Sugar kills! Though this might sound like hyperbole, it is not. A diet high in sugar is linked to myriad of health maladies, most notably obesity, Type II Diabetes, the metabolic syndrome diseases, fatty liver disease, among others. Moreover, it increases one’s chances of acquiring cancer (1 in 2 men; 1 in 3 women will get it) as well as fueling tumor growth later during treatment and/or remission.
The notion that sugar is the “big boogeyman” is not new. We all know that is pernicious to our health. But then why is sugar consumption increasing? On average the typical American consumes 130 pounds of added sugar every year, which is 7-8 times higher than a century ago. It is loaded with empty calories and little-to-no nutrition.
Some sources of sugar are obvious, such as beverages, candies, cookes, pastries, etc. But some are not. The large amount of sugar we consume may be attributed to a couple of reasons. One explanation is that sugar is hidden in an assortment of processed foods. As we have mentioned in numerous articles & podcasts (clean eating fridge, pantry, sugar-laden superfoods, code names for sugar, etc) Big Food has laced our food with various forms of sugar to enhance taste.
We all like the taste of sugar, but we might not like its effect on the body. That being said, avoiding sugar is almost impossible. Though most offer no nutrition and are a vehicle for empty calories, some sweeteners are better than others. For this reason, we here at Naturopathic Earth will review the various non-sugar sweeteners and rank them from worse to best. (Note: Those non-sugar sweeteners reviewed will not be cane sugar or sugar beets, but may be processed from them.)
The Absolute Worst
(Read our article on aspartame).
Artificial sweeteners are marketed by a variety of names. The most popular being, Aspartame (Nutrasweet)(Equal), Sucralose (Splenda), Saccharine (Sweet ’N Low), and Acesulfame Potassium. Their popularity arises from the fact they boast 0 calories and are sweeter than regular cane sugar. These sweeteners have been endorsed by physicians for years as a way to reduce caloric intake and thus not become overweight.
They only parrot what they have been told. The history of aspartame, for example, is sordid. For decades it was banned by the FDA due to the fact that it created leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, and infertility, among other things in rats. However, in 1980 the FDA did a 180 and approved it. Upon entering office President Reagan fired the FDA chief and put in his own man who then approved aspartame for use in beverages, and later foods. (Incidentially, the head of the Serrill, the company who owned the patent on aspartame, was future Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.)
Today, artificial sweeteners are linked to several maladies, among them are
- Higher Risk of Brain Tumors
- Cardiovascular Maladies (e.g. Strokes, Heart Attacks)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Auto-Immune Disorders
- Metabolic Disorders
Just as egregious, it disrupts your microbiome in your gut, thus leading to a host of digestive maladies. (Read our articles/listen to our podcasts on the importance of prebiotics and probiotics.) And the last kicker. artificial sweeteners lead to weight gain. (Read this article from NPR.) So the next time you see your mother or aunt drink their 6th Diet Coke in a day, exhort them them to do the research on how horrible these sweeteners are.
Takeaway: Stay away at all costs. Read ingredient labels, loads of processed foods (cereals, energy bars, yogurts, et al) are laced with them. Grade F
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Speaking of sodas, there once was a time when they contained sugar cane. Today, they all boast the insidious High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). Why? It is infinitely cheaper to put in sodas than sugar thanks to corn subsidies. But it doesn’t stop at beverages. It is mind-boggling to see how many processed food items have HFCS. Pretty much every cookie, cake, pastry, cereal, sweetened beverage is laced with it.
It is extracted from the stalk of corn and then highly processed and refined to create a super-sweetened goo. HFCS is absorbed very quickly into the body, leading to rapid sugar and insulin spikes, which leads to inflammation and fat storage. Now this occurs with all the sugars but HFCS is notorious for causing widespread inflammation to the microbiome of your gut as well. It also raises your odds of acquiring cancer, hypertension, and high cholesterol. It is a known obesogen, or item that make you fat. To add a cherry on top…traces of mercury are commonly found in HFCS.
