.

So sugar is not the enemy per se. However, you should avoid industrially sweetened products such as soft drinks, smoothies or desserts as much as possible – because they have harmful effects on our health.


Hidden calories - sugar traps you should be aware of!

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The following products are often not thought of as being high in sugar and therefore we do not notice the large amounts of sugar and calories we consume when eating them. Here is an overview of four sugary food categories that you may not have been aware of as such:

  • Condiments: pasta sauces, tomato ketchup, BBQ sauces, salad dressings — these all contain a massive amount of sugar!
  • Canned foods: tinned vegetables such as kidney beans, peas and pickled vegetables can contain a lot of sugar, which is often added as a flavour enhancer and preservative to the tinned food.
  • Dietary / fitness / wellness products: counterintuitively these are often not suitable for dieting. If the label says “fat-free / low-fat” or “zero fat”, there is usually another calorie bomb in it, namely sugar, in order that the product still tastes good.
  • Dried fruit and smoothies: offer fewer vitamins than fresh fruit, and instead a lot of sugar. Fructose is the “healthy” fruit sugar, but in the production of these products the sugar is concentrated and usually even more is added — they are big sugar traps!

So sugar is not the enemy per se. However, you should avoid industrially sweetened products such as soft drinks, smoothies or desserts as much as possible – because they have harmful effects on our health. You can find delicious and healthy smoothies for losing weight, which you can easily make yourself, here.


These simple rules will help you get through your diet

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In general, the less sugar the better. Because the effects of sweeteners have not yet been fully researched, caution is advised when consuming them.

So before you resort to sugar replacements, think about your diet: do you really need the artificial sweetener or can you simply reduce the amount of sweetness in your diet? Are you lacking inspiration for healthy recipes without sugar? In our large recipe database you will find healthy and delicious recipes to suit every taste. Alternatively be inspired by our free nutrition plans.

Taste buds can be trained like a muscle.

Training our taste buds and “weaning” them from sugar will take time, but our taste buds are surprisingly capable of learning and developing.

We can’t recommend a specific sugar substitute for your diet, but we do advise you to find a sugar alternative or substitute that you can tolerate and feel comfortable with. In any case, research any possible side effects before consumption.

With these Upfit sugar rules you will soar through your diet:

  1. The less sugar, the better – pay attention to hidden sources of sugar and tempting advertisements in your diet.
  2. If you are reaching for too many sugar alternatives or substitutes, it is time to rethink your diet: do you really need the sweetness? Wean your taste buds away from it gently.
  3. Whenever possible, replace sugary foods with unprocessed fruits or products with “natural” sugar, which provide fibre and micronutrients.
  4. Go for natural fruit instead of artificial smoothies, juices, etc.
  5. Reduce your ecological footprint. Get your honey from regional beekeepers and your sugar from sugar beets from controlled organic cultivation.
  6. If you include sugar alternatives in your diet, use with caution at first. Sugar substitutes in particular can cause stomach/intestinal problems when consumed in excess.

How much should you eat to lose weight?

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Sources

https://www.bfr.bund.de/cm/343/bewertung_von_suessstoffen.pdf
https://www.efsa.europa.eu/de/topics/topic/sweeteners
https://www.dge.de/presse/pm/empfehlung-zur-maximalen-zuckerzufuhr-in-deutschland/
https://www.dge.de/fileadmin/public/doc/ws/stellungnahme/DGE-Stellungnahme-Gemuese-Obst-2012.pdf


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