As the New Year begins, we often look for opportunities to live a healthier lifestyle. Eliminating and reducing refined sugar from our diet is one way to improve health, reduce obesity and excess belly fat, avoid tooth decay, poor nutrition and high triglycerides.
High sugar consumption in the form of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup can increase the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression, liver disease and even certain forms of cancer. Consuming high fructose corn syrup can make your body resistant to leptin, the hormone that tells your body when to eat and when to stop eating.
Sugar is found in several items we regularly consume, especially in the United States.
Refined sugar is present in soft drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and specialty coffee beverages. Breakfast foods such as cereal, bars and granola often have high amounts of sugar. In addition to the apparent sugar content of baked goods such as cakes and pastries, sugar is often present in breads and croissants. Sugar is even in our canned goods, such as baked beans.
Bread toppings such as jams and nut butters often have a high level of sugar. Ketchup, salad dressings, pasta sauce and barbeque sauce, as well as many frozen meals and pizzas, are high in sugar. Even foods we think of as healthy, such as yogurt and low-fat sauces, can be loaded with sugar and other food additives that will spike your blood sugar levels. That is a lot of sugar.
No wonder studies say we consume over 17 teaspoons of sugar a day and ultimately 57 pounds a year! For a healthier approach, check out our list of nine sugar replacements and one to avoid:
Derived from a South American shrub stevia is another popular sugar substitute. Although some people find the taste of Stevia bitter or "chemical," it is popular with many who are on a ketogenic diet. A few studies have linked the use of Stevia to lower blood pressure, lower blood sugar and insulin levels.
With a glycemic index of zero, Stevia has the added advantage of being heat stable, which means it can be used in cooking. It is much sweeter than sugar, so the amount of sweetener in the recipe must be adjusted.
Stevia can be found in your local supermarket under brand names such as Truvia.
Erythritol and Xylitol which are sugar alcohols are often found in prepared foods that purposefully try to reduce the amount of refined sugar, such as sugar-free chewing gum. Additionally, you can purchase Xylitol and Erythritol on their own as Swerve (a combination of erythritol and oligosaccharides) and Now Foods Xylitol, as well as under many other labels.
Xylitol is made by an extraction from corn or birch wood. It has a positive impact on dental and bone health. With a glycemic index of 12, its lack of fructose, and 40% fewer calories than sugar, it is a popular sugar replacement.
A downside to Xylitol is that it is known to be highly toxic to dogs, so beware if you have a puppy at home!
Erythritol has 6% of the calorie count of sugar and is known to have a taste quite similar to refined sugar.
Some research shows that erythritol can contribute to weight gain in some people, and it may create more significant sweet taste cravings, so proceed cautiously. Sugar alcohols can create a level of gastric distress for some people, so moderation is key.
Derived from a small, round, Southeast Asian fruit, monk fruit sweetener has no calories, a glycemic index of zero, and it tastes 100-250 times sweeter than sugar.
It contains antioxidants and has been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties. Use it in baking, since it is heat stable, and as a sweetener for drinks and smoothies.
You can find monk fruit sweetener under the Lakanto brand, among others, online, at health food stores and some supermarkets.
This sugar replacement is derived from the South American yacon plant. It is similar to molasses in taste.
Large amounts can cause digestive discomfort, and it is high in fiber and considered a prebiotic. It is made with no additional ingredients and has been shown to reduce appetite-stimulating hormones.
Yacon syrup is not suitable for baking; however, it is a good sweetener as a drizzle on top of oatmeal or roasted vegetables. It also pairs well with fruits, especially apples, and warm spices such as cinnamon.
Yacon syrup has about ½ the calories of regular sugar and a low glycemic index. You can even find it at Walmart under the brand name Alovitox!
Coconut sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm, coconut sugar is a versatile, coarse textured sweetener. It contains some nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and potassium.
While coconut sugar does have a lower glycemic index than refined sugar, it is 39% fructose and higher in calories than many other sugar replacements, so use sparingly!
Coconut sugar can be used for baking. You can even make a confectioner's sugar substitute by adding 1 tablespoon of arrowroot powder to one cup of coconut sugar, pulsed in the food processor—the flavor of coconut sugar pairs especially well with chocolate for baking.
Another popular way to include coconut sugar is to use it in savory dishes such as curries and soups and combined with spices for chicken and fish dishes.
