Our Guide to Natural Sweeteners
The average American eats 152 pounds of sugar in a year. That’s a lot of unneeded empty calories! The excess of this highly addictive substance is linked to many common diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, and heart disease.
“When sugars and starches are eaten in their natural, unrefined form, as a part of a meal containing nourishing fats and protein, they are digested slowly and enter the bloodstream at a moderate rate over a period of several hours….. But when we consume refined sugars and starches, particularly alone without fats or protein, they enter the blood stream in a rush, causing a sudden increase in blood sugar.” (Fallon & Enig, 1991) This constant influx of excess sugar without any other nutrients, causes the body to work overtime, and eventually wears itself out, allowing for disease to take hold. One way of measuring this is called the Glycemic Index, and refers to a 0-100 scale based on the effect of a food on blood sugar levels.
Here are some facts about various sweeteners, so you can choose what works best for you! My recommendations are always to first look for all food in their unprocessed form, and keep sweets to a minimum. Here’s my quick guide to natural sweeteners – and some unnatural ones as well!
Table sugar is white refined sugar made from sugar cane. The cane is juiced, and then through a manufacturing process the juice is turned into the familiar white sugar crystals that we see everywhere. Sugar is highly addictive, and has a high Glycemic Index.
Molasses is a syrupy byproduct of commercial sugar production. It has a distinct flavor and is very sweet. Depending on the soil it is harvested from, it can contain minerals in notable concentrations.
Brown sugar is white table sugar with molasses added back to it.
Sucanat is a trademarked name. It is a minimally processed dehydrated sugar cane juice and contains more nutrients than table sugar.
Rapadura is dehydrated cane sugar, and the purest form of sugarcane derived sweetener available. It has many names, including panela in some latin countries and jaggery in India. Rapadura contains some nutrients, including minerals and B-vitamins.
Agave nectar is made from the sap of the agave plant, a cactus generally associated with tequila production. It has a pleasant sweet taste, and considered a raw sweetener if manufacturers keep the temperature below 118F during production. Agave nectar has a low glycemic index due to its high fructose content. While it is slower to enter the bloodstream, this is caused by it first being processed by the liver, creating a potential strain on the liver.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is made by breaking down the starch in cooked rice, turning it into easily digestible sugars, compounds of glucose. Brown rice syrup has a high Glycemic Index and little nutritional value.
Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut palms. Due to its fructose content it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar. It is commonly used in Southeast Asian countries and contains trace nutrients. It is available as a syrup or dry.
Corn Syrup and High Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are highly processed and cheap sweeteners made from corn starch derived from commercial GMO corn. While their Glycemic Index is not exceptionally high, this is due to their high fructose content, which puts an overload on the liver. They have little to no nutritional value and are found in a plethora of common packaged foods.
Honey in its raw state is a superfood, loaded up with nutrients and digestive enzymes. It made by bees and derived from the nectar of flowers. Look for “raw” and “unfiltered” on the label for maximum benefits. Honey does not impact blood glucose levels as severely as processed sugar does.
Maple syrup is made from boiled down tree sap. It is rich in trace minerals and lower on the Glycemic Index than cane sugar. Make sure that you purchase “100% Real Maple Syrup” not flavored corn syrup.
Low Calorie Sugar Substitutes
Aspartame is a manufactured low calorie (basically calorie free) artificial sweetener commonly used in many diet products. You may recognize it as Nutrasweet or Equal. Aspartame is composed primarily of the isolated amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid. Proponents say that there are no adverse health effects and aspartame is a wonderful low calorie substitute for sugar. Opponents cite studies linking excess aspartame to brain damage, cancer, and tumors.
Stevia is a powder made from a South American herb. Stevia is extremely sweet, low calorie, and low glycemic. It has a distinct flavor that appeals to some and not others.
Sugar alcohol is an industrially produced low calorie sweetener. It is commonly used in sugar free gums and is now available to purchase in powder form. Xylitol is the most commonly sold sugar alcohol in the United States. Contrary to the name, there is no ethanol (proofed alcohol).
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