Some people just don’t do milk.
There are many reasons why. Maybe you have a dairy intolerance. Maybe you don’t like the way cow’s milk tastes. Or maybe you think cow milk is unhealthy.
I won’t contest the reasons why. That’s another topic for another post, and I’ve already covered the most common anti-dairy arguments. If you want to read about my stance on the healthfulness (or lack thereof) of dairy, read what I’ve written about raw milk, cheese, yogurt, and dairy in general. If you want to learn how to identify dairy intolerance, read this.
But the fact is, lots of people either need or want a milk alternative. Water is great to drink, but it’s not the right smoothie substrate, and it can’t replace milk in recipes or coffee drinks. You need something vaguely white and thick enough to pass as milk.
Normally in a post like this, I’d cover all the different varieties and what sets each apart—their strengths and weaknesses, their nutrient profiles, their unhealthy ingredients. And I’ll certainly do that today, but first there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that there are plenty of good choices available. If you want something to drink, use in smoothies, or add to coffee, there are many different plant-based milk that avoid overly offensive ingredients.
The bad news is that most non-dairy milks are usually very low in nutrients. The parent food to these plant-based milks—the almonds, the cashews, the hemp seeds, and so on—are extremely nutrient-dense in and of themselves. Just check out my posts on nuts and seeds to get the nutritional lay of the land. But almond milk isn’t almonds, cashew milk isn’t cashews, and hemp seed milk isn’t hemp seeds.
This isn’t surprising when you think about how nut milks are made: by blending the nuts with a bunch of water and straining out the solids to try to extract some of the nut-ness. It’s pretty inefficient. If you could press an almond to wring out the almond milk, then you’d have something interesting. But that’s not how it works. Most non-dairy milks are superficial mirages of the real thing.
To illustrate this, let’s look at the most popular non-dairy milks and compare the nutrients in the parent nut/seed/plant to the nutrients in the nut/seed/plant-milk (when applicable).
Nutrient Profiles Of Popular Non-Dairy Milks
This is the go-to option for most strict paleo eaters starting out. It sounds like a great idea. Almonds are a nutritious nut, high in magnesium, copper, vitamin E, and manganese. They have a decent amount of protein, some nice prebiotic fiber. In your head, almond milk is fantastic. Unfortunately—and this goes for most of the other nut milks out there—the average jug of store-bought almond milk contains no more than a handful of almonds.
In an ounce of almonds:
- 163 calories
- 6 g carbs: 3.5 g fiber
- 14 g fat: 8.8 g MUFA, 3.4 g linoleic acid (LA), 1.1 g SFA
- 6 g protein
- 50% vitamin E
- 22% vitamin B2
- 31% copper
- 18% magnesium
- 28% manganese
In a cup of almond milk:
- 36 calories
- 1.4 g carbs
- 2.6 g fat: 1.7 g MUFA, 0.6 g linoleic acid
- 1.4 g protein
- 45% vitamin E (added)
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 4% magnesium
- 4% manganese
- 39% calcium (added)
- 8% copper
Not great carry over. No prebiotic almond fiber. Almost no protein, magnesium, manganese, or copper. The richest nutrients are all the ones they added after the fact.
Cashew milk is in the same boat: mostly water, not too much cashew.
In an ounce of cashews:
- 156.8 calories
- 8.6 g carbs: 0.9 g fiber
- 12.4 g fat: 6.7 g MUFA, 2.2 g LA, 2.2 g SFA
- 5.2 g protein
- 10% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 69% copper
- 24% iron
- 20% magnesium
- 20% manganese
- 15% zinc
In a cup of cashew milk:
- 25 calories
- 1.4 g carbs: 0.2 g fiber
- 2 g fat: 1.1 g MUFA, 0.4 g linoleic acid
- 0.8 g protein
- 2% vitamin B1
- 11% copper
- 4% iron
- 3% magnesium
- 3% manganese
- 2% zinc
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 18% vitamin E (added)
- 37% calcium (added)
Traditionally, you make coconut milk by pulverizing fresh coconut flesh, blending it with a little water, and passing it through a cheesecloth or fine strainer. This produces a very rich, very high-fat milk that runs about 550 calories per cup. This is the coconut milk used in cooking that comes in cans and cartons. A second pass with the coconut solids produces a thinner, less-rich coconut milk that runs about 150 calories per cup. This is often called “Lite Coconut Milk” and can be used to cook or to drink.
