Sugars and Sweeteners and Substitutes, Oh My!

Plain and simple, added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. I think by now we all understand the serious risks that sugar consumption poses to our health. Okay, but in all seriousness: we can’t go through life without satisfying our sweet tooth! So what’s the alternative?

As awareness of sugar’s harmful effects increases, so does the marketing for other “healthy” sugars, sweeteners and substitutes. So can we keep the sweet without the sick? Does “healthy” sugar really exist? Are artificial sweeteners safe to use? Or is it all just a ploy contributing to more consumer confusion? Take off your blind folds people, because In this post I break down the most popular sugars, sweeteners and substitutes. Take a read and decide for yourselves:

Agave Nectar

The sweet nectar of a medicinal plant- harmless right? Although it is marketed as being natural and a healthier alternative to regular cane sugar, agave nectar is just as bad for you if not worse. Here’s why: agave nectar is made using a harsh manufacturing process that destroys all of the health promoting properties of the Agave plant. Agave is also about 85% fructose (regular sugar is about 50% fructose). Our bodies are only equipped to handle fructose in small amounts and an excess of fructose contributes to a whole slew of health problems including insulin resistance, belly fat accumulation, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. My recommendation is to avoid agave nectar as you would regular table sugar.

Coconut Sugar

The manufacturing method of coconut sugar is very natural. Coconut sugar even contains some fiber and a few nutrients. In addition, it only contains 35-45% fructose, which is slightly less than regular cane sugar. With all this being said, coconut sugar can be considered a better choice than cane sugar- just keep in mind that doesn’t make it “healthy”- it’s still sugar!

Honey

Similar to coconut sugar, honey is slightly less harmful than regular sugar. It’s entirely natural and even contains antioxidants and small amounts of vitamins and minerals, which is a plus. But it’s still sugar- so consume it in moderation.

Maple Syrup

Pure Maple syrup is 100% natural and contains a decent amount of minerals and antioxidants, but it is still very high in sugar. Maple syrup is a less harmful alternative to regular table sugar, but as will any sugar, don’t over-do it. (Keep in mind we’re talking about pure maple syrup here, not Mrs Butterworth’s)

Artificial Sweeteners

These include but are not limited to aspartame, neotame, sucralose and saccharin. You may know them better as Equal, Sweet ‘n Low and Splenda. What all of these have in common is that they are artificial- they are made from chemicals. The pros to these sweeteners is that they contain zero calories and they don’t have the harmful metabolic effects of sugar (which is why they are often recommended for diabetics). The use of them remains highly controversial though and they haven’t been proven to be entirely safe. The bottom line is they are chemicals, so I personally do not use or recommend them for the average individual.

Stevia

Stevia is the best of both worlds: it is 100% natural AND contains zero calories. Too good to be true? Nope! Current research confirms that stevia is perfectly safe and even has a number of health benefits. All of these things make stevia an excellent alternative to sugar and artificially made sweeteners. You can buy stevia in liquid or powder form and use it to sweeten anything from beverages to baked goods. Just look for a brand that has no unnatural additives. (*tip: different brands also tend to taste different so try to read reviews or get recommendations of ones that taste the best)

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol are the other natural sweeteners. They are lower in calories than regular sugar and have a few health benefits, but can’t quite hold a candle to stevia. When consumed in high doses they can also cause digestive problems so I usually don’t heavily promote them.

Take away message: Sugar is sugar. Your body digests all sugar the same way and doesn’t care whether it’s “natural”  or not. Some natural forms of sugar like honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup offer nutrients and antioxidants and are lower in fructose than regular cane sugar making them “less bad” options. You may benefit from replacing regular cane sugar in your diet with natural sugars like honey, coconut sugar or maple syrup, but ALL sugar should be consumed in moderation. Artificial sweeteners like Equal, Sweet ‘n Low and Splenda are zero calorie alternatives to sugar, but the question remains whether or not consuming these chemicals is entirely safe. I tend to stay away from them for that very reason. Sugar alcohols act as natural sweeteners and are lower in calories than regular sugar, but consuming to much of them can cause digestive issues. Stevia is a natural sweetener with no calories and is not only proven to be safe, but to have several health benefits as well. In conclusion, If you want to sweeten something, stevia is your best bet. Followed by natural sugars like honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup when used sparingly.