You can purchase coconut sugar at many grocery stores and specialty markets like Trader Joe's.
Although honey is 50% fructose, one tablespoon of raw honey actually has less impact on a glycemic load than one banana. It contains minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, phenolic acids and flavonoids.
As opposed to commercial honey sold at most supermarkets, raw honey has additional health benefits such as healing properties and reducing allergies. These benefits can be lost through commercial preparation when the product is filtered and heated.
Although it can't be used for baking, use it as a natural sweetener for both tea AND coffee. It's perfect when drizzled on toast, yogurt or whisked into salad dressings. It is also a great addition to sauces, including many Asian-style dishes. Add to smoothies for extra sweetness.
You can purchase your raw honey locally at a farmer's market or an Earth Fare market.
Real maple syrup, not the maple flavored syrup sold in the pancake aisle of the market, contains more antioxidants than honey as well as calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese.
It has the advantage of being minimally processed and is heat stable. Its glycemic index is lower than refined sugar, but it is 30% fructose. However, its intense flavor means that a little goes a long way.
An excellent way to use maple syrup is to combine a small amount with mustard for pork or chicken sauce. Stir it into whipped cream, vanilla cake frosting or butter for a fun maple-flavored accent to your dishes.
Epicurious recommends roasting tomatoes with maple syrup and pairing them with goat cheese and crispy toast.
High in iron, potassium and calcium, blackstrap molasses is made from multiple boilings of sugar cane or sugar beet juice. The result is a strong, dark-colored syrup that has a glycemic index of 55.
It can be used for baked goods such as molasses cookies, pumpkin pie and muffins. It is also an excellent flavor addition to baked beans, barbeque sauce and marinades. Some recipes calling for blackstrap molasses can be found at Paleomom.com.
Blackstrap molasses can also be used to make a brown sugar alternative by mixing two tablespoons with ½ cup of coconut sugar.
Over the years, there have been many health benefits associated with the use of blackstrap molasses. Some recommend taking a tablespoon daily as an iron supplement for vegetarians or those who don't regularly eat iron-rich foods.
Medjool dates can be made into a paste sweetener that can be used on a one-to-one sugar substitution basis for baking.
Soak the dates in hot water until they are very soft, and use your food processor to blend. Add the pasta to smoothies to get an extra dose of potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B. Dates are also a protein source!
Date paste might also reduce LDL cholesterol levels and diminish the risk of stroke!
One tablespoon of date paste has approximately 25 calories and a glycemic index of 42.
Date paste is available from specialty providers online, but making your own at home may result in a tastier option.
Leave This One Alone
In our quest to make healthier choices, it is sometimes easy to act on incomplete or outdated information. Agave Syrup has been promoted in the past as a healthy alternative to refined sugar; however, it is actually higher in fructose than table sugar: 85% vs. 50%. It is even higher in fructose than high fructose corn syrup.
Even though it is low on the glycemic index at 15, the high levels of fructose make it an unhealthy sugar replacement choice. High fructose consumption can lead to an increased incidence of type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Try one of the others listed above, and leave the agave nectar syrup on the shelf!
A Note About Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, Ace-K and saccharin have been intentionally left out of this article. Although the FDA has deemed these products "safe," side effects such as headaches, poor digestion and cravings are reported by some users. With the availability of other more natural products, we thought it was an excellent opportunity to introduce our readers to some lesser-known alternatives.
There's not one sugar replacement that will work for every occasion where you would like to consume less refined sugar; however, there are certainly several options to try. If you're a frequent baker, be sure to choose a replacement that is heat stable and suitable for baked goods. You can still enjoy those tasty carbohydrates by using sugar alternatives.
If you like smoothies and oatmeal, try a product that is liquid and easy to blend. Make sure to note the calorie counts of the various sugar replacements, as well as any that are sensitive to your digestive system.
Zero-calorie might sound great, but make sure to read all of the ingredients. There could be added sugar that will still raise your glucose levels like sucrose or fructose. Sugar alcohols and fruit juices are other sneaky ways to sweeten products without saying cane sugar or white sugar.
Whether you are looking for a sugar replacement to reduce your sugar intake for weight loss, reduce bloating, or simply use a natural sugar with the same aftertaste, there is something on this list for everyone.
Here's to a sweet 2021!
You might also be interested in: The Beginner's Guide to Keto
9 Best Sugar Replacements To Try In 2021: