There are several ways to avoid sugar nowadays, but it can be confusing to know which one is healthiest and best. Get the breakdown on common sweeteners here.
The white table sugar we all know and readily recognize is a refined and processed mix of glucose and fructose, called sucrose, that comes mainly from sugarcane. It barely resembles a plant-based food any longer and has been stripped of all nutrients. High fructose corn syrup is another problem that has been refined and stripped of any nutritional value. It’s cheaper to produce than sucrose so this sweetener has made its way into more and more processed foods, even savory ones, as a way to make them taste better. We don’t have to settle for table sugar or overly processed corn syrup any longer, but we do need to know more about the natural sweeteners that have cropped up. Not all of them are as healthy as they seem.
Raw honey is a whole food that many would call a superfood. It is rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, and trace minerals while it also acts as an antimicrobial. Honey is lower on the glycemic index than sugar and causes less sugar spike, but it is still fairly high on the glycemic index so use it sparingly. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a long way anyway.
Another whole food sweetener, date sugar is just dried and pulverized dates. This means it contains iron, potassium, and vitamins with fiber to slow down absorption. You can also use whole dates in smoothies and recipes in place of other sweeteners. The downside is that date sugar does not dissolve in liquids.
Whether as a liquid or granule, coconut sugar is low on the glycemic index, less processed, rich in iron and potassium, and able to supply a slow, steady stream of energy without the sugar spikes of sugar. It does all this while having a very similar flavor to table sugar, apart from a slight caramel addition which is in no way a bad thing.
Fresh fruit and fresh fruit juices are a great way to add sweetness to many recipes. These are whole foods that still contain the water and fiber content that slow down the sugars and limit the calories. Try berries to add a sugary hint to smoothies and so much more.
Stevia is a calorie-free sweetener that comes from the leaf of the stevia plant. It is much, much sweeter than sugar and only needs to be used in tiny amounts. The only problem is that many companies use chemicals during the process or combine it with sugar alcohols. Look for organic sources that don’t add other ingredients. You may be better off growing this herb yourself.
Pure organic maple syrup isn’t highly processed and is rich in manganese, calcium, and zinc. It is still high on the glycemic index, though not as high as sugar. It also has a distinct flavor that many people do not want to color their recipes.
This sweetener is actually the leftovers from sugarcane processing. It contains the minerals that were stripped from white sugar, but that means it is still rather processed. It also has a very distinct flavor that not everyone loves, but it is far healthier than table sugar or corn syrup.
This is another whole food sweetener that comes from the ground pods of the mesquite tree. It is rich in vitamins and minerals with a soft, mellow, caramel flavor.
Evaporated Cane Juice
This is less refined than sugar, pretty much just the cane juice with the water content removed. This means it still contains minerals, vitamins, and plant material that make it a better choice. Use it in moderation though. It is still very high on the glycemic index.
Brown Rice Syrup
Cultured rice with enzymes that break down the starches, this syrup is not as processed or as sweet as sugar. But it is also high on the glycemic index and can cause sugar spikes.
Barley Malt Syrup
Similar to brown rice syrup, but from barley, with all the same benefits and downsides.
Agave Nectar or Syrup
This is one of the natural substitutes that may not be beneficial as it first sounds. It is highly processed, subjected to high heat, and contains a large amount of fructose. Fructose in large amounts overwhelms the liver and results in raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in fruit and many vegetables. It is low calorie and fights cavities, but it also can cause indigestion. Many companies use chemical processes or derive this sweetener from GMO corn. Buy organic if you want to still use it. There are several other sugar alcohols on the market, but xylitol is more common than most.