Sugar consumption is on the rise, and is a contributing factor for many health issues. The average American consumes 19.5 teaspoons of added sugar, including natural sweeteners, which is roughly 400 calories of added sugar per day! The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women and 9 teaspoons for men. The AHA limits children’s sugar consumption to 3-6 teaspoons per day.
While the consumption of refined sugar is on the rise, so are artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners such as Aspartame, Sucralose (Splenda), Ace K, and Saccharin have been debated for years in regards to their damaging side effects. While the FDA considers all of these sweeteners technically “safe,” they are undergoing increased scrutiny due to their possible side effects. Side effects from artificial sweeteners may include headaches, migraines, a decreased thymus gland, impairment of liver and kidney function, and mood disorders.
Refined sugars, which include white, brown, confectioner’s sugar, and high fructose corn syrup, are not so great either. Side effects of refined sugars include diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and even poor cognitive functioning. One of the worst offenders is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a cheap sweetener that is used in many food products. Most HFCS is made from genetically modified (GMO) corn, and contains a high amount of fructose, a simple sugar that is rapidly metabolized by the liver causing a quick spike in blood sugar. This sugar is believed to increase storage of fat in the liver, resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, upset digestion, and atherosclerosis. It would be best to avoid all products that contain HFCS.
Fortunately, there are many natural sweeteners that are healthy and tasty alternatives to refined sugars, and artificial sweeteners. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, substituting healthy sweeteners can increase antioxidant and nutrient intake. However it is important to remember that even though a sweetener is natural, it is still a sugar, and should be consumed in small quantities.
The Best Natural Sweeteners
- Raw Honey (1 tablespoon – 64 calories)
- Stevia (0 calories)
- Dates (1 Medjool Date – 66 calories)
- Coconut Sugar (1 tablespoon – 45 calories)
- Maple Syrup (1 tablespoon – 52 calories)
- Blackstrap Molasses (1 tablespoon – 47 calories)
- Brown Rice Syrup (1 tablespoon – 55 calories)
Raw honey is considered a superfood and one of the best natural sweeteners. It is packed with enzymes, antioxidants, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals such as, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, and B vitamins. Raw honey may also promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
It’s important to note that these are the benefits of raw honey. Once honey has been pasteurized and processed, it loses many of the health benefits it originally had. Look for local raw honey at farmer markets and directly from local beekeepers. The darkness of the honey and the richness of the flavor makes for greater health benefits. One of the best types of raw honey is raw Manuka honey.
How to use raw honey: It is important not to heat or cook with raw honey, as that will decrease its beneficial properties. You can drizzle a teaspoon on cereals or yogurt, spread over your sprouted grain toast, or use to make salad dressings.
Stevia is a plant native to South America that has been used for hundreds of years to support healthy blood sugar levels and weight loss. Stevioside, found in the plant’s leaves, is now available in liquid drops, packets, dissolvable tablets, and baking blends. A little bit of stevia goes a long way, as it is more than 200 times as sweet as sugar, but has zero calories and zero carbohydrates. Some people experience a slight metallic aftertaste; if that has been your experience with stevia, try a brand that contains more of the stevioside amount in the formula. Many find it to be sweeter without a residual aftertaste.
How to use stevia: Stevia is heat stable, so you can use it in any way you like. Remember, it is much sweeter than sugar, so avoid using it in the same ratio. For baking, this presents a problem, as refined sugar makes up a big portion of these recipes. To make up for the lost bulk when using stevia, use 1/3 to ½ cup of one of the following agents: fresh fruit puree, yogurt, roasted winter squash, two whipped egg whites, or you can use 1–2 tablespoons of coconut flour.
Dates come from the date palm tree, and are loaded with potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. They are fairly easy to digest and help metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
How to use dates: The first step is to make a paste. Date paste can be used one-to-one in most recipes; it does add bulk for baking. Soak Medjool dates in hot water until soft. If the water reaches room temperature and the dates aren’t soft enough, soak in hot water again. Add the soaked dates to your food processor, along with one tablespoon of the water they were soaking in. Blend until smooth, like the consistency of peanut butter. Use in your favorite baked goods recipes to cut out refined sugar and boost the nutrients.
Many have heard about the benefits of coconut water, coconut milk, coconut flour, and of course fresh coconut. Coconut sugar is extracted sap from the blooms of coconut, which is then heated and evaporated. It has a low glycemic load and rich mineral content. It is packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous, and other phytonutrients.
How to use coconut sugar: Use coconut sugar in your favorite recipes, it measures just like sugar! It is a little coarser than refined sugar, but you can put it in your food processor until you get the desired texture. You can even make a confectioner’s sugar substitute. For every cup of coconut sugar, add one tablespoon of arrowroot powder and blend until smooth in a coffee grinder or high-powered food processor.
Native to North America, maple syrup comes in both Grades A and B. Maple syrup contains manganese, calcium, potassium, and zinc. This all-natural sweetener is rich antioxidants, which helps neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage. Select darker, Grade B maple syrups, as they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups. Make sure to buy pure maple syrup, as there are many brands that are just a sugary syrup with added maple flavors.
How to use maple syrup: Maple syrup is heat stable, so you can use in any application. Add it to marinades, glazes, sauces or use for baking. Use it to sweeten homemade granola and/or your morning coffee or tea.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is a thick, amber-colored, sweet syrup, that is made from brown rice that is fermented with enzymes to break down the starch. The fermenting process helps break down the sugars easily digestible. Also note that some brown rice syrups are fermented with enzymes from barley, which means they contain gluten. Purchase brown rice syrups that are labeled gluten-free.
How to use brown rice syrup: Brown rice syrup is the perfect replacement in recipes that call for corn syrup. Use a one-to-one ratio. To replace regularly processed white sugar, use one cup for each cup of sugar needed and decrease the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. Use brown rice syrup to make healthy granola bars and granola, nut clusters, and to sweeten nut and fruit pies.
Remember living a healthy lifestyle doesn’t mean you have to give up sweets entirely; it just means you need to replace unhealthy refined sugars and artificial sweeteners with natural ones. However, natural sweeteners should still be considered treats, and consumed on occasion and in moderation. Individuals with blood sugar control issues or diabetes should only use stevia as a natural sweetener. Now you can explore and find what natural sweetener satisfies your sweet tooth.
“Added Sugars.” American Heart Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 June 2017.
Sen, Shiraj, et al. “Glucose regulation of load-induced mTOR signaling and ER stress in mammalian heart.” Journal of the American Heart Association 2.3 (2013): e004796.
Gaby, Alan R. “Adverse effects of dietary fructose.” Alternative medicine review 10.4 (2005): 294.
Phillips, Katherine M., Monica H. Carlsen, and Rune Blomhoff. “Total antioxidant content of alternatives to refined sugar.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 109.1 (2009): 64-71.