We have all heard that refined sugar and artificial sweeteners are bad for you. Sugar, because it suppresses the immune system, promotes inflammation, raises insulin levels, suppresses the release of the human growth hormone…the list goes on. Well, artificial sweeteners have their own set of problems. While they boast little to no calories, they are highly processed, made with chemicals and are known to contribute to many diseases. So what are your other options?? Well there are many natural sweeteners out there that claim to taste like sugar but without any of the negative side effects. It’s true that any of these natural options are better than the artificial alternatives, but which ones are best for you and why? I’ll tell you below by giving you the scoop on different natural sweeteners and my opinion on which is best for your body. Here we go!
Refined white sugar- Sugar refining is the process of extracting out the sugar (sucrose) from the plant materials (sugar cane or beet) and then removing other unwanted materials from the extracted raw sugar. In the repeated processes of washing, boiling, centrifuging, filtering and drying, nearly all of the plants nutritional elements are lost. When you ingest sugar, it takes your digestive system so much energy to detoxify and eliminate it from the body that it leaches the body of precious vitamins and minerals. Sugar eaten every day produces a continuously over acidic condition, and more and more minerals are required from deep in the body in the attempt to rectify the imbalance. My take away: Sugar should be avoided and should only be consumed every so often in small amounts.
Sugar in the raw/Turbinado sugar- I always assumed that Turbinado sugar or sugar in the raw was just that, raw. Nope. It is just as refined as white sugar except that it hasn’t been bleached and therefore carries all of the same negative effects. My take away: Treat it the same as refined white sugar and avoid as much as possible.
Sucanat- Sucanat is simply dehydrated cane sugar juice. It is the best substitute for white or brown sugar in your recipes for cookies and cakes. While sucanat is your best choice when trying to find a unprocessed substitute for processed cane sugar, be careful not to overdo it on the sucanat, as eating too much can upset blood chemistry very much like white sugar. My take away: Great to use for baking, way better than refined sugar, but still don’t want to consume regularly.
Coconut palm sugar- Pure coconut palm sugar is a natural product made from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. Coconut palm sugar has garnered attention as being a low-carb sugar substitute that is more nutritious than typical granulated sugar, but studies have shown that the number of calories in coconut palm sugar is almost identical to the number in regular table sugar and its closer relative, brown sugar. The difference being that coconut palm sugar is notably higher in various micronutrients, probably because it is less processed than industrial sugars. One downside to the growing demand for coconut palm sugar is that a lot of coconut farmers are now turning their farms into coconut palm sugar farms. Once a coconut tree is used to collect sugar, it can not also produce coconuts. That will be a lot less coconuts produced, which could mean less coconut oil and other healthy coconut products. My take away: Still processed, but a little better than refined sugar. Don’t want to use often, especially because of the effect its production has on the coconut industry.
Xylitol- Xylitol is a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are not sugar (although they are sweet) and they are not alcohol (at least not the kind of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages). Xylitol is lower in calories than sugar but not calorie free. Because the molecule is a slightly different shape than actual sugar, sugar alcohols, like Xylitol, do not cause an increase in blood sugar, which makes them a good option for diabetics. Overdoing sugar alcohols can cause temporary side effects such as diarrhea. My take away: Fine in small doses, like in chewing gum.
Agave- Agave nectar is an amber-colored liquid that is derived from the sap of the Agave plant. It pours more easily than honey and is considerably sweeter than sugar. The health-food crowd loves it because it is gluten-free, suitable for vegans, and mostly because it’s low glycemic. Agave nectar has a low-glycemic index because it is largely made of fructose (sugar found in fruit), which although has a low-glycemic index, is known to be a very damaging form of sugar when used as a sweetener. Agave nectar has the highest fructose content of any commercial sweetener (with the exception of pure liquid fructose). Fructose is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7% fructose), as it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it has a considerable metabolic price. Agave is highly processed and some are saying that it is basically high fructose corn syrup masquerading as a health food. My take away: Avoid! It’s a marketing deception!