Besides the abundance of medium chain triglycerides and a lot of manganese, neither thick or thin coconut milk are nutrient-dense. A cup of rich, full-fat coconut milk gives decent amounts of magnesium, copper, zinc, selenium, and iron, but you have to realize that it takes 600 calories to get those nutrients. That’s not exactly nutrient-dense; the micronutrient-to-calorie ratio is skewed.
They do sell jugs of thin coconut milk as a milk replacement. Except for the fortifications they add (vitamin D, calcium, riboflavin, and the other usual suspects), these aren’t going to supply much in the way of nutrition.
In an ounce of flaxseed:
- 151.4 calories
- 8.2 g carbs: 7.7 g fiber
- 12 g fat: 2.1 g MUFA, 6.5 g ALA (omega-3), 1.7 g LA, 1 g SFA
- 5.2 g protein
- 39% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 38% copper
- 20% iron
- 26% magnesium
- 31% manganese
- 13% selenium
- 11% zinc
In a cup of flax milk:
- 25 calories
- 1 g carbs
- 2.5 g fat: 1.2 g ALA (omega-3)
- 5% iron
- 63% B12 (added)
- 25% vitamin D2 (added)
- 17% vitamin A (added)
- 25% calcium (added)
The main standout is the omega-3 content. Flax milk has a little over a gram of alpha-linolenic acid (the plant form of omega-3) per cup.
I’m not talking about the oncoming wave of high-THC cannabis milks. This is hemp milk, produced by blending non-psychoactive hemp seeds with water and straining the solids out.
In an ounce:
- 149.1 calories
- 7.8 carbs: 7.8 g fiber (all fiber)
- 10.1 g fat: 1.1 g MUFA, 2.2 g ALA, 4.8 g LA, 0.8 g SFA
- 7 g protein
- 24% vitamin A
- 63% copper
- 50% iron
- 33% magnesium
- 86% manganese
- 13% selenium
- 18% zinc
In a cup of hemp milk:
- 70 calories
- 2.2 g carbs, all fiber
- 6 g fat, 1 g ALA (omega-3), 3 g omega-6
- 2 g protein
- 18% copper
- 13% iron
- 10% magnesium
- 24% manganese
- Plus all the usual fortifications (calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin B12
That’s not too bad, actually. It picks up some decent mineral levels, and hemp fat is one of the only fats to contain stearidonic acid, an intermediate omega-3 fat in the conversion pathway from ALA to EPA that increases the EPA content of red blood cells in humans (a very good thing).
There’s a product called Milkadamia. Great name, disappointing result.
In an ounce:
- 203.5 calories
- 3.9 g carbs: 2.4 g fiber
- 21.5 g fat: 16.7 g MUFA, 0.4 g LA, 0.1 g alpha linolenic acid (ALA), 3.4 g SFA
- 2.2 g protein
- 28% vitamin B1 (thiamine)
- 24% copper
- 13% iron
- 51% manganese
In a cup of mac nut milk:
- 50 calories
- 1 g carbs
- 5 g fat
- 1 g protein
- 125% vitamin B12
- 17% vitamin D
- 25% vitamin A
- 38% calcium
Despite having the best product name and the most potential for being a creamy milk substitute (has anyone tried adding mac nuts to a smoothie?—incredible!), the nutrient profile is low, and there’s not much going on.
I’ve written about oats before. They have some interesting properties, some beneficial fiber, and a decent mineral profile. Adding oat beta-glucan fibers to fiber-free instant oatmeal reduces the postprandial glucose response, so at least in the context of refined starch, oat fiber can be helpful.
The most popular and widely-available oat milk is called Oatly. The website explains the process: mill raw oats with water, add enzymes to extract the starch, separate the beta-glucan from the bran, discard the bran, pasteurize it, bottle it. This retains the beta-glucans (2 grams of fiber per cup) and starch (16 grams carbs per cup). The only micronutrients they advertise are the ones they add, including calcium, potassium, vitamin A, riboflavin, vitamin D, and vitamin B12; there’s no indication that the normal oat-bound minerals like magnesium, manganese, and zinc make it into Oatly in significant amounts. To top things off, they add canola oil for texture and mouthfeel.
Rice milk is made by blending water with cooked rice, brown rice syrup, and brown rice starch.
Like the others, its only real micronutrients comes from the ones they add to it. It’s higher in carbohydrates than any of the other milks I found.
Believe it or not, of all the popular non-dairy milks out there, soy milk contains the most nutrients and is probably the closest to cow milk. It’s high in protein. It contains a nice balanced selection of minerals. A review comparing soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, and rice milk to cow milk found that soy milk was the closest—mostly because it actually featured measurable nutrients.
