A few years ago I started having a lot of health issues. After a while, I realized that my symptoms were the worst when I ate sugar (even high sugar fruits). That discovery led me to start investigating sugar.
What I found was that we’re eating WAY too much sugar.
People in the US eat or drink (on average) more than 126 grams of sugar per day! (That’s more than 1/4 pound of sugar—A DAY.)
But it’s not just donuts and soda. A lot of that sugar hides inside packaged foods, or things marketed as health food, like flavored yogurt.
We’re learning now that eating too much sugar can have a whole lot of negative effects, including:
- Weight gain—specifically visceral belly fat
- Increased risk of heart failure
- Leptin resistance (Leptin is a hormone that tells us when to stop eating)
- Increased risk of cancer, and decreased ability to fight cancer
- Harmful effects on the liver and detox system
- Accelerated aging process and increased inflammation
It’s a good idea to avoid processed sugar as much as possible because it’s been stripped of nutrients and can really hurt our health.
I recommend avoiding or cutting back on:
- White sugar (made from processed sugarcane or sugar beets)
- Brown sugar (it’s just white sugar mixed with molasses)
- Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, sucralose aka Splenda, sacchaarin)
Don’t worry, there are healthy natural sweeteners out there!
There are healthier alternatives to processed sugar. Just keep in mind that even the healthy sweeteners should be used in moderation!
Here are some of my favorite healthy sugar alternatives:
Humans have been eating honey for thousands of years. Not only is it delicious, it’s full of vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants. Raw honey is the best health-wise, since it’s the least processed.
Bonus: eating local honey has the added benefit of desensitizing you to allergies.
Maple Syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. Pure maple syrup (not imitation!) contains antioxidants that reduce inflammation in our bodies. It’s also rich in Thiamine, Manganese, and Zinc, and contains compounds with anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, and anti-diabetic properties.
Also known as coconut palm sugar, coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm that’s been boiled and then dehydrated. It contains polyphenols, antioxidants, and minerals as well as inulin (a fiber that can help slow glucose absorption).
Stevia is an herb native to South America (but I can grow it in my backyard in NC). It gets its sweetness from two compounds—stevioside and rebaudioside. Stevia contains zero calories and can be processed into liquid drops and powders, but the more processed versions aren’t ideal.
In the photo below you can see dried stevia leaf on the left. It’s great for steeping into teas, and when I have fresh leaves available, I’ll toss them into smoothies.
In the middle is stevia concentrate, which is made by simply concentrating (cooking) whole stevia leaves in purified water. It’s dark (like molasses in color) and it’s my preferred version of stevia because it’s convenient but still not heavily processed. It does have a slightly bitter taste that can take a little getting used to.
On the right is stevia extract. This clear liquid comes from concentrating stevia, then filtering it down resulting in a cleaner, more sugar-like taste. This is a good option if you’re trying to adjust to the taste of stevia, but it’s a more processed version (so keep that in mind).
Note: Products such as Truvia that are marketed as stevia actually use Erythriol as their main ingredient. Some people have a hard time breaking this sugar alcohol down. I generally don’t recommend Truvia.
Dates (or Date Sugar)
Dates are a great natural, unprocessed source of sweetness. They’re very sweet and one date can really go a long way to quiet a sweet craving. Dates can be blended into smoothies, mixed into baked goods, or chopped and added to just about anything.
Date sugar is made from very finely ground dates and is great for sprinkling over foods, or in baked goods. The only downside is that it can clump, and it doesn’t melt.
To make molasses, producers press sugar cane to release its juices. Next, the juice is boiled down, concentrating it into a thick syrup.
Backstrap molasses comes from prolonged boiling, concentrating its nutrients and providing a deep, rich flavor. It’s high in copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium, and vitamin B6.
Some other healthy sugar alternatives that I’ve researched but don’t have too much experience using:
Fruit syrup (or molasses) from pomegranate, grapes, dates, carob, and mulberries is commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking and provides the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants contained in the fruit. Traditionally the syrups are made by simply reducing fruit juice.
Monk fruit contains powerful antioxidants called mogrosides, which the body metabolizes differently than natural sugars. Despite their very sweet taste, these fruits contain no calories and have no effect on blood sugar.
I’ve had products that contain monk fruit as a sweetener, but I’ve never bought it myself. I recommend watching out for additives and avoiding the more processed varieties.
What about agave?
This may come as a surprise, but I don’t consider agave (or agave nectar) a healthy sugar alternative. I don’t use it and I don’t generally recommend it.
Agave is a syrup produced from the tequila plant. It’s marketed as a lower-glycemic product, but there’s limited research to back that claim up. Agave is made using a highly processed procedure that basically strips the naturally occurring agave juice (referred to as piña) of all nutritional value. The end product contains more fructose than High Fructose Corn Syrup
What about you? Do you use any of these sugar alternatives or others that I haven’t mentioned? I’d love to hear about it!
Don't let me do all the talking! Let me know what you think in the comments.