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.

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