In a cup of soy milk:
- 74 calories
- 3.6 g carbs; 2 g fiber
- 4 g fat
- 8 g protein
- All the usual additions, like calcium, vitamin B12, vitamin D, riboflavin, and vitamin A
- 10% magnesium
- 15% manganese
- 6% folate
- 6% potassium
- 19% copper
- 10% selenium
It’s not ideal though. People who regularly drink soy milk tend to end up with micronutrient deficiencies. Kids who drink cow milk are less likely to have atopic eczema, while soy milk drinkers have no such protection (and may even have increased risk). The protein in soy milk can help people build muscle, but milk proteins work better and also provide other benefits to the immune system.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t use non-dairy milks. They are inoffensive and helpful for recipes. Just don’t expect any incredible health benefits from them.
3 Notable Brands With Extra Benefits
But there are a few specific non-dairy milk products that deserve a closer look, especially if you’re going to go this route.
Vita Coco Coconut Milk
Instead of blending coconut meat with water and filtering out the solids, Vita Coco mixes coconut cream into coconut water to produce a milk-like product. I haven’t tasted it myself, but the nutrient profile is pretty compelling.
- Moderate levels of fat (5 grams per cup), primarily from saturated medium chain triglycerides.
- Low carb (5 grams per cup). Naturally sweet from the coconut.
- Decent mineral levels (RDIs: 45% calcium, 15% magnesium, 10% potassium, 10% zinc).
Some of the calcium, magnesium, and zinc is added, some is natural (coconut water can be a good source of all three). Still, it’s cool to see magnesium added because so many are deficient and supplementary magnesium is well-tolerated and effective.
Back when I was toying with the idea of getting a significant amount of my protein from plant sources for a quick experiment (long story short: I didn’t do it, I like animals too much, and I found myself relying too heavily on processed powders), I got a bottle of something called Ripple. Ripple is pea-based milk, fortified with extra pea protein, algae-based DHA, calcium, iron, and vitamin D. It has as much protein per serving as milk (8 grams), using a type of protein that can promote muscle gain, and it tastes quite good. It uses high-oleic sunflower oil for fat, which is low in polyunsaturated fat. If I truly couldn’t have dairy and desperately wanted something to drink or make smoothies with, I’d probably do Ripple.
Tempt Hemp Milk
I’ve never tried this brand, or hemp milk in general. But just like the generic hemp milk analyzed above, Tempt Hemp Milk has a far better nutrient profile than most of the other nut or other non-dairy milks I ran across. If it tastes anything like hemp seed, which has a nutty, subtle flavor, I can imagine hemp milk having a pleasant taste.
Tips For Making Your Own
You’re all an enterprising bunch. Why not make your own non-dairy milk?
- You can make your own nut milk. There are thousands of recipes out there, but they generally seem to involve soaking nuts in water and a pinch of salt overnight, draining them, and blending the nuts with fresh water, straining out the solids, and sometimes adding a date or a dab of maple syrup for sweetening. The higher the nut:water ratio, the richer, more nutritious the milk.
- You can also make thicker, more nutrient-dense nut milk by blending nut butter and water until you reach the desired consistency. You aren’t discarding anything with this method.
- You can avoid nuts altogether. One scoop of MCT powder, one scoop of collagen peptides, whisked into water makes a decent approximation of milk. Use 3 tablespoons of water to make creamer for coffee. This isn’t a nutrient-powerhouse, but it provides medium chain triglycerides (which boost ketone production) and collagen.
- Or how about making a kind of nut broth? The usual audience for non-dairy milks is obsessed with consuming raw foods. They make a point to prevent their food from ever getting warmer than the hemp-clad crotch of a Trustafarian hitchhiking through Joshua Tree in the middle of summer. But consider that applying heated water to pulverized nuts will extract even more nutrients from the nut and deliver them into the water. Then you strain the solids and refrigerate the broth, producing “milk.” I bet that’d be quite tasty and more nutritious than a cold water nut wash.
The Bottom Line on Nut Milks…
Nothing on the market or that you cook up in your kitchen is going to rival the nutrient density of cow’s milk. From the protein to the healthy dairy fats to the dozens of micronutrients we know about and the dozens we have yet to catalogue, actual milk packs a real wallop that your basic almond, cashew, pecan, or flax milk simply can’t defeat. So, you’ll have to shift your view of “milk” as a whole food. Don’t give your kid four glasses of hemp milk and think you’re replacing cow dairy. Don’t wean your infant off the breast and fill a bottle with hazelnut milk instead; it’s not the same. Don’t eat a dog bowl-sized serving of cereal with some rice milk. The only nutritious part of cereal is the milk, and non-dairy milks do not qualify. Don’t rely on non-dairy milks for your nutrient intakes. Those are shoes they’ll never fill.
