Nutrition 101: Sweeteners

Sugar, the traditional granulated sweet stuff we often use in our baked goods and read on the label of far too many food items we buy at the grocery store, is delicious, but not the best for our health… As some of you may know, it is very high on the glycemic index (GI) scale, meaning it raises your blood sugar levers quickly, which can be a danger for those suffering with Diabetes or generally trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Excessive sugar intake has also been linked to increased weight gain, risk of heart disease, acne, depression and other complications.

It is best to try and avoid added sugars and sweeteners as much as possible, but if you are looking for a healthier option and want to cut down your overall sugar intake, sweeteners and other natural alternatives can sometimes be the right step forward. And with the wide choice of alternatives there are out there nowadays, things can get quite complicated.

Now… not all sweeteners are created equal. Everyone should know whether the sweeteners they’re putting into their coffee, tea and sweets is filled with chemicals and carcinogens, or if it’s totally fine to consume. To solve this mystery, I’m breaking down the good, the bad and the ugly behind some of the most popular sweeteners out there!

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Stevia

The Stevia plant has been used for more than 1,500 years by people in South America. It is a calorie-free sweetener that can be used by most diabetics as it is much sweeter than sugar, yet carb-free and contains trace amounts of minerals.

Stevia may help manage your weight and blood sugar levels, and animal studies show that it may improve heart disease risk factors. However, it’s an intense sweetener that could negatively affect your health by disturbing gut bacteria and increasing your desire for sweets.

Using it may be a healthy way to reduce your calorie and added sugar intakes, but if you do use Stevia, make sure you use it sparingly and choose organic 100% stevia, as many brands are jumping on the band wagon and will split the mixture with chemicals to make it cheaper to produce.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is made from refined sap of maple trees and has become extremely popular in the recent years due to the rise of Maple syrup use in vegan and “allergy-friendly” recipes. It contains a small amount of minerals, such as manganese and zinc. And, although it does contain high amounts of antioxidants, it is very high in sugar and sits quite high on the GI scale, which kind of off-sets it’s health benefits.

Replacing refined sugar with pure, quality maple syrup is likely to yield a net health benefit, but adding it to your diet on top of the sweets you already eat will just make things worse. If you consume it, don’t over-do it and definitely don’t add it into your diet, if it’s not replacing something less healthy.

Honey

Honey is thick, sweet liquid made by honeybees. It does have vitamins and minerals, but the amounts are very low. However, some honeys may have high amounts of some plant compounds such as flavonoids and polyphenols, which are very high in antioxidants and have been linked to many health benefits. Some studies show that honey improves heart disease risk factors in people with diabetes. However, it also raises blood sugar levels as it has a high GI.

Overall, honey is a delicious, healthier alternative to sugar, but make sure to choose a high-quality brand, because some lower-quality ones may be mixed with syrup. Although this is one of my preferred choices, keep in mind that honey should only be consumed in moderation, as it is still high in calories and sugar.

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is pretty much white sugar, however, it has a distinct brown color because of the added molasses. So, even though it may look healthier- it is pretty much the same thing. Use it in moderation.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm. Often being named as the “healthier new sugar alternative”, coconut sugar has various nutrients such as potassium, magnesium and vitamin C, however, in VERY minor amounts. Despite claims that coconut sugar is effectively fructose-free, it’s made of 70–80% sucrose, which is half fructose. Because of this, it supplies almost the same amount of fructose as regular sugar, gram for gram.

So… although coconut sugar has a slightly better nutrient profile than table sugar, its health effects are largely similar. I would suggest you use coconut sugar in moderation, just as you would use regular table sugar.

Agave

Agave is a desert plant harvested to make tequila and sweet syrup. Agave nectar is often heralded as low on the GI scale, however, processing techniques result in a 75% or more fructose content, which have been linked to other negative side effects, such as increase in belly fat and fatty liver disease.

Although it was traditionally believed to have various healing properties, the agave sweetener sold today is made by treating agave sugars with heat and enzymes, which destroys all its potentially beneficial health effects. The end product is a highly refined, unhealthy syrup…

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Overall thoughts? It’s best to use less sugar and fewer sugar substitutes overall and simply opt for natural sources of sweetness such as fruits, whenever possible.

But in reality, who wants to deprive themselves from sweets and treats every now and then? It’s all about balance and making sure you fuel your body with healthy whole foods, grains, healthy fats and protein every day. How about my picks? Stevia, Honey and Maple Syrup… in moderation!

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