The Lowdown on Natural Sweeteners

The Lowdown on Natural Sweeteners


There's a lot of controversy right now around sugar consumption, especially with the release of the new documentary "Fed Up." If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend renting it. It highlights many of the problems with processed food in America

, and shows that brands have shifted to low-fat food products over the years and compensated for taste by adding refined sugars and artificial fillers to their list of ingredients. It's argued that this has played a huge role in the Obesity epidemic, with consequences including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This sheds light on why it's so important to always read labels when you're grocery shopping, even on products you might categorize as savory rather than sweet. Salad dressings, nut butters and condiments are all great examples of foods that can contain hidden added sugar.

While I was enrolled at the NGI in New York, part of our curriculum was taking a "basic quality ingredients" course. Along with learning the importance of eating organic, local, whole plant-based foods, we also focused largely on what foods we should avoid that we most likely encounter on a daily basis. One of these ingredients was of course, sugar. I remember being blown away by an article that listed all of the possible negative side effects of excess sugar consumption. We were taught that too much sugar can supress the immune system, cause anxiety, ADD, headaches, depression and certain cancers, speed the aging process, contribute to arthritis, lead to weight gain, and result in constipation (just to name a few). In nature, we wouldn't be eating close to the amount of sugar we're eating today, and any sugar we would be consuming would be in it's whole form.

So then that begs the question, what exactly is "refined" sugar? And how is white sugar different from brown sugar, sugar in the raw, or even the "natural" sweeteners such as agave, maple syrup and honey? Ideally, we would be getting all of the sugar in our diet from whole foods themselves. For example, when you eat an apple, you're not just getting the sugar in the fruit, you're also getting the minerals, vitamins, water, and fiber that help us metabolize the sugars more slowly. But ultimately, there will be special times when we want an added touch of sweetness, whether in a cup of coffee or home-baked good, so when that happens just be mindful. Not all sweeteners are created equal. Sugar is still sugar and should always be consumed in moderation, but certain types including coconut sugar and honey have added health benefits that are non-existent in white sugar, making them superior alternatives.

I would recommend avoiding:

Refined White Sugar: White sugar is made from sugarcane, in a process where the cane is crushed and separated into a syrup. The syrup is then reduced down, resulting in the formation of crystals. These crystals are separated from the syrup (which we know as molasses, which is very mineral rich and high in iron) through a centrifugal process and are then clarified and filtered. What is left is a highly refined product that is 99% sucrose, devoid of all vitamins, minerals and fiber. Extremely high on the GI index, consumption of white sugar will cause a sharp spike in blood sugar levels, in turn causing insulin levels to rise.

Brown Sugar: Brown sugar is 96% sucrose and is just refined white sugar with the addition of a small amount of molasses. It has a nuttier taste, but is only marginally better in terms of its nutrition profile over white sugar.

Turbinado: Turbinado are the sugar crystals resulting from one centrifuge in the sugar making process. White sugar goes through three. Turbinado sugar therefore still has some vitamins and minerals, and is less refined than white sugar. It is approximately 95% sucrose.

Refined Fructose (High Fructose Corn Syrup): This sugar is made by converting cornstarch into dextrose. It's most often genetically modified, and has been proven to raise bad cholesterol, cause inflammation and damage the liver. Never buy any packaged products with High Fructose Corn Syrup on the ingredient list. 

Agave: There's much debate about agave nowadays, and I generally do not recommend it as a sweetener. If you tend to gravitate towards it, I recommend doing your own research and reading articles for and against its consumption and deciding for yourself if it's something you want to consume. I try and avoid agave because it predominately consists of fructose, and high fructose consumption has been linked with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

My favorite alternatives include:

Rapadura or Sucanat: These are brand names for sugarcane that has been juiced and then evaporated down to a solid. It has a strong molasses-like taste because it has not been centrifuged, making it quite mineral rich.

Coconut Nectar: Coconut nectar is a liquid sweetener that is derived from the sap of flower buds from the coconut palm tree. It is a low glycemic sweetener that contains a number of vitamins and minerals. The sap is evaporated at low temperatures, resulting in a mild sweetener similar to agave in taste. Unlike agave, coconut sugar contains little fructose and instead contains 70-79% sucrose. If the sap continues to evaporate you will be left with coconut palm sugar, a non-liquid sweetener with a rich, caramel like flavor. This is my favorite non-liquid sweetener to use when baking.

Maple Syrup: Just like coconut nectar, maple syrup is derived from sap. Sap of the maple tree is evaporated over boiling water which concentrates the sugars. It has a very distinct flavor, and while it is higher on the glycemic index than other sweeteners listed here it does contain beneficial minerals including manganese and zinc. It's also rich in calcium, potassium and iron.

Honey: If you're vegan you might avoid this sweetener, but honey is one of my favorite forms of sugar. When buying honey, try to buy a 100% local and raw variety. Honey is known for not only its great taste, but for its incredible healing properties. It's antibacterial and antimicrobial, making it a great choice to use in teas and other remedies when sick. In comparison to table sugar, it is minimally refined.

Dates: I include dates here not in their dehydrated form (date sugar) but in their whole form. Dates are deliciously sweet, and are a great sweetener for smoothies, nut mylks, and baked goods. When used in their whole form their fiber is still intact, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels. They're one of the most ancient food plants of the middle east, and are known to have cleansing properties for the large intestine and to help treat constipation. Fresh or dried, they're a great source of B vitamins as well as copper, iron and potassium.

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