Instead, use non-dairy milks to make nutrient-dense smoothies. Use them in your coffee. Make protein shakes with them. In short, use these non-dairy plant-based milks to make it easier to eat more nutrient-dense foods.
Before you run out to buy cashew milk or pea milk or something similar, I will say this: I’m a fan of dairy. It’s a nutrient-dense source of bioavailable protein, healthy fat, calcium, vitamin K2, and other important and helpful compounds. If you can eat it without tolerance issues, you probably should. And if you can’t, you may be able to tolerate other animal milks, like goat’s milk. Many people who can’t do cow dairy can handle goat. It’s worth a try.
What about you? What’s your favorite non-dairy milk? Do you have any plant-based milks that you swear by?
Onuegbu AJ, Olisekodiaka JM, Irogue SE, et al. Consumption of Soymilk Reduces Lipid Peroxidation But May Lower Micronutrient Status in Apparently Healthy Individuals. J Med Food. 2018;21(5):506-510.
Hon KL, Tsang YC, Poon TC, et al. Dairy and nondairy beverage consumption for childhood atopic eczema: what health advice to give?. Clin Exp Dermatol. 2016;41(2):129-37.
Babault N, Païzis C, Deley G, et al. Pea proteins oral supplementation promotes muscle thickness gains during resistance training: a double-blind, randomized, Placebo-controlled clinical trial vs. Whey protein. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015;12(1):3.
Wolever TMS, Jenkins AL, Prudence K, et al. Effect of adding oat bran to instant oatmeal on glycaemic response in humans – a study to establish the minimum effective dose of oat ?-glucan. Food Funct. 2018;9(3):1692-1700.
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Primal eating for many people means prioritizing whole foods but not entirely eschewing natural sweeteners in the occasional recipe. We’ve covered the likes of stevia, yacon syrup, and Swerve recently, but what about another popular choice in the growing selection of natural sweetners—monk fruit? What is it, and where does it come from? What are the benefits (not to mention risks) that studies point out? And how do we compare the various formulations next to each other in the supermarket aisle? Let’s break this down.
What Is Monk Fruit?
Known as luo han guo in its native southern China, monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) first found acclaim in the records of 13th century Luo Han Buddhist monks. The monks valued the inherent sweetness of the fruit and made it their mission to cultivate the vines through the centuries. Today, most monk fruit cultivation still takes place in the misty mountains of China’s Guangxi province and a few surrounding areas, where the conditions are just right to grow and harvest the small, orange-sized fruits.
Monk fruit belongs to the cucurbit family, alongside the likes of squash, cucumber and watermelon. Fresh off the vine, the mini melons have a bitter outer rind encasing a sweet edible pulp and seeds. But unless you know someone who’s managed to cultivate monk fruit in their garden, you’re unlikely to ever eat a fresh monk fruit. The flesh degrades quickly, meaning most exported monk fruit has been dried and/or processed to ensure longevity.
Thus, most monk fruit finds its way to American shelves as a concentrated natural sweetener. As always, the nature of that sweetener can vary markedly depending on the way in which it was processed. An average serving of pure monk fruit extract contains virtually no carbs, calories or sugars, deriving almost all of its sweetness from a group of antioxidants called mogrosides, with mogroside V having a sweetness 250 times that of sucrose (table sugar).
To put that sweetness in perspective, most people consider just 1/64 of a teaspoon of monk fruit extract to taste as sweet as a full teaspoon of table sugar.
But in order to get this natural “zero calorie” sweetener, much of the inherent compounds in the fruit are lost. Prior to arriving on supermarket shelves, most “pure” monk fruit sweeteners are treated with a solvent to remove off-flavors, evaporated to remove other sulfurous volatiles, homogenized, and pasteurized. The resulting extract is very different to its original state, slightly undermining its purported status as a natural sweetener.
Other less processed natural monk fruit sweeteners provide a more wholesome version of the original fruit, but with the arguable downside of containing a small amount of glucose and fructose. More carbs also tend to mean fewer mogrosides, and hence a lower relative sweetness.
Monk Fruit’s Nutritional Profile
Contrary to what people might claim, fresh, unprocessed monk fruit is not sugar free – figures vary between cultivar and growing region, but fresh monk fruit is typically one third carbohydrate, composed of a mix of fructose and glucose.
