Trying to understand the world of sugar can make your head spin. While you know that white sugar and corn syrup are inherently bad for you, what about all of those sugar alternatives? You may assume that surely they are a better choice that will allow you to indulge in all of your favourite sweets.
The truth may surprise you…
What happens when we eat SUGAR?!
Even though a sugar may be labeled as “natural,” most still function the same in your body as white sugar. Your blood glucose level will raise with your body releasing insulin to counter the glucose (aka sugar). That glucose is then moved into your cells where it gets put to use as an immediate energy source -or it is stored as fat for later use if the person is sedentary.
Here’s the general mechanism (extremely) simplified:
So, let’s cut through all of the labeling hype and shed some light on the truth behind natural sugars, arranged from worst alternative to best alternative.
Naturally I love the look of the Agave plant as I am a bit obsessed with cactus plants. Unfortunately however, what’s actually inside an Agave plant is not so pretty.
This is by far one of the most deceptive of natural sugars. Sure, it has low glucose levels -but that’s because it’s fructose content is between 70-97%. Fructose behaves differently in the body and is far worse for you than glucose. Rather than entering the bloodstream and being handled by insulin, it heads straight to your liver where it is processed. Fructose has been proven to increase the risk of cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. To make matters worse, more than a few brands of agave syrup are nothing more than real agave that’s been thinned with high fructose corn syrup.
Brown Rice Syrup
It seems that when people hear “brown” or “rice” they automatically think an ingredient is a healthier option. Well listen up, brown rice syrup is actually a highly processed glucose syrup that’s made from fermented brown rice. While it has a yummy butterscotch flavor, it also has an alarming glucose level of 98 -which makes it an easy natural sugar to forego for one that’s actually healthy.
Wood Alcohol: Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol
Generally, wood alcohol sweeteners should be avoided, although they can be a good choice for diabetics who may have limited options for what sugar alternatives they can use. Wood alcohols are derived from a number of plants, including corn, oats, and mushrooms. As they are alcohols, they prevent the glucose from being absorbed by the gut. However, that is exactly why they have a laxative effect on the body and are known for causing stomach cramps and diarrhea.
*** Please note that these common sugar substitutes are highly toxic to pets.
Although it is a plant, much of the stevia brands advertised to consumers goes through a considerable amount of processing to render it as a simple sugar substitute. This makes it a better alternative for those who have diabetes. This makes it a good choice for those who have diabetes. However, you can purchase the dried and powdered leaves of the stevia plant and add a tiny amount to your food and drinks. A small amount really does go a long way as stevia is 100% sweeter in taste than sugar -but without all the glucose. Stevia might sound like the miracle solution for anyone looking to drop a few pounds, but there’s no conclusive evidence that sugar substitutes help hamper a person’s sweet tooth or keep them from overeating.
Raw honey has a glucose level of about 50, as well as many additional health benefits. For example, eating raw local honey can help you to get a leg up on seasonal allergies. You do need to be aware, however, that honey also contains fructose -at a ratio of glucose to fructose of roughly 50:50. That may make you a bit leery, but that ratio makes it easier for your body to metabolize the fructose than in, say, agave nectar or high fructose corn syrup. Also note that honey should never be given to children under the age of 12 months due to the naturally occurring botulinum bacteria in the honey.
Of course I’m Canadian so I couldn’t leave this one out! Although in Canada we have plenty of the good stuff, when purchasing, be sure you buy “real maple syrup” and not “maple flavoured syrup!” The fake stuff is basically just high fructose corn syrup with some UN-natural maple flavouring added. Real maple syrup is made by boiling the sap from Sugar Maple trees to remove moisture. This produces a naturally sweet and nutrient rich syrup that you can add to tea, coffee, and baking recipes. It has a glucose level of about 54, while being a great source of Manganese. Manganese is essential for proper and normal growth of the human bone structure, while playing a huge role in increasing the mineral density of the bones after – think “Manganese for the knees”!!!
Pureed fruits like banana, applesauce, or dates are a great way to add sweetness to baking recipes along with all of the nutrients and fiber that those fruits have to offer. Of course, you may need to adjust your recipe. For example, using applesauce will add excess moisture.
Coconut: Blossom, Nectar Crystals, Syrup
Made from the crystalized nectar of coconut palm blossoms, this is one natural sugar you can feel good about eating. It has a glucose level of about 30 to 35 and contains vitamins B2, B3, and C, as well as iron and magnesium. It has a great caramel flavour and you can use it as a direct sugar substitute -only using half as much.
This is possibly the best natural sugar available -although it is also the most difficult to acquire. It’s made from the crystalized nectar of the palmyra palm and has a glucose level of 40. But it’s also packed with nutrients such as B1 needs and B12, as well as minerals such as: iron, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. Like Coconut derived sugar, it has a caramel flavour and can be used as a direct sugar substitute -cut the amount your recipe requires in half. Here you can see a comparison between palmyra jaggery and plain old white sugar… you can easily tell who the winner is!
Remember, no sweetener is 100% healthy -regardless of whether or not it’s natural. If you’d like to determine the best sweeteners to help you take charge of your diet and better reach your health goals, let’s talk! As a holistic nutritionist, I can help you make the most effective changes to your diet -without sacrificing the foods you love.
Cheers & Namaste,
P.S. For more tips on healthy food replacements please be sure to signup for my mailing list today.
I’m Elle! A Toronto-based Holistic Nutritionist. I’m a multi-passionate woman, but nutrition and understanding how the body works is really my passion. Through my own personal journey, I have trained my body to heal itself using strategic, natural tools and techniques. Now I’m ready to help others!
As a new Mom, I understand that wellbeing is a journey. I hope my expertise will inspire other parents to choose nutrient-rich foods and the right products to create a happy, healthy and sustainable home. Click Here to Continue Reading