Takeaway: Avoid like the plague! Read labels and beware of the code words for HFCS and other sugars. Grade: D-
The “So-So” Sweeteners
Turbinado is minimally-processed raw cane sugar. It does boast less calories than regular sugar, but loses the few phytonutrients it has during processing.
Takeaway: Though better than pure white sugar, it is not great. Opt for other sweeteners. Grade: D+
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is made from adding certain enzymes, typically barley, to brown rice. During the processing, a syrup is produced which the body can absorb quickly.
Takeaway: Brown Rice syrup has two predominate issues. One is that high levels of arsenic have been found in it. Secondly, barley features gluten. As mentioned in previous articles, though Celiac Disease, the auto-immune condition in which gluten ingestion triggers an attack of the body against the cells of the small intestines, as much as 50-70% Americans are sensitive to gluten. This sensitivity leads to “brain fog,” disruptions of your gut microbiome, allergies, and others. Better options are out there. Grade: C-
Stay away from commercially-sold orange, apple, grape juice and certainly Sunny Delight! The fruit juices from which I am speaking are those that are made at home, using a juicer, or that are 100% fruit juice.
Takeaway: Though you are not getting the fiber of the fruit, you are still ingesting vital micronutrients and antioxidants. These nutrients will be rapidly absorbed by the body and give you a quick shot of energy. That being said, the sugar in the juices will spike your blood sugar to the moon. Just eat the fruit instead or smoothie it for the fiber. Grade: C
Read our article on smoothies vs. juices.
Agave has gained popularity the last decade since it is marketed as a natural alternative to sugar. Its proponents will say that the benefit of agave is that it is relatively low on the glycemic index, a measurement on how fast carbs will elevate your blood sugar, as well as boasting some phytonutrients (plant nutrients) and several minerals.
Its opponents will say it is more calorically-dense and sweeter than sugar and the science behind its low glycemic score is spurious.
Takeaway: It is natural and is not refined, which are pluses. But its sweetness and caloric density make it an average non-sugar sweetener. There are better options. Grade: C
Feel like you are being transported to 18th century colonial America? Molasses is made from boiling down raw sugar to remove the sucrose. Blackstrap molasses is the best since it boils it down three times! Nutrient-dense…loaded with antioxidants, vitamin/minerals.
Takeaway: Better options exists. Similar to turbinado, it hails from sugar cane or beets. There are other non-sugar sweeteners out there that boast more phytonutrients than something that hails from sugar cane. But better than turbinado. Grade: C
The sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol, among others. They are the byproducts of chemically extracting the carbs of our fruit. They are marketed as a 0 calorie sweetener for diabetics but they do in fact contain 3 calories per gram and do raise blood sugar, albeit not as much as regular sugar.
Along with stevia, the sugar alcohols are a decent option. In fact xylitol, is renown for oral health. (See article on chewing gums.) Just know that they all have a laxative effect on the body and may flare up intestinal maladies if ingested too much. (The reason is that the intestines cannot completely absorb them leading them to be fermented in the large intestine leading to possible bloating.) Also, diabetics and others tend to overindulge in foods with sugar alcohols since they believe the alcohols don’t affect their blood sugar.
Takeaway: On occasion, it is fine for diabetics. For non-diabetics opt for other non-sugar sweeteners. Grade: C
In our review of non-sugar sweeteners, the more natural and less-refined the better. Here are your best options…but make sure the portion size is sensible.
Refined from the blossoms of the coconut tree, coconut sugar has gained popularity in the paleo world. Not surprising given that anything extracted from the coconut is incredible for your health. And it should, it is natural and is loaded with zinc, potassium, inulin, and short-chain fatty acids.