Salad Sabotage: The Truth About Salad Dressing

Most people hear the word salad and automatically think “healthy.” Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. In fact, more often than not, it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, salads have the potential to be one of the world’s healthiest and most well-balanced meals. A heaping pile of fresh fruits and veggies topped with lean protein, a little bit of dairy, and some healthy fat? This is what dietitians’ dreams are made of! How could you go possibly go wrong? The problem is, we’re smothering this should-be nutritious meal with unhealthy trans fats, sugar, chemicals and other harmful additives when we use store-bought salad dressing.

Most store bought salad dressings are made with highly refined oils that are full of harmful trans fats. As always, the truth lies in the ingredients so turn the bottle around and read. The following oils should be avoided: canola oil, vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil & cottonseed oil. You may be wondering how an oil made from seeds and vegetables could be bad for you. The problem isn’t the seeds and vegetables themselves- its HOW the oils are derived from them. The process creates trans fats and they are extremely detrimental to your health.

Sugar is another popular ingredient in store bought salad dressings. Sugar can be disguised using about 60 different names on food labels so use the guidelines in my blog post Identifying Hidden Sugar to make sure you’re familiar with all of them.

Lastly, the components of salad dressings are not designed to be in a perfect emulsion nor should they be shelf stable for years. Nothing a solid dose of chemicals, preservatives, stabilizing agents and sweeteners can’t take care of!

Here are a few other harmful additives to avoid:

Disodium Guanylate

Disodium Inosinate

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Calcium Disodium EDTA

Gums

High Fructose Corn Syrup

Okay, I feel your frustration. But there’s good news!! I have been enjoying salads for years and haven’t purchased a single salad dressing! First of all there are several ways to dress your salad without using salad dressing at all. A few of my favorite alternatives are: guacamole, salsa, cottage cheese, hummus, olive oil & lemon and olive oil & vinegar. If you’re still not convinced to ditch your dressing, here are some simple, healthy recipes that may mimic a few of your bottled favorites:

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Honey Mustard

(6 servings, 24 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
½ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
1 ½ Tbsp yellow OR dijon mustard
1 Tbsp honey

Directions:
1.Whisk ingredients together until well combined.

Refrigerate for 1 hour before serving.

*Works well as a dressing, dip, or spread

Ranch (8 servings, 20-25 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
2/3 cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt
3 Tbsp parsley
1 tsp dill
1/4 tsp garlic powder
1 clove garlic (or ½ tsp minced garlic)
¼-½ cup buttermilk
Salt & pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Stir together all ingredients (except for buttermilk) in a bowl. Slowly add buttermilk until desired consistency is reached. For the best flavor, refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.

Ceasar (10 servings, 40 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
¾ cup 2% plain Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
5 anchovies
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 garlic clove
½ tsp dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Combine all ingredients in food processor and blend until smooth. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before serving.

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Tzatziki

(8 servings, 15 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
¾ cup nonfat plain Greek yogurt (I highly recommend using Fage it gives the perfect thick and creamy consistency)
1 clove garlic (or 1/2 tsp minced garlic)
½ baby cucumber (about 4”)
1 Tbsp dill

Directions:
1. Cut cucumber in half lengthwise and scrape out seeds using a spoon (no need to peel)
2. Add all ingredients to a food processor and mix until well combined and desired consistency is reached (I like mine chunky).
*Makes a great veggie dip or salad dressing. Leave out the cucumber and experiment with different herbs and spices for limitless creamy herb salad dressing options.

Balsamic Vinaigrette (6 servings, 120 calories per 2 Tbsp serving)

Ingredients:
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup white or regular balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic, crushed (or ½ tsp minced garlic)
½ tsp ground mustard
1 Tbsp Honey (*optional- if you like sweeter vinaigrettes)
Salt & Pepper to taste

Directions:
1. Whisk ingredients together in a bowl.

Keep in Mind:
1. These salad dressings do not contain preservatives like bottled dressings from the store. They will last 1week in your refrigerator so only make what you plan to use.
2. There aren’t any chemicals or additives in these dressings keeping the ingredients in a perfect emulsion. It is normal for ingredients to separate, just shake or whisk well before using.