With the extraction of the juice, however, much of those carbs are left behind. At this point, a minimally-processed monk fruit extract sweetener might only contain small amounts of sugars in the form of fructose or glucose, at which point it becomes a low-calorie natural sweetener. A half teaspoon serving of this monk fruit juice powder, for example, is made up of 10% sugar, with the rest of the carbs presumably being composed of mogrosides and other unfermentable sweet-tasting compounds.
At the other end of the scale, pure monk fruit extracts such as this one truly are zero-calorie sweeteners, with no carbs and no sugars. Manufacturers are sometimes hesitant to sell straight monk fruit extract, however, because of the common“off flavors,” choosing instead to mix in small amounts of other sweeteners like erythritol or stevia. It’s not uncommon to find sucrose or dextrose lurking on the ingredients list of so-called natural monk fruit sweeteners, but the amounts would be pretty minimal.
While monk fruit contains several different mogrosides, the key ingredient is generally mogroside V. This is easily the sweetest-tasting of all the compounds in monk fruit, and very conveniently it isn’t metabolized in the same fashion as simple sugars like glucose or fructose. Mogroside V tends to be poorly absorbed within the digestive system. This accounts for the “zero calorie” claims of monk fruit extract products, and spells good news for those looking to satiate their sweet tooth while avoiding calorie loading or blood sugar spikes.
Potential Health Benefits Of Monk Fruit
While the extraction and refining processes remove most of the original natural compounds from fresh monk fruit, research indicates that the mogrosides and other flavonoids that remain can still impact health. Here’s a brief look at some of the benefits (preventative and otherwise) you might enjoy using monk fruit sweeteners.
As Primal folks know, sugar (not fat) is the leading dietary cause of the obesity epidemic. And as the world has ever-so-slowly awakened to the notion that sugar might be doing the most damage, there’s been a push towards sweeteners that don’t elicit the same insulin-meddling, inflammation-elevating, liver-damaging effects as sugar. Preliminary evidence suggests that the mogrosides in monk fruit sweeteners might be just the ticket. A 2012 study showed that total mogrosides extracted from monk fruit “suppressed the increase in body weight, abdominal and epididymal fats weight” in mice placed on a high fat diet (presumably not good fats). Another study published this year once again showed that obese mice fed mogrosides from monk fruit had significantly reduced body and liver weights compared to control mice. It was thought that the mogrosides achieved this anti-obesity effect by “enhancing fat metabolism and antioxidative defenses”.
Obviously, more research is needed to verify these findings, especially in humans. But its a promising start.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of research into the potential antidiabetic effect of mogrosides found in monk fruit sweeteners. In one study, mogroside extracts from monk fruit administered to diabetic rats significantly eased symptoms and protected against biochemical abnormalities. In another, diabetic rats were fed monk fruit extract for 13 weeks. Those rats fed the monk fruit extract showed improved insulin response, along with reduced blood sugar levels after glucose administration and a reduction in oxidative stress caused by the diabetes. What’s more, the monk fruit group also showed signs of lowered kidney damage, a common symptom of advanced diabetes.
Yet another study showed that both crude monk fruit extract and mogroside V helped to stimulate the secretion of insulin in pancreatic beta cells.
You get the idea. Once again, more studies in humans are needed to make any definitive conclusions.
While studies are very much in their infancy regarding the negative link between the antioxidants in monk fruit and cancer, there’s likely to be more on the horizon. A 2016 study used mogroside IV, extracted from monk fruit, to inhibit the proliferation of both colorectal and throat cancer cells and suppress tumor growth. An earlier study showed that a range of triterpenoids (including several mogrosides) isolated from monk fruit showed “potent inhibitory effects” on Eppstein-Barr Virus-induced tumor growth. This strong anti-carcinogenic effect was further verified by a subsequent study.
A 2011 study indicated that mogrosides administered to mice significantly reduced inflammation by down-regulating pro-inflammatory genes and up-regulating anti-inflammatory genes. That’s a lot of hyphens….
A more recent study demonstrated the ability of mogroside V to lower induced lung inflammation in mice by more than half. From a slightly more tangential perspective, researchers have also shown that monk fruit extracts reduce physical fatigue in mice (allowing them to swim for longer). This anti-fatigue effect is undoubtedly due, at least in part, to monk fruit’s tendency to lower inflammation.
The health-giving powers of monk fruit sweeteners may even extend to immune function. In one study, groups of diabetic mice were fed either low-dose mogrosides, high-dose mogrosides, or a saline control solution over the course of a month. At the end of the trial, both mogroside groups (but particularly the low-dose group) showed significant protection against diabetes-induced immune dysfunction. Interestingly, this immune-bolstering effect was only apparent in immune-suppressed diabetic mice, suggesting it plays an important role in restoring homeostasis in the body.