Takeaway: Great for your health, the taste of coconut sugar may not appeal to all. It is slightly refined and perhaps, unlike honey and syrup, it is easy to overindulge. Grade: B
Going back to our adage, the more natural the better. You can’t get more natural than tapping a tree and sucking out its goodness. Maple Syrup is not refined at all; therefore, it keeps much of its phyonutrients, polyphenols (which combat cancer and promote heart health), and antioxidants. It is full of crucial minerals as well.
Takeaway: It will spike your blood sugar and insulin, but at least you are getting some micronutrient value from it. Get pure, organic maple sugar…the darker the color the better. And of course, stay away from Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, which are imposter syrups. Pure maple syrup costs more but in the long run is worth it. Grade: B
Winnie the Pooh was on to something! Along with maple syrup, honey is a great sugar alternative. Chockful of micronutrients, polyphenols and antioxidants, it is all-natural goodness.
Takeaway: Just be sure to buy organic, non-pasteurized, unfiltered honey. Honey also features many home remedies benefits such as for sore throats. Grade B+
If you ever venture into a Middle-Eastern grocery store (or into the Disney movie Aladdin), you have seen this handy fruit. The beauty of dates is that they can be eaten fresh, dried, or pureed. Dates are loaded with phytonutrients. And best of all, with dates, you are actually getting fiber (something you are not getting with the rest of the non-sugar sweeteners). They are a good prebiotic source and are known to help those with constipation.
Takeaway: “Date the dates!” Put it in smoothies, desserts, or any recipe you like! The best non-sugar sweeteners. Grade: A. (Just stick to the fruit of not date juice.)
Stevia has lauded as the savior for those who want sweetness but not to the expense of their health. It is 0-calorie, similar to the artificial sweeteners. but is all-natural. It comes from a plant indigenous to South America.
The history of stevia approval has had a checkered past. Stevia was banned up until the 1990s in both the U.S. and Europe. At that time, pressure was placed on the watchdog agencies to reconsider their stance. By the early 2000s, stevia had been approved and is now GRAS (generally regarded as safe).
Takeaway: Stevia is a great tasting sugar alternative. Just be wary of which Stevia you are getting. The large majority of stevia products are refined, processed, and bleached and added with chemicals. Sold by Pepsi and agribusiness giant, Cargill, Truvia and PureVia brands have extracted out the stevia extract from the plant to create “rebaudioside A.” Most studies regarding rebaudioside A range from inconclusive to detrimental to your health due to its high refinement process. Opt for pure organic stevia. Grade: A for organic stevia; C- for Truvia and other imitations containing rebaudioside A.
The best sugars will be those that are not processed at all (honey, dates, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar) since they retain their original phytonutrients as well as organic stevia. Even so, a couple of tablespoons a day is the max since they do spike the blood sugar and initiate the inflammatory effects of insulin. The traditional cane sugar, sugar beets, HFCS, and most definitely, artificial sweeteners need to be avoided as best as humanly possible to achieve optimal health.
What you don’t want to stay away from is cinnamon. Cinnamon is a phenomenal natural sweeteners that doesn’t spike your blood sugar. Sprinkle that puppy on everything. Not to mention it helps regular blood sugar levels, combats hypertension, and is a natural antimicrobial. Read our article on the health benefits of cinnamon.
Adhering to a paleo lifestyle largely avoids all the culprits mentioned in this article. Even the government recommends we only consume 10% of our total calories from sugar. In a 2,000 calorie diet, that is 50 grams of sugar a day. This number includes sugar derived from fruits, vegetables, so you can see it is exceedingly difficult to stay under this threshold.
That being said we don’t want to stay away from low-glycemic, yet high-nutrient-dense fruit, such as berries. A more realistic endeavor is to eliminate all added sugar from processed food and beverages. Purge all beverages that aren’t water, coffee, tea, (and perhaps milk) and stick to mostly meats, nuts, seeds, and loads of produce. Remember “If God didn’t make it…don’t eat it!”
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A. Gregory Luna