Added sugar is likely the absolute worst ingredient in our modern diet.
Although it’s associated with serious diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, first-world citizens often cluelessly consume far too much sugar.
While it does taste good to most of us, sugar contains no protein, essential fats, vitamins or minerals — NOTHING that contributes to your dietary needs, in fact.
So what does it do?
Sugar interferes with the hormones that regulate hunger and satiety, which can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain.
It negatively impacts your metabolism, which can lead to increased insulin levels and fat storage.
Sugar is also addictive in that it causes dopamine to be released in the reward center of the brain, which is why we crave that “sugar high” and too often self-medicate a bad mood with a hit of sugary food or drink.
Sugar is just flat-out unhealthy
Fortunately, there are plenty of natural ways to get that sweet taste we crave without adding processed and refined sugars to our diets. But which ones are actually the “best”?
Here’s the scoop on the best and worst natural sugar substitutes
Yacon syrup is the latest, greatest sugar substitute making the healthy living rounds. So what’s the deal with yacon syrup?
Extracted from the yacón plant, a native to South America known scientifically as Smallanthus sonchifolius, it tastes sweet, is dark colored, and has a similar consistency to molasses.
Pros: It was recently featured as a weight loss supplement on The Dr. Oz Show, because one small study found that yacon syrup caused significant weight loss in overweight women, but more research should be done to really validate this claim.
Yacon syrup contains 40–50% fructooligosaccharides, which are a special type of sugar molecule that the human body cannot digest. Because these sugar molecules are not digested, yacon syrup contains one-third the calories of regular sugar, or about 1.3 calories per gram. Additionally, studies indicate that fructooligosaccharides can decrease the hunger hormone ghrelin, which may reduce appetite and cause you eat less.
On top of this, they supposedly feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, which are incredibly important for your overall health. (Healthy gut bacteria has been linked to decreased risk of diabetes and obesity, improved immunity, and better brain function).
Cons: Yacon syrup is considered safe, but consuming large amounts can cause gas, diarrhea or general digestive discomfort.
If you cook or bake with it, the high temperatures break down the structure of the fructooligosaccharides, so this is not recommended.
Use yacon syrup to sweeten coffee or tea, add to salad dressings or stir it into oatmeal — subbing it in for sugar in small amounts that you use daily especially should be an improvement.
The sap of maple trees is boiled down and filtered in sugar houses to produce this sweetener.
Pros: It’s comprised of 70 percent sucrose, has a low fructose level, and contains some antioxidants.
Cons: It contains fructose, which raises insulin levels and blood sugars
Boiled down sap from the leaves of the blue agave plant is way sweeter than sugar, so people have been using it as a replacement as they can use very small amounts to achieve the same sweetness.
Pros: Intensely sweet, so you don’t need to use as much of it as sugar.
Cons: VERY high fructose content — 85% fructose, a higher level than sugar, higher than even the dreaded high fructose corn syrup — which means it doesn’t metabolize well and raises blood sugar levels.
Yes, it’s natural, but the critical issue with sugar is that it’s all fructose and no nutrition and agave syrup is an even worse offender. Save the agave plant for tequila and skip the syrup.
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar-cane refining process — essentially, it is the “good stuff” that gets stripped out to make sure our sugar is that lovely white color.
Pros: All the nutrients extracted from sugar during refining end up in molasses — iron, copper, magnesium, zinc, calcium, and potassium. Blackstrap molasses is particularly rich in minerals and often recommended as a vegan iron source .
Cons: Just like sugar, it’s got high fructose levels.
Pros: The commercial type is essentially sugar, but raw honey remains rich in nutrients. Raw, organic, local honey can be a great natural sweetener, and even help immunize your system against local allergens.
Cons: Use small quantities though, because honey is almost half fructose.
Stevia has long been the natural no-calorie sweetener of choice and certainly wins out over artificial sweeteners like aspartame (Sweet n Low). Stevia is made from leaves of the warm-climate stevia rebaudiana plant.
Pros: No carbs or calories, so doesn’t raise blood sugar, and has no known links to weight gain. This makes it a good choice for diabetics and others who are watching their blood sugar.
Several studies show that Stevioside, one of the sweet compounds in Stevia, can lower high blood pressure by 6–14%.
In addition to simply not raising blood sugar, some studies show that it can actually lower blood sugar and insulin levels, which may help fight diabetes.
Cons: It perpetuates the desire for sweets (as do artificial sweeteners), tricking your body into craving more.
Xylitol, Erythritol and other sugar alcohols
Xylitol is made from plant fibers such as berries, birch and, most often, cornhusks. Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruits.
Pros: 40% fewer calories than sugar, they don’t raise glucose levels (meaning good for diabetics).
Moreover, xylitol increases your body’s absorption of calcium, which means that not only will it not damage your teeth like sugar does, but it actually can strengthen teeth and increase your bone density, which can help protect against osteoporosis.
Most of the harmful effects associated with regular sugar are due to high fructose content. Xylitol contains zero fructose and thus has none of the harmful effects associated with sugar.
Cons: It can cause gastric upset in some people. These can have a bitter after taste in some products.
It’s also important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. If you own a dog, you want to keep xylitol products well out of reach or avoid having it in your house entirely.
China’s Lo Han fruit (monkfruit) has been used in China for centuries to treat obesity and diabetes
Pros: Rich in antioxidants, and has no calories.
Cons: Like all substances that taste sweet, but have no calories, it perpetuates the desire for sweets by tricking the body into releasing insulin to process the extra sugar, leading to a “crash” that makes you want to refuel with sweets and carbs. This is not a concern for Type 1 Diabetics, however, as their bodies do not make insulin, so it’s a fine choice in that case.
Brown rice syrup
Brown rice, cooked and then exposed to enzymes that break it down into sugar for you is how this sweetener is made.
Pros: Despite being dietary sugar, it contains no fructose
Cons: It also contains no nutrients, so might be a bit of a wash in comparison to refined sugar. Like brown rice itself, the syrup could possibly contain arsenic.
Coconut palm sugar
Sap of the coconut palm, extracted, boiled, and dehydrated, turns out to be pretty sweet tasting.
Pros: Low fructose, high in potassium and vitamin C. Just read the labels before buying: some brands are mixed with cane sugar and other ingredients.
Cons: Does contain fructose, plus the same carbs and calories as sugar. Look at it as sugar with a few beneficial nutrients.
Dehydrated, ground dates
Pros: No additives, high potassium and antioxidant content.
Cons: High fructose content and clumpy texture, so really a better substitute for brown sugar than white sugar.
So What’s the Best Sugar Substitute?
As you may have guessed, this depends on your unique needs and situation. Some people get by just fine using something like honey, but if you are diabetic, you’ll want to focus more on the low-to-no-calorie substitutes. I personally mix and match a bit, usually using stevia sweetened products, organic raw honey, and coconut palm sugar.
What’s your favorite substitute for refined sugar and have you tried any of these? Tell me about your experience in the comments!