Happy Eating!

Multi Billion Dollar Supplement Industry: Is It Worth All the Hype?

As a dietitian, I am often asked for my opinion on using protein powders, shakes and other nutrition supplements so I’ve decided to share my response with everyone.

Nutrition supplements can be an excellent addition to a well-balanced diet and are sometimes necessary for individuals to meet specific nutrient needs. It almost sickens me though how heavily nutrition supplements are marketed- with promises of leaner bodies, longer hair and younger looking skin- it leaves the average health-conscious consumer feeling like they need to be taking x, y, and z supplements in order to be healthy. So, before you spend hundreds of dollars on supplements and choke a handful of pills down with your post-workout muscle milk, take a few minutes to evaluate whether or not you really need them. Here are a few things everyone should understand about nutrition supplements:

1. Supplements Are Designed to Supplement

Supplements are not meant to be your sole source of nutrients- food is. Supplements were designed to help close a nutritional gap and treat deficiencies. For example, someone who is lactose intolerant may need to take supplemental Calcium + Vitamin D and probiotics. Similarly, someone who is vegan may want to drink a daily protein shake and take Vitamin B12- to supplement what may be lacking in their diet. We should aim to meet our daily nutrient needs with food by eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, meat, seafood and dairy. When in-tolerances and allergies get in the way of your ability to do this, you should take a supplement to ensure you are giving your body what it needs.

*The majority of our population has inadequate intakes of essential vitamins and minerals and can benefit from taking a daily multivitamin.

2. You Can NOT “Make Up” For a Bad Diet with Supplements

The majority of your nutrition needs to come from whole foods. The reason for this is because whole, healthy foods contain tens of thousands of phytochemicals, proteins, fiber, and fats that work together as a whole. This concept simply cannot be replicated into a pill or supplement form. The bottom line is that a poor diet made up of processed foods, refined sugar and grains CANNOT be counteracted with supplements. There are no short cuts here…eat whole, natural, nutrient dense foods and supplement as needed.

3. Supplements Can Be Dangerous

Just like everything else we put into our bodies, we need to be careful when taking supplements. For starters, there are many nutrients that we can overdose on so make sure you are not taking more than the recommended amount of any supplement unless under the care of a licensed health care professional and instructed to do so. Secondly, there aren’t a lot of regulations when it comes to what goes into nutrition supplements. Many contain toxic ingredients, chemicals, dyes, fillers and other unwanted additives- you know, a lot of the same crap that shows up in our food supply. So do your research, read your labels and get your questions answered before purchasing a supplement. Symmetry Global is one company that I recommend for high-quality nutritional products backed by years of research, development and extensive laboratory testing. I have been using their products for years.

4. Protein Shouldn’t Taste Like a Double Fudge Brownie

If you hate meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, nuts and legumes and your favorite dessert-flavored protein shake is the ONLY way you’re going to get your protein in, then by all means drink it. What I want to bring to everyone’s attention (especially those of you who believe drinking a daily protein shake is going to make you “healthy”) is that many protein powders, shakes and bars on the market today are so full of sugar you might as well just eat a slice of cake. In addition to the sugar and extra calories often comes chemicals, dyes and other unwanted ingredients. Have you ever read the ingredient label on your protein supplement… let alone try to pronounce it? Bottom line is adding the dessert flavored protein products may be doing you more harm than good. With all that being said, there are protein products that I highly recommend and use. Both Tera’s Whey and The Naked Co. are companies that specialize in all natural, certified organic protein powders with no added sugar, chemicals or artificial ingredients. They contain few, pronounceable ingredients and taste delicious.

Take away message: Although you should aim to nourish your body with nutrients from whole foods, I understand that is not possible for everyone. I am a supporter of nutrition supplements, but it is important to remember that meeting nutrient needs with a supplement does not give you a free pass to eat potato chips and ice cream for dinner. You should not replace food with supplements. Rather, focus on meeting your nutrient needs with foods first and supplement your diet as needed. When choosing a supplement make sure you do your research and ask questions to ensure you are selecting a high quality one. If you are unsure whether or not you should be taking a supplement talk to registered dietitian.