Stevia- Stevia is made from dried leaves of the stevia plant. It is found in products such as Truvia and PureVia. Although Stevia is a natural product, like sugar, it is highly processed. Once the Stevia leaves are dried, they then go through multiple processes before reaching stores, including water extraction, purification and decoloration. In the U.S., stevia products were long sold as dietary supplements, but not as a food additive or ingredient because of safety concerns. In the 80’s, animal studies linked stevia with adverse effects on fertility and reproductive development and possible genetic mutations. But in 2008, the makers of Truvia and PureVia submitted research to the Food and Drug Administration regarding stevia’s safety and petitioned for it to become a generally regarded as safe (GRAS) ingredient. My take away: I don’t trust it. Avoid.
Maple syrup- Maple syrup comes from the sap of Maple trees. The sap is boiled down to remove the water, which leaves the sweet syrup behind. Maple syrup is said to be full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. You’ve probably noticed that there are two kinds of maple syrup to choose from: Grade A and Grade B. It has been found the Grade B is not only darker in color with a stronger maple flavor, but that it contains more vitamins and minerals such as zinc, manganese, and vitamin B. We only use Grade B maple syrup in our house. Beware though, that in 2013, the maple syrup labeling laws will change. The term Grade B will no longer be used. Once these new standards come into effect, all maple syrup will be labeled Grade A with four identifying colors: Golden, Amber, Dark and Very Dark. I’m assuming that the Very Dark will be the new Grade B, but I’m not 100% sure. Also beware that products labeled as “Syrup” or “Pancake Syrup” (aka Aunt Jemima’s and Mrs. Butterworth’s) ARE NOT MAPLE SYRUP!! THey are imposters that are made up of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup and artificial colors and preservatives. Make sure you are buying pure maple syrup. My take away: It is fine every so often, but choose Grade B when possible.
Blackstrap molasses– Blackstrap molasses has a low glycemic index and contains many nutrients and minerals including, but not limited to, iron, Manganese, Potassium, and Zinc. Ironically, blackstrap molasses is actually the byproduct (or waste) of processing sugar cane and sugar beets into refined white sugar. It’s flavor is very strong and bittersweet, I’ve never had it, but I hear it can be an acquired taste. When you buy it, make sure to choose an organic unsulphured blackstrap molasses. You can take it straight, drizzled on oatmeal or mix it with warm milk. It can also be used as a tonic by mixing a tablespoon or two with a glass of warm water. Some have used this mix three times a day as a remedy for extreme conditions. It’s best taken before meals. My take away: It is good in small doses for its health benefits.
Honey- Honey is made by bees from nectar collected from flowers. Although honey is better for you than refined sugar, not all honey is created equal. Commercial honey is pasteurized and filtered. Pasteurization is the process where honey is heated at high temperatures to kill any yeast that may be present in order to prevent fermentation. It’s also done to keep the honey from becoming granulated, making it look better to consumers. High heat kills most of the enzymes and some vitamins, so pasteurized honey doesn’t have as many health benefits as raw honey. Raw honey contains all of the nutrients necessary for good health: vitamins A, C, D, E and high concentrations of the B-complex vitamins including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid. Raw honey also has beneficial enzymes and other nutrients. So when you go to buy your honey, make sure that you buy it raw! NOTE: Honey should not be given to an infant under one year of age because botulism can be contracted from the Clostridium bacteria that may be present in honey. My take away: Raw honey is the best sugar substitute.
So, as you can see, not all natural sweeteners are created equal (no pun intended). In our house, we use raw honey as our sweetener of choice. I use it in tea, drizzled on toast with raw almond butter, and in yogurt. I feel that it is best, not only because of its many beneficial enzymes and minerals, but because it is unprocessed. The more processed foods are, the less nutritional value they have and that goes for sweeteners as well. I hope this post helps you choose which sweetener is best for you and your family!