Our bodies run on glucose (AKA: sugar); in fact, every cell and living thing uses it to produce energy. Glucose is found in a wide variety of foods, including sugar beets, sugar cane and fruits and vegetables. The trouble is that Americans eat an amazing amount of processed sugar that does absolutely nothing to improve or maintain their health. It causes havoc in one of the most efficient systems on earth – the human body.
Whether you think you’re guilty or not, every person should examine when and why they grab a high carb, sugar laden snack and begin using healthier, natural sweeteners to cut down on their cravings.
The truth is, cutting out sugar, especially processed beet sugar and fructose, which are typically genetically modified, will help you lose weight, build a healthier and stronger body and tame the wild beast of sugar addiction.
The Processed Sugar Epidemic
Let these facts sink in. Most Americans eat their body weight in glucose (table sugar, fruits & vegis) plus 20 pounds of corn syrup annually. Or put it another way, the average person is consuming about 22 teaspoons of table sugar per day, which amounts to an astonishing 156 pounds of sugar per year.
Processed sugars and fructose provide no essential nutrients, fiber, healthy fats or enzymes and are empty calories that cause distress in the body by using minerals for digestion that would benefit other vital parts of the body. Natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables offer a small benefit of fiber, vitamins, minerals and enzymes that help slow digestion, which allows the body to deal with the sugars more efficiently.
Processed or not, excess sugar has a devastating effect on the body and is an underlying factor in obesity and chronic disease. Fructose, a cheap natural sweetener derived from corn, can serve as fuel after a strenuous workout, but any excess not utilized by the body will be stored as fat. Over time this fat can accumulate in the liver and lead to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Also, researchers are examining the possibility that fructose feeds and promotes cell division in cancer cells, allowing cancer to spread faster.
Artificial Sweeteners – A Better Alternative?
To meet the demand for low or sugar-free products, manufacturers have resorted to artificial sweeteners, which come with a lingering strange taste and a long list of potential side effects. There is conflicting data about the long-term safety of artificial sweeteners, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved six (acesulfame potassium, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, neotame and advantame) and generally considers them safe.
Despite the FDA’s claim that artificial sweeteners are not harmful to your health, there has been plenty of controversy over the years about their use. We’ll leave that debate for another article, but it’s safe to say that many people would prefer to use a natural sweetener instead.
The closer a sweetener is to nature, the better it tastes and the more your body is able to utilize the other benefits Mother Nature provides by way of enzymes, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
The Best Natural Sweeteners
Here are some of the best natural sweeteners that can be used as an alternative to table or processed sugars:
- Raw Honey – A completely natural antioxidant in its raw form, honey is not only tasty but has a long list of health benefits when used in moderation. As a superfood, honey is packed with essential nutrients that promote healthy gut flora. Drizzle on foods… and never heat it to retain the most benefits. An excellent sugar alternative!
- Sucanat – Short for sucre de canne naturel, Sucanat is a natural sugar that is made from pure dried sugar cane juice. This unprocessed sugar retains much of the natural molasses, giving it a tan-brown color and distinctly sweet taste. Because it has a smaller proportion of sucrose, sucanat has fewer calories and is loaded with vitamins and minerals such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamin A.
- Maple Syrup – Another all-natural sweetener and healthier alternative to sugar, maple syrup can be used in both hot and cold applications, like baking, sauces, marinades, etc. It’s rich in antioxidants that help to neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative distress.
- Dates and Bananas – Exchange processed white sugar with a paste using soaked dates or mashed overripe bananas. Not only will you enjoy the sweetness but the added benefit of a variety of nutrients and fiber; both are good sources of B6 and potassium.
- Coconut Sugar – Coconut sugar is rich in minerals zinc and phosphorous. It has a courser texture and is less sweet than table sugar. It can be found in the health food section of most grocery stores.
- Blackstrap Molasses – A strong, rich taste makes molasses a unique natural sweetener that may not work in concentrated applications, but perfect for baking and marinades. Much healthier than sugar, it’s a great source for selenium, copper, potassium and B6.
- Real Fruit Jam and Applesauce – Another option to consider when replacing white, processed sugar is real fruit jam and organic applesauce. Make your own or look for organic varieties with fruit as the only ingredient. No-sugar-added applesauce can be eaten as is or added to muffins and cookies for just the right amount of sweetness.
- Stevia – Stevia is a potent sweetener (200x sweeter than table sugar) derived from the leaf of the South American stevia plant. Is has no nasty aftertaste or side effects like those associated with artificial sweeteners. It is heat stable and excellent for baking. While 200 times sweeter than sugar, it has no effect on blood sugar and a high anti-oxidant count due to the presence of flavonoids and phenols.
- Sugar Alcohols – Growing in popularity, sugar alcohols are found in a large variety of grocery products boasting ‘low-calorie’, such as candies, jams, baked goods, gum and cough drops. Most of these sweeteners are manufactured from cornstarch, but are neither sugars nor alcohols and 60-90% sweeter than sucrose. Sugar alcohols aren’t zero-calorie sweeteners, but they are much lower in calories than sugar.
Alternative Sweeteners to AVOID
Agave syrup, once considered the go-to sweetener for health and fitness experts, is no longer considered natural or a wise choice for discerning health conscious individuals. It is highly processed, typically 80% fructose and barely resembles the original agave plant.
And despite the marketing hype, deceptive names and FDA approval, health advocates continue to raise red flags about artificial sweeteners. Aspartame and sucralose (Splenda) are the most worrisome, with long lists of potential side effects. Once again, you’ll find conflicting information about artificial sweeteners, but try to avoid them whenever possible.
Keep in mind that no matter which natural sweetener you choose, the more you eat the more you will crave. And while it may be possible to wean yourself off sugar, the best way to cure sugar cravings is to cut sweeteners from your diet completely. Natural sugars may be considered “healthier,” but they should still be consumed in moderation.