Wouldn’t it be sweet if you could eat sugar without worrying about health consequences? Well, you can. You just have to choose the right sugar.
Here’s the deal: processed sugars can be toxic to the body. Beyond providing nothing but empty calories, refined sugar is highly addictive, causes blood sugar levels to spike, interferes with nutrient absorption, and even has been linked to contributing to heart disease, weight gain and other degenerative disease. But there’s no need to live a sugar celibate life.
Swapping out the white stuff for another minimally processed, more natural sugars could be better for your body—and your recipes. There are alternatives to the processed regular sugar that provide some surprising benefits. While still sugar, these alternatives sweetners are much easier for the process and boast a range of other nutrients and health benefits.
But First, Some Science
To understand the difference between bad sugars and better sugars, first it’s important to note the difference between fructose, glucose, and sucrose.
Better sugars—including maple syrup, coconut sugar, and date syrup—score low on the glycemic index and have lower amounts of fructose. Sucrose (which is what cane sugar is) and glucose are what cause insulin levels to spike, whereas fructose does not.
Fructose is what’s found in fruit (for the most part). However, too much fructose can be challenging for the liver to metabolize. The recommended quantity of fructose per day should not exceed 50 grams. Over this quantity, the metabolism of fructose in the liver starts to produce free radicals. (That’s one reason why high-fructose corn syrup is so awful.)
All of the best sugars score lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, which means they won’t cause your insulin levels to spike.
In essence, what you’re looking for in a better sugar is both a low glycemic index, a fructose content that is not too high, and additional nutrients that cane sugar does not offer.
Whether you’re looking for sugar substitutes for baking, cooking or to sweeten your morning coffee, here’s a list of the best natural sweeteners you can use and why.
The Best Sugar Substitutes
1) Date Syrup
Date syrup is not just sugar — it’s actually a food made from a fruit. Date syrup is low on the glycemic index - we verified this when we ran a clinical study looking at that effect on blood sugar in real time, on human clinical subjects, resulting in a GI of 47 +/- 2. It is also lower in fructose than most sweeteners. Moreover, date syrup is packed with nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. It also has an antioxidant level that’s the same as maca or raspberries, making it the most nutritionally dense sweetener out there. The potassium in date syrup actually helps your body slowly absorb and regulate sugar in the bloodstream.
2) Raw Honey
Raw honey, especially raw local honey, is much like dates in that it’s a real food—and also the nectar of the gods. In addition to sugar, honey has amino acids, electrolytes and a bounty of antioxidants. It has been touted for it natural antiseptic properties, and ability to alleviate allergy symptoms. While honey does contain higher fructose levels, it’s relatively low on the glycemic index, making it one of the best sugar substitutes of the bunch. One study found that replacing sugar with honey could actually lower blood sugar levels and prevent weight gain or aid in weight loss.
3) Maple Syrup
Real maple syrup has all the markers of a better sugar alternative, including a low glycemic index score and a low fructose content. Sourced straight from trees, it’s minimally processed and packed with even more minerals and antioxidants than honey, including manganese, riboflavin, zinc and magnesium. It’s also lower calorie than most sweeteners. The only catch is that you must be cautious when buying maple syrup that the label says “100% maple syrup”—otherwise you’re likely getting corn syrup with “maple flavoring” (whatever that means).
4) Coconut Sugar
Boasting high amounts of potassium and electrolytes, coconut sugar, which comes from blossoms of the coconut tree, is the best replacement for white sugar in recipes, since it behaves similarly. However it’s still pretty processed and not as nutrient-dense as the others. The upside is that it contains inulin fiber, which has been shown to help slow the absorption of glucose to keep blood-sugar levels balanced. It’s probably one of the best substitutes for regular sugar in baked goods.
5) Blackstrap Molasses
Rich in iron, potassium and calcium, blackstrap molasses is another one that’s nutritionally superior to many other sweeteners. One tablespoon has more iron than a 3-ounce serving of steak—more than 10 percent of the daily recommended intake. The by-product of refined white sugar, blackstrap molasses is the darkest grade and processed three times to remove as much sucrose as possible.
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Alternative Sugars You Should Actually Avoid
Artificial and low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, and neotame are considered the worst of the worst in the realm of alternative sweeteners. While the actual science is still out on the safety of aspartame and saccharin, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that shows this stuff just isn’t that good for you.
Many people report headaches, stomach aches and a general ill feeling after eating artificial sweeteners. And some studies have shown that chemical sweeteners can actually change the bacterial makeup of your microbiome, throwing your entire gut health out of whack.
The FDA does a pretty terrible job of regulating this industry, so it’s pretty hard to know if what you’re eating is safe. Sucralose (better known by its brand name Splenda) is the worst offender. Others like Nutrisweet, Truvia and a number of brands from the stevia plant claim to be better, but there’s little data to support any claims.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
This one almost goes without saying. High-fructose corn syrup, which is made through a chemical process that’s anything but natural, is one of the worst offenders for insulin spikes, as it doesn’t have to be digested by your body. This stuff simply filters right into your bloodstream and goes wild.
While agave gained notoriety for its low glycemic index, it ultimately was shown to have a higher fructose content than high-fructose corn syrup (about 70% to 90%). It has been marketed as a healthier alternative, but it’s really no better than the worst offenders.
Sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol and sorbitol are generally recognized as safe and are most commonly in chewing gum and toothpastes because they’ve been found to protect against tooth decay. They also score low on the glycemic index. While those are both great benefits, the verdict is still out over the side effects on your gut, as they have been found to cause digestive problems.
The problem is that your body can’t digest most sugar alcohols, so they travel to the large intestine where they are metabolized by gut bacteria.
If you eat a lot of sugar alcohols in a short period of time, it can lead to gas, bloating and diarrhea. The biggest offenders are sorbitol and maltitol.
Ready to learn more about adopting a low-sugar lifestyle? You may enjoy these articles: “Our Favorite Low-Sugar Ingredients,” and “5 Surprising Benefits of Living a Low-Sugar Life”