This pro-immunity effect is further solidified by the fact that certain monk fruit isolates have anti-bacterial properties, and can prevent the growth of common bacterial pathogens like Streptococcus mutans, Porphyromonas gingivalis and Candida albicans.
Are Monk Fruit Sweeteners Safe?
While long-term, multi-year toxicity trials are notably lacking, no trials have yet revealed anything of concern. For what it’s worth, the FDA gave monk fruit products their GRAS seal of approval in 2010, and it’s of some note that monk fruit has been cultivated and eaten since at least the 13th century, albeit at far lower concentrations.
Limited trials in humans haven’t reported any adverse side effects, and a study in mice showed that, even at ridiculously high dosages, no toxic or mutagenic effects were observed. That being said, the use of highly concentrated monk fruit sweeteners is very much in its infancy. Moderation is a safe bet.
Tips For Buying and Using Monk Fruit Sweeteners
Which product you choose will depend on your preference. Those who prefer an entirely non-caloric formulation will want to go with pure monk fruit extract. Or you may prioritize less-processed versions, which might contain a small amount of simple sugars and a little less mogrosides. At the other end of the spectrum, those who don’t particularly like the aftertaste of monk fruit extract might opt for a blended product that also includes the likes of erythritol, xylitol, and/or stevia.
While most people enjoy the taste of monk fruit, it’s not necessarily for everyone. Taste descriptors vary markedly from person to person, with some noting it tastes like caramel or molasses, others more like a sweet licorice. Keep in mind that the more refined the monk fruit sweetener, the blander and sweeter it will taste.
And speaking of sweetness, remember that mogroside V, the key ingredient in most monk fruit sweeteners, is up to 250 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way. Most labels provide a sugar substitution guide for recipes.
How you use monk fruit sweeteners will also depend on your taste preferences. Some common uses include:
- baked goods
- sauces and salad dressings
- fruit/vegetable-based drinks
- Asian dishes that call for a dash of sweetness
That’s just the beginning, really. Experiment, and see how it might work for you and your family.
Thanks for stopping by, folks. Have you used monk fruit as a sweetener, or would you consider trying it? Be sure to share your thoughts below.
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- Al Li-Ping. Acute Toxicity and Mutagenicity of Siraitia grosvenorii Extract in Mice. Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences. 2014-03.
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A few months back, I put Swerve under the proverbial microscope. This time I’m looking at a relative newcomer in the alternative sweetener field. Allulose is quickly growing in popularity, since it’s both naturally occurring and virtually identical to table sugar in taste and texture. Then there’s the claim of sidestepping many of the ill-health effects associated with many other sweeteners.
I know many of you are with me when I bring a sizable dose of skepticism to these kinds of bold proclamations. So, I did my own research, asking whether it’s truly the full-flavor, guilt-free choice many suggest it is. And, if it is (or if it comes close), I wondered, what are its best uses in the kitchen?
What is Allulose?
When it comes down to it, allulose isn’t all that unlike glucose or fructose. The three are all monosaccharides, the simplest form of carbohydrate. Like glucose and fructose, allulose is also naturally occurring—unlike the vast array of artificial sweeteners on the market today. Still, as we know, “natural” doesn’t always mean “healthy.”
Fructose, for example, is synonymous with fruit. Conventional wisdom teaches us that fruit is healthy, but Primal folks are well aware that increasing consumption of fructose is associated with a plethora of health risks from diabetes to cardiovascular disease. And considering allulose has virtually the same chemical makeup as fructose, that might raise some eyebrows.
But chemical legacies aside, there appear to be some key differences between allulose and its monosaccharide cousins. Unlike fructose and glucose, which are found in abundance in the foods we eat, allulose is a very rare sugar that’s hard to find in nature—popping up in only a few foods like wheat, figs, raisins and jackfruit.
Next, allulose (aka psicose) is an epimer of fructose. In essence, this means that while allulose has the same atomic makeup as fructose, it has a minor structural variation. This miniscule difference supposedly has far-reaching effects, however, with preliminary trials showing that around 70% of allulose is excreted in urine and that it has very low fermentability in the gut—meaning you’re less likely to experience gas, bloating, and digestive upset after eating it. (Those who react to other natural alternative sweeteners probably know what I’m talking about here.)
Because so little allulose is utilized by our bodies for energy, the caloric implications from consuming it are supposedly quite minor. While it has 70% the relative sweetness of sucrose (table sugar), it has only 0.3% of the energy. Marketers are calling allulose a “zero calorie” sweetener, and in this case they’re not stretching the truth too much in saying so.
