I frequently encourage cutting back on sugar, but depending on what that sugar is replaced with, that could be very bad advice indeed.
Replacing refined sugar with a “natural” sweetener may seem like a good idea, but don’t be fooled by packages claiming things like “organic,” and “raw.”
And, certainly don’t be swayed by the fact they are sold on the health food aisles.
Unfortunately, it’s the same old story, those labeling claims need to be scrutinized and questioned before you make a purchase, if you value your health.
The thing is, so many of us have a strong affinity with sweet foods, therefore what we use to sweeten our food is a topic we need to know something about.
It’s a given that refined sugar should be avoided, most of the time. However, replacing that sugar with an alternative isn’t as easy as it should be.
If you think switching from sugar to something like date sugar, coconut sugar, fruit sugar, brown rice syrup, sucralose, or maple syrup is better, think again!
Unfortunately, some of the alternatives may actually be worse for you than the real thing.
Shocking. Annoying. Confusing. Ridiculous. ALL at the same time!
But, what about those options that seem more natural? Surely they are healthy sweeteners?
1. Is Agave Healthy?
If you believe that fructose corn syrup is bad for your health (and it is), then stay clear of agave syrup.
Many agave nectars actually contain 70 to 80 percent fructose, making it a more concentrated source of fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
This is brand dependent, though, so if you’re set on using it, check the packaging first to find out what the content of fructose is.
Fruits do contain fructose, too, but it is not concentrated. When sugar is found in nature, it is called “levulose,” and will always be accompanied by vitamins, minerals, fiber, fruit pectin and naturally-occurring enzymes. This is why fruits do not need to be avoided.
The fructose found in fruits is a hugely different animal to the concentrated form of fructose you find in agave syrup, for example.
Remember, Agave is man-made sweetener, created by a refining process, despite what clever marketing would have you believe.
The result of these differences? Well, refined fructose is processed in the body via the liver (turned into triglycerides or stored body fat). Levulose is digested in the intestine. That makes a massive difference.
Also, Agave syrup is not low calorie. It has roughly 16 calories per teaspoon, which is the same as table sugar (50% glucose: 50% fructose).
(As a side note, research published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed that high fructose corn syrup may be particularly detrimental to health, because it contains fructose in its ‘free‘ monosaccharide form. This is one reason why it’s so important to stay away from drinks containing HFCS.
If you want more proof that fructose is bad for your health, check out this research.)
2. Is Stevia Healthy?
Stevia is a herb, which is native to South America. It is significantly sweeter than sugar, but contains no calories,which is why it has become so popular with those trying to lose weight.
A plant that is super sweet, not classified as sugar, and won’t cause weight gain, sounds like an amazing product, doesn’t it? But, it is really a good option?
It is billed as “natural,” but technically it is processed. As with most foods, once refined things change, and many of the beneficial components contained in the whole Stevia leaf become less beneficial.
You can purchase stevia in both powdered and liquid forms. The white powdered Stevia is highly processed, though, and it is likely to contain fillers or bulking agents, which may be unhealthy.
If you think Stevia would be a helpful replacement for sugar in your diet, go for the green leaf Stevia, which is almost as natural as it comes, unless you are going to grown your own stevia.
3. Is Honey Healthy?
Personally, I prefer to use honey as my healthy sweetener of choice. But, it is important to be aware that not all honey is created equal; far from it, in fact.
The honey you routinely find in supermarkets is very highly processed. This commercial processing involves a heat treatment (pasteurization), which eliminates many of the health benefits we attribute to honey.
For this reason, I recommend raw (local) honey, if you can get it (not for young children, though).
If you suffer from allergies, such as hay fever, local honey can be a very effective way to treat this, without the need for anti-histamine medicine. Simply take 1-2 tablespoons each day.
While honey does contain fructose, it is not in a “free” form, like high fructose corn syrup, and this is why I believe honey is not an unhealthy choice of sweetener.
Healthy Ways To Sweeten Food
If you feel you must have a sweetener, here are 6 basic guidelines to follow:
1. Avoid all artificial sweeteners, as well as high fructose corn syrup.
2. Limit your intake of table sugar, as much as you can.
3. Use raw honey in moderation.
4. If you use stevia, choose the green leaf version, and avoid highly processed products like Truvia and PureVia.
5. Check food labels on packaged foods.
You need to check food labels very carefully, to make sure you aren’t eating sweeteners unawares.
Remember, ingredients ending in “-ose” or “-tol” are sweeteners. For example, sucralose, glucose, sucrose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, lactose, levulose, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol
You should also look out for words like sugar, nectar, syrup, and crystals. These ingredients are typically derived from more natural sources, however they are still sweeteners, and you should be aware of their presence.
Finally, when reading the ingredient list of any food, remember that the first item listed is the largest percentage. So, if a sweetener is listed within the first few ingredients, that food is high in sweetener, relative to the rest of the ingredients.
6. Follow Nature.
The bottom line is, eat foods that are close to nature.
If something has been processed in a lab to get to where it is on the shelf, you need to ask yourself is that the type of product you want to be eating regularly?
On a personal note, I believe sweeteners should be used in moderation, particularly if they are overly processed. Weaning yourself off liking the taste for sweet foods is best.
I know, however, that it can be difficult. I too have a sweet tooth, and coffee without a hint of sweetness just doesn’t taste good to me.
There are, however, so many healthy foods available, which provide a deliciously sweet, but truly natural treat. Think fresh fruits, dried fruit, honey, coconut, or raw chocolate.
What healthy sweeteners do you use regularly? I’d love to hear your suggestions…
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