What Natural Sweeteners Are The Best?
Humans have a long history of loving sugar. Our ancestors would enjoy berries and starchy tubers, and honey was a special treat. The issue is that nowadays our access to sugar is substantially easier than in the past. As Dr. Aviva Romm states, “Today, nearly three out of four American adults consume a full 10 percent of their total calories in the form of added sugars, while 10 percent consume 25 percent or more of their calories from sugar.”
There are two kinds of sugars we can get in our diet: naturally occurring or processed sugars. Two common naturally occurring sugars are fructose, which is found in fruits, and lactose, which is found in milk. Honey, cane sugar, maple syrup, agave, blackstrap molasses, and coconut sugar are also forms of natural sugars. Whole grains and starchy vegetables also contain sugars in the form of complex carbohydrates; these forms can be important for slower energy-burning, as opposed to simple sugars which provide fast fuel.
There is a plethora of processed sugars, some of which include high fructose corn syrup, powdered sugar, and refined flour products. This list goes on, and manufacturers will slip in chemical names of sugars to conceal them from consumers. When it comes to natural and processed sugars, Americans are consuming too much. Dr. Aviva Romm also says, “Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup or organic cane syrup doesn’t matter to your body, metabolically speaking. It’s still sugar: highly inflammatory, quickly metabolized and extremely addictive. No wonder we’re facing an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease!”.
The good news is that in moderation, there is a place for natural sugars in the diet. In fact, when used sparingly, natural sugars are a healthy part of one’s diet. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, substituting healthy sweeteners (including blackstrap molasses, maple syrup, and honey) can increase one’s antioxidant intake. The study showed that replacing 130 grams a day of refined sugars (the average intake) with healthy natural sugars, can increase the antioxidants consumed daily in amounts similar to that of consuming nuts and berries.
- Raw Honey: Raw honey is considered a superfood, which can also be helpful in preventing seasonal allergies (when using a local product). Raw honey is full of enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Honey has been shown to help promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
- Stevia: Native to South America, stevia has a traditional use of supporting healthy blood sugar levels and weight loss. Stevioside is the element in the leaf that makes stevia 200 times as sweet as sugar. It is available in liquid drops, as well as powder. Stevia is a zero calorie sweetener with no known side effects, as opposed to artificial sweeteners. The American Diabetes Association includes stevia on its list of recommended sugar substitutes. It is also one of the top recommended sweeteners for people following ketogenic diets.
- Monk Fruit: Monk fruit is another zero calorie natural sweetener. Monk fruit contains compounds, which are extracted and provide 300-400 times the sweetness of cane sugar. Research shows that monk fruit sugar has no effect on blood sugar.
- Coconut Sugar: Its low glycemic load and high mineral content make coconut sugar a great natural sweetener. Coconut sugar is derived from extracted sap from the blooms of the coconut, which are heated and then evaporated. Coconut sugar is high in polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorus, and other phytonutrients. Coconut sugar can be substituted for cane sugar in baking.
- Maple Syrup: Maple syrup is native to North America. It is a great source of manganese, calcium, potassium and zinc. Select darker maple syrups (Grade B), as they are higher in antioxidants than lighter syrups. Maple syrup is heat stable, and can be used in baking.
The main benefits of natural sweeteners are that they contain beneficial components and the human body knows how to process them. Aside from stevia and monk fruit, all of the above natural sweeteners add sweetness while also providing key vitamins and minerals. Replace your processed sugars with natural ones, and use natural sugars in moderation. Remember that eating too much added sugar can lead to malnutrition, tooth decay, inflammation, weight gain, and other health concerns. As always, check with a trusted healthcare professional to help determine your individual needs.