In terms of manufacturing, however, allulose does share another similarity to fructose: it’s primarily produced from corn, along with several other plants. These days, much of the science surrounding allulose is focused on the most efficient enzymatic catalyst for converting fructose into psicose, in order to maximize extraction (and therefore profits).
What Are the Benefits of Allulose?
The notion that a sweetener might have benefits beyond, well, sweetness is nothing new. Xylitol, for example, is a prebiotic that has been shown to balance blood sugar and lower cholesterol, while erythritol (the main sweetener in blends like Swerve) promotes healthy vascular function and good oral health.
Several studies show that allulose is beneficial for those suffering from type 2 diabetes. In a 2015 study, researchers fed diabetic rats with either water containing 5% allulose, or straight water as a control. Sixty weeks into the study, the diabetic rats fed allulose demonstrated “maintenance of blood glucose levels, decrease in body weight gain, and the control of postprandial hyperglycemia” compared to the control group. Significantly, insulin levels were also maintained in the allulose group, while pancreatic cells were preserved.
Other animal studies have produced similarly promising results, with trials showing that allulose administration helps to lower blood sugar levels and minimize insulin secretion following a sugary meal. It also appears to inhibit the tendency to overfeed on sugary foods and to improve insulin resistance over time.
Research in humans is a little thinner on the ground, but those conducted indicate that moderate doses (5 g or more) of allulose have the potential to prevent blood glucose and insulin spikes after eating other sugars. Interestingly, allulose taken by itself, without any other sugars or foods, doesn’t appear to have any effect at all on blood glucose or insulin concentrations.
Interestingly, beyond the hypoglycemic abilities of allulose, there are also reports that it can directly aid in fat loss. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Food Science, obese mice fed allulose for 15 weeks experienced a reduction in body and liver weights, total fat mass and abdominal visceral fat without any reduction in muscle mass. Another study published in 2016 found that mice on a high fat diet who were fed allulose for 16 weeks experienced significant reductions in body weight and body fat, to the point where there was virtually no difference to the “healthy” control group.
And this year, a study was published showing that high doses of allulose (7g twice daily) resulted in significant reductions in BMI, abdominal fat and subcutaneous fat in overweight humans. This study aside, the jury’s still out on body composition benefits in humans. We’ll see if further studies demonstrate these kinds of results.
Other potential health benefits of allulose include oxidative stress protection, enhanced energy expenditure, and reduced inflammation. While the overall picture looks pretty good, I’ll be watching the continuing research. As always, manufacturers have an interest in encouraging studies that report favorable health benefits. I’m optimistic, but I’m not sold…just yet.
Is It Safe?
For the most part, there’s nothing to indicate that allulose is anything less than safe for humans. For what it’s worth, the FDA considers allulose to be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and most studies have noted no significant adverse side effects beyond the usual responses to excessive doses.
A 2015 study that looked at the safety of long-term allulose consumption in rats concluded that it exhibited no dietary toxicity, while a strangely large number of studies in dogs showed that both single dose and long term consumption of allulose caused no harmful effects. At extremely high doses (4g/kg), dogs did exhibit vomiting and diarrhea, but it’d be difficult to consume that level of sweetness for any period of time.
In humans, toxicity tests are once again few and far between, but the general consensus is that allulose is perfectly safe. Longer term study (and longer term consumption of allulose by consumers) will show whether it’s truly side effect free.
What’s the Best Way To Use Allulose?
As an epimer of fructose, allulose tastes virtually the same as the sugars you’ll find in an apple or banana. With the exception of sugar syrups, most allulose is sold in granulated form, meaning you can use it much the same as you would granulated sugar.
Keep in mind, however, that it’s around 70% less sweet than sucrose (table sugar), so you’ll likely need a little more to achieve the same level of sweetness. But, then again, if you’re Primal, you probably don’t crave as much sweetness anyway…so why not start with the same dosage as regular sugar and see how it works for you?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Have you used allulose? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.
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As we move into a new era of health awareness, there’s more variety than ever available to us. Overall, this is a very good thing—the average Primal consumer now has far greater access to a wider range of organic, free range, pastured, GMO-free, wholesome foods and products.
But this presents something of a dilemma when it comes to gray areas like sweeteners. While I don’t have much of a sweet tooth myself, I’m not a anti-sweetener purist either. While I lean toward stevia or monkfruit, I get a lot of questions about sugar alcohols, in particular a product called Swerve Sweetener, particularly from the keto crowd.
