Sugar is a controversial subject nowadays, and for good reason. Americans eat more sugar than we ever have (152 pounds a year vs. 123 pounds in 1970 and 2 pounds in 1800).1
And it’s not just pure sugar — there are so many different types of sweeteners and most are just downright unhealthy.
Not all-natural sugar substitutes are equal, but there are some sweeteners that are safe to use and that won’t put your health at risk. Continue reading to learn which sugar alternatives to use and which to avoid.
Food And Your Diet: Why Is Refined Sugar So Bad For You?
The standard Western diet is filled with so many foods and drinks that are full of sugar, including:
- Sodas and other sweetened beverages
- Breakfast cereals
- Fruit juice
- Low-fat and regular yogurt
- Condiments and sauces
- Sports drinks
- Flavored coffees and creamers
- Granola and protein bars
- Nut butters
These foods often contain large amounts of sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup and refined sugars. Thanks to the added sugar, they also have tons of calories.2,3
Sweetness isn’t necessarily bad for you. But sugar can cause all sorts of problems.
What are some of the problems associated with consuming too much sugar?
- It may be chemically-addictive in the brain.4
- It spikes your blood sugar. This causes insulin to be released to move the sugar from the bloodstream to the cells. Over time, cells develop insulin resistance. This may lead to an increased risk for massive health issues and excessive weight gain.5
- It can lead to tooth decay and cavities.
Fortunately, there are a few good alternatives to table sugar sucrose. These alternatives may provide fewer health problems without sacrificing sweetness in your meals.
Sugar Alternatives: Coconut Sugar, Maple Syrup, Honey, And Molasses
The better sugar alternatives all have these things in common:
- They are unrefined, which means they retain nutrients (like minerals) and/or beneficial enzymes.
- They usually contain higher levels of antioxidant compounds than refined sugar.6
These sugars are still high in calories — and they’re still fructose based. So while they’re certainly better than refined sugar, there are even better options out there. Look for:
Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from a small round fruit grown in Asia. It’s 100-250 times sweeter than sugar so only a tiny amount is needed to replace sugar and have the same level of sweetness. It also contains zero calories and zero carbs.7
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, meaning despite its carbohydrates, it is not broken down in the body and does not actually count towards your carb intake. It provides a taste 60%-70% of the sweetness of sugar without an insulin spike or risk of weight gain.8
Try combining erythritol with monk fruit for baking purposes. Containing zero calories, this guilt-free combination will be just as sweet as sugar and will add bulk to a recipe in the same way that sugar would.
Similar to erythritol, this sugar alcohol is a safe way to sweeten up your foods without destroying your health. It has the same sweetness, taste, and volume to sugar, but at 40% fewer calories.9
For people looking to replace their artificial sweeteners, stevia is a natural alternative. Derived from the stevia plant, stevia’s main dietary benefit is that it has zero calories. It also tastes 200 times sweeter than sugar, so very little needs to be used at once.10
Some studies have suggested that it might benefit people with Type 2 Diabetes. While stevia itself is naturally-derived, read the ingredients on brand-name versions. Some may contain additives like erythritol, natural flavors, and dextrose.11
Sugar Alternatives To Avoid: Aspartame, Saccharin, Agave, And More
Not all-natural sugar substitutes are the same. In fact, some are equally as bad if not worse for you than sugar. And always avoid zero-calorie artificial sweeteners such as Splenda or Sweet N’ Low. Their adverse metabolic effects may make it harder to lose weight.12
Agave And Other Not-Great Natural Sweeteners
Agave is marketed as a sugar alternative. It is believed by native Mexicans to have medicinal properties. Its sugars are even used to make tequila. But the refining process reduces the potential beneficial health effects. It does this by heating and killing the healthy plant fibers.13
Aspartame is a widely-used low-calorie sweetener often found in low-calorie drinks and foods including diet soda. Despite its popularity, studies have shown that aspartame can have negative effects on your health and can actually cause weight gain.
Unfortunately, it may also cause irritable moods.14
Saccharin was the first artificial zero-calorie sweetener. Discovered in 1879, it’s up to 500 times sweeter than sugar. Saccharin has effects that continue to be very controversial. These include its potential to lead to weight gain. So, it’s best avoided.15
In Conclusion: Is Sugar a Friend or Foe?
In summary, sugar in all of its forms (fructose, glucose, lactose, etc), can have a negative effect on your health. Same goes for artificial sweeteners which may be marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar but actually make it very difficult to lose weight.
To make matters worse, sugar and artificial sweeteners are added to tons of the foods we’re buying and consuming. Even products labeled “no added sugar” can still contain a ton of sugar (like flavored yogurts) — or dangerous artificial sweetener.
So, next time you’re at the grocery store, check the labels before throwing items into the cart and grab some stevia packets on the way out. Your body will thank you.
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