Everybody seems to be looking for info on monk fruit and whole food sweeteners. But are these sugar alternatives really better for you?
According to a recent issue of the Exploding Topics newsletter (forwarded to me by a listener), “whole food sweetener” is a hugely trending topic right now. As the editors put it:
Health-conscious consumers want to sweeten their food with substances that are natural and 'whole food.'
They go on to explain that whole food sweeteners include things like maple syrup, sweet potato puree, as well as plant-based, noncaloric sweeteners made from stevia and monk fruit.
What's better about whole foods sweeteners?
The concept of whole foods sweetener seems to be based on the notion that we’re better off eating whole and minimally processed foods. That’s something I can certainly get behind. As a general rule, whole foods tend to be more nutrient-dense and less energy-dense than more, highly-processed foods. For example, a baked potato contains more nutrients and fewer calories than a bag of potato chips.
Prioritizing whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, meat, and fish is a great way to improve the nutritional quality of your diet.
Prioritizing whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, meat, and fish is a great way to improve the nutritional quality of your diet. I generally expand this category to include minimally-processed foods, like yogurt, canned beans and tomatoes, olive oil, soy sauce, peanut butter, soymilk, tofu, bread, and pasta.
How processed is too processed?
Technically, these are all processed foods. So are pasteurized milk, filtered honey, frozen strawberries, and any vegetable that's had the dirt washed off it.
In truth, most food we come into contact with lies somewhere on a processing spectrum, ranging from "just plucked off the tree" to "I can't even tell what food this used to be." Although I think it's unrealistic—and unnecessary—to completely avoid all processed food, choosing foods that are closer to the unprocessed end of the spectrum is a great idea.
Choosing foods that are closer to the unprocessed end of the spectrum is a great idea.
As with just about anything, though, the avoidance of processed foods can be taken to extremes. For example, some in the whole food movement believe that oils should not be included in a healthy diet because they are extracted from whole foods. According to this view, avocados, and olives would acceptable, but avocado and olive oil would not. The whole food sweetener movement may be driven by similar logic.
From a health and nutrition perspective, I don’t think we need to eliminate oil from the diet—especially when we’re using it to prepare whole foods! Dressing your salad or roasting your veggies in olive oil may add some extra calories. But it also adds valuable nutrients, such as monounsaturated fats and polyphenols. Adding oil to vegetables can also help you absorb more of the nutrients in those vegetables. And if it makes those vegetables more appealing and palatable, so that you eat more of them (and less of other things), it’s a win all the way around.
In terms of health and nutrition, I think the whole food sweetener concept makes even less sense.
What counts as a whole food sweetener?
Sweet potato puree, maple syrup, and monk-fruit-based sweeteners have all been mentioned as whole food sweeteners. But are they really?
Sweet potato puree, like applesauce, is a whole(ish) food that is naturally sweet but is not really a sweetener.
Sweet potato puree would only be a whole food if you puree the skin along with the flesh, which I don’t think is generally done. But even then, its use as a sweetener is pretty limited. You can’t stir a spoonful of pureed sweet potato into your iced tea, or drizzle it over your oatmeal or yogurt. It isn't really sweet enough to completely take the place of sugar or other sweeteners in recipes. I would say that sweet potato puree, like applesauce, is a whole(ish) food that is naturally sweet but is not really a sweetener.
Maple syrup on the other hand is a much more concentrated sweetener and could reasonably take the place of sugar. But is it really a whole food? Maple syrup is extracted from maple trees, leaving all the fiber (in this case, wood pulp) behind. Is this really that much different than the syrup extracted from sugar cane? Just because the sap is the only part of the maple tree or the sugar cane that we consume doesn’t make it a whole food.
Why monk fruit isn’t a whole food sweetener
I think it’s even more illogical to include monk-fruit- and stevia-based sweeteners in the list of whole-food-based sweeteners. Both of these are noncaloric sweeteners extracted from plants. And both are considered to be somewhat more healthful than artificial noncaloric sweeteners like saccharin, sucralose, or aspartame. But they could hardly be more processed.
Both monk-fruit- and stevia-based sweeteners are highly purified and refined extracts of whole plants. Whatever their merits, they are certainly not whole foods.
RELATED: Is Stevia a Natural Sweetener?
The only sweetener that I can think of which could truly be considered a whole food—nothing added, nothing taken away—is honey. (If you can think of another one, let me know.)
But all of this is somewhat beside the point. Regardless of the degree of processing involved, all of these concentrated sweeteners, including the ones we consider to be more natural, come with the same caveat—they should be consumed in limited amounts.
The amount of sugar matters more than the type
The recommended guideline is to limit your added sugar intake to no more than five percent of your total calories (or about 25-30 g per day). And honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and brown rice syrup would all count toward that allowance—just like cane sugar and corn syrup would.
If you are sticking to the added sugar guidelines, it doesn’t really matter to your body whether you’re choosing white sugar, honey, corn syrup, or agave nectar.
Some like to point out that the more natural sweeteners like maple syrup or honey include some nutrients that are not found in refined sugar. And this is true. Maple syrup, for example, contains small amounts of calcium, iron, and magnesium. But you’d have to consume an awful lot of it in order to get meaningful amounts of those nutrients.
In the end, if you are sticking to the added sugar guidelines, it doesn’t really matter to your body whether you’re choosing white sugar, honey, corn syrup, or agave nectar. And by the same token, if you’re not sticking to those guidelines, over-consuming natural or whole food sweeteners isn’t going to spare you the consequences.
Even sugar-free sweeteners should be limited
Noncaloric sweeteners like those made from monk fruit or stevia are not counted as added sugar, however. They contain virtually no sugar or calories. And, unlike the artificial noncaloric sweeteners, like Splenda and Equal, they have not (yet) been found to promote unhealthy changes in gut bacteria or blood sugar metabolism. Nonetheless, I still think they should be used with the same degree of moderation as we would use for caloric sweeteners.
Even if they aren’t contributing calories or sugar, consuming a lot of hyper-sweetened foods and beverages is a great way to train a sweet tooth. Not only do these processed foods tend to crowd more nutritious whole foods out of our diets, but they can also dull our tastebuds and make healthy foods less enjoyable.
RELATED: What's a Moderate Intake for Sugar-Free Sweeteners?
Exploding trend or not, I think the whole foods sweetener movement is a bandwagon you can take a pass on.