What To Know
Swerve Sweetener is a “natural” sweetener blend. Loved by low-carb and keto bakers, Swerve provides a similar level of sweetness to sugar and an ability to caramelize, making it an easy sweet substitute in many recipes. According to the manufacturers, Swerve is “zero-calorie, non-glycemic and safe for those living with diabetes, since it has no effect on blood glucose or insulin levels.”
That all sounds dandy, but what’s actually in the stuff? Swerve Sweetener is composed of erythritol, oligosaccharides, and natural flavors. Let’s break it down further.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that comprises the bulk of Swerve. In comparison to sugar, it’s said to be 60-70% as sweet and have a similar taste profile.
But that’s where the similarities stop. Containing a mere 0-0.2 calories per gram, erythritol is virtually calorie free.
As a sugar alcohol, erythritol is made from fermented glucose, usually sourced from corn. Considering Swerve uses only non-GMO corn, this probably isn’t too much of a concern for most folks, but it’s something to note. While the fermentation aspect is “natural,” there are certain synthetic processes along the erythritol production line, including hydrolysis to extract the glucose from corn or other fruits/veggies, and a crystallization phase to form the final product.
All in all, not too bad as far as sweeteners go. The scientific literature is positive regarding erythritol, showing no adverse effects on blood sugar and demonstrating beneficial effects on vascular function and oral health. Swerve also claims that erythritol is non-allergenic and less likely to cause digestive issues than other polyol sweeteners like xylitol. Good times.
Next down the ingredient list are oligosaccharides. These are a type of prebiotic fiber otherwise labelled as inulin, providing additional sweetness for your tastebuds and a beneficial food source for all the little good guys hanging out in your gut. The oligosaccharides found in Swerve are likely sourced from starchy root vegetables like chicory root, onions and garlic.
Once again we have an ingredient that’s natural (in origin, at least), provides a beneficial effect in the GI tract, and doesn’t adversely effect blood sugar. That being said, those folks sensitive to FODMAPs might not react well to Swerve, on account of the oligofructose found in plants like chicory root.
This is where Swerve lets the team down a bit. Under the FDA’s Code of Federal Regulations, any compound can be deemed a “natural flavor”, provided it was sourced from something natural. All well and good. But there’s very little legalities surrounding how that natural compound can be processed to form the end product (aka the natural flavor): it could be fried, distilled, squashed, roasted, acidified, discombobulated, or all of the above – just whatever takes the manufacturer’s fancy.
And by the time that natural compound makes it into your sweetener, it’s no more natural than the artificial flavors in the cheaper sweeteners further down the aisle. Can this flavor really be considered natural, then? I think not.
What’s more, Swerve has no legal obligation to disclose what that natural flavoring was actually derived from. On their site, there’s vague references to “natural flavor from citrus”, but really that doesn’t mean a heck of a lot in the grand scheme of things.
The Science On Swerve
Once again, the literature is overwhelmingly in favor of Swerve Sweetener. With regards to erythritol, high-dosage trials in rats (up to 4.6 g/kg) failed to show any chronic toxic or carcinogenic effects. Human trials at lower dosages (1 g/kg body weight—still a decent amount) didn’t reveal any gastrointestinal concerns or digestive upset, aside from higher fluid intake. That being said, there are anecdotal reports of some people personally not taking well to the stuff.
On the oligosaccharide front, it’s also reasonably smooth sailing. Oligosaccharides like those used in Swerve have been positively associated with improved gut microbial health and permeability, but there is a certain propensity for prebiotics like these to increase flatulence and have a mild laxative effect. Fair warning. Maybe it’s another reason to embrace the adage “a little goes a long way” here.
Then there’s the natural flavors. There’s not a lot I can speak to here, not being privy to the actual contents of said natural flavors. It’s worth noting, however, that while the FDA requires natural flavors to be sourced from compounds that are considered GRAS, there have been times when GRAS ingredients and products have been taken off the shelves because the FDA didn’t do their homework.
At face value, and even below the surface, there’s nothing to complain about: Swerve Sweetener really does seem like the real deal. But it’s not my favorite sweetener when I reach for one, especially when I get that strange cooling sensation on the tongue after eating something sweetened with it.
But the fact remains that most people tolerate Swerve well, and it’s won over much of the keto crowd—arguably some of the most discerning of all foodies. If you’re looking for a new sugar substitute, play around with Swerve, maybe mix it with other natural sweeteners to optimize taste, and see whether it works for you.
Thanks for reading everyone. Whats your take on Swerve? Do you use it? Tolerate it well? I’d love to hear your feedback.
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