It’s no secret that sugar takes a devastating toll on your health. The truth is sugar consumption may be the largest factor underlying obesity and chronic disease in our country. The single major source of calories for Americans comes from sugar—especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a food sweetener and preservative.
The Problem with Fructose
In previous years, our major source of fructose came from fruits and vegetables, which also contained fiber, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and beneficial phytonutrients, mitigating any negative metabolic effects. The problem today is much of our store-bought food and beverages – both sweet and savory – contain HFCS. It’s found in condiments, crackers, juices, stuffing, dairy products, and even cough syrups! Therefore, we’re ingesting massive doses of this stuff, making it dangerous to your health.
Secondly, fructose is metabolized very differently in your body from glucose (your body processes most carbohydrates you eat into glucose). The entire metabolic burden falls on your liver, similar to alcohol, releasing toxic byproducts. In addition, fructose is metabolized into fat far more rapidly. Once metabolized, it forms adipose fat – the kind of fat that collects around your heart, liver, and digestive organs and is associated with a greater risk of obesity, heart disease, liver disease, cancer, arthritis, and other disease states.
A WORD OF CAUTION: While we’ll be discussing some healthier alternatives to sugar, keep in mind that moderation is key across the board.
Organic Raw Honey
Honey remains the holy grail of natural sweeteners. If it’s not chemically altered from its natural form (pure, unheated, unpasteurized, and unprocessed), it contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. Keep in mind you’re not likely to find high quality raw honey in your local conventional grocery store. Most of the commercial Grade A honey is highly processed and of poor quality.
Uses: sweeten peanut butter sandwiches and add to breakfast foods like pancakes and smoothies.
In terms of minerals, maple syrup contains calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus sodium, potassium, and zinc, as well as vitamins such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6. It also has various antioxidant properties that are essential for healthy living. Antioxidants are important for the body as they neutralize free radicals, which may cause various health ailments.
Uses: Maple syrup can be used instead of store bought pancake syrup, which is likely processed and contains numerous chemical additives. It can also be used for baking—use equal parts syrup to cane sugar in recipes for cookies and cakes.
Organic Brown Rice Syrup
The less known of the natural sweeteners, brown rice syrup is arguably less “sweet” than the others, with a mild flavor and thick consistency. The milder taste is result from of fact that this syrup is a complex carbohydrate extracted from whole grain rice, so it contains less natural sugar and processes more slowly in the body.
Uses: Alternative for corn syrup, homemade granola bars.
Pureed or Mashed Organic Fruit
Another easy fix to replace sugar in baking for kids is to use pureed or mashed fruit. Whole fruit contains fiber and protein that is removed from fruit juice making it a more nutritious option than juice.
Uses: Bananas, apples or berries can take the place of sugar when making muffins, can be added to pancakes and smoothies and poured over oatmeal or other hot cereal.
Organic Agave Syrup
This one gets a bit tricky. Although agave may have a low glycemic index and does not spike blood sugars like other sweeteners can, the truth is MOST agave syrup has a higher fructose content than any commercial sweetener — ranging from 70 to 97 percent, depending on the brand, which is far higher than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which averages 55 percent. Most agave products are so highly processed and refined that it bears no resemblance to the agave plant.
Safest Sugar Alternatives for Diabetics
The only healthy sugar substitutes I would recommend for individuals with diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, etc., are stevia, lo han, and xylitol (a sugar alcohol). Keep in mind that any sweetener whether natural or artificial, may still contribute to insulin resistance, so limit its use.
Forget the Artificial Sweeteners!
You simply cannot put artificial sweeteners in the category of “healthy sugar substitutes”. Artificial sweeteners can actually be far worse for you than sugar and fructose, and there is scientific evidence to back this up. Symptoms reported after ingesting Splenda include gastrointestinal problems, seizures, dizziness, migraines, blurred vision, allergic reactions, blood sugar increases, and weight gain. Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) is probably the worst of these sweeteners and accounts for over 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA, including memory loss and other neurological problems. Artificial sweeteners basically trick your body into thinking that it’s going to receive sugar (calories), but when the sugar doesn’t come, your body continues to signal that it needs more, which results in carb cravings and subsequent weight gain.