Are natural sweeteners really healthier?

Sugar is the latest nutrition scapegoat, and for good reason: too much sugar messes with pretty much every system in your body. If you’re having trouble sleeping, experiencing skin problems, hanging on to excess weight, or have imbalanced hormones, chances are that sugar is the culprit.

When I quit refined sugar, I leaned heavily on whole-food sweeteners, like dates and maple syrup. It turns out that once it’s broken down in your body, sugar is sugar – your body doesn’t discriminate. I was constantly wondering why I wasn’t solving any of my hormonal problems (painful periods, skin breakouts) in spite of doing what I thought was the right thing.

So if you’re avoiding or reducing sugar, what are you supposed to do to get a little sweetness in your life? There are lots of alternatives out there, and some of them seem too good to be true. I’ve broken them down to let you know what I think, and what the science says (because my opinion isn’t everything).

Even though the sugars on this list have some qualities that make them a better choice than white sugar, that’s not license to go crazy. The World Health Organization has recently recommended that adults limit added sugars to 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) per day, although many health professionals feel that even this amount is too high. It’s good to keep any added sugars, even natural sources, within that level.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is made from the sap of the agave cactus. It’s pretty appealing because it’s low glycemic (agave is mostly fructose with a small percentage of glucose), so is seen as safe for diabetics because it doesn’t spike blood sugar. But recent science has shown that foods that taste sweet will trigger the release of insulin, even if they’re not actually breaking down into glucose molecules.

Fructose suppresses the brain’s satiety signals, so your body’s built-in “off switch” doesn’t kick in. It also triggers the release of leptin, a hormone connected to this “off switch” that controls appetite and fullness signals. If you choose to consume agave, use it occasionally and in small quantities (which is pretty much my recommendation for all sugars).

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice isn’t often thought of as sweet, but when it’s cooked down the sugars convert into maltose and develop an amazing butterscotch-y flavour. Because it has zero fructose and very low glucose, it’s gentle on your liver and your hormonal systems, and doesn’t create hormonal cravings in the same ways that other sugars can.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar comes from the flowers of the coconut palm, and is not the same thing as palm sugar (which comes from the sugar palm tree). It’s really low in fructose and it’s also low on the glycemic index, because sucrose makes up about 80% of the sugar. I like it because it’s got more vitamins, minerals, and fiber (in the form of inulin) than most other sweeteners, and if you’re baking you can use it in place of white sugar.

Dates/Date Sugar

Date sugar is exactly what it sounds like: sugar made from dehydrated dates. Most of this sugar is glucose and fructose, but they also have small amounts of sucrose and maltose. It tastes of dates, so it’s good to use in cases where you can take advantage of the flavour. The only caveat is that it tends to get clumpy and it doesn’t melt.

Honey

You might have heard a lot of buzz (see what I did there?) about different types of honey, and it’s warranted: honey is one of my favourite healing foods, and is good for your body inside and out. Different kinds of honey have different properties. Manuka honey is probably the most well-known specialty honey, because it’s got high antimicrobial properties and it helps to support digestion and the immune system.

I absolutely avoid highly-processed supermarket honey. I don’t want to name any brands, but you’re probably familiar with the plastic bear bottle or the plastic beehive. These brands are made from blends of honey from bees all over the world. To help make the taste uniform, the honey is pasteurized and refined, a process that ends up removing many of the beneficial compounds that make honey so great.

Raw honey comes most often from local sources and is sold by smaller retailers, so buying it allows you to support local businesses. It’s not pasteurized, so it’s quite thick, and it tastes of the plants that the bees have been feeding on. Raw honey is also high in antioxidants, and if you’re eating local honey, it can even help your body cope with environmental allergens.

Maple Syrup

I’m not sure I could call myself a Canadian if this wasn’t one of my faves. Luckily, it’s considered one of the healthier types of sweeteners; the refining process from maple sap is minimal, and maple syrup has important minerals like manganese and zinc. Just make sure you’re getting 100% pure maple syrup. I always choose Grade B: it’s darker and contains more minerals than grade A, and it’s usually less expensive.

Molasses

Molasses is made from the extracted juices of sugar cane or sugar beet, and is one of the most nutritious sweeteners with the highest antioxidant content. Blackstrap molasses has a surprising number of minerals; it contains iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese, and copper, and is a good choice if you’re looking for additional iron in your diet.

Stevia

Stevia comes from a super sweet leaf found in South America. It can be up to 300 times sweeter than white sugar and can be bitter, so a certain amount of refining is needed in order to make it palatable. The white powders and clear liquids are the most refined, so look for varieties that are brownish or greenish. Stevia is one of the most hormonally-supportive sweeteners, and can actually help to reduce insulin resistance. However, recent studies have shown that sweet tastes alone can trigger insulin release, so it’s still important to let your body adjust to lower levels of sweetness.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a natural sugar that comes from the birch tree, and it helps to prevent tooth decay and boost immunity. Because it’s a sugar alcohol instead of a straight sugar, it can be hard to digest and can cause bloating and gas.

So … which is best?

Different kinds of sugars have different benefits (and different flavours), so I like to keep a small variety in my kitchen. There’s no one sweetener that I recommend universally (sorry). If you’re curious to know, I almost always have maple syrup, molasses, and coconut sugar on hand.

 

* A word about artificial sweeteners:

Aspartame/NutraSweet, Sucralose/Splenda, and other synthetic sugars are created from natural substances that are modified in a lab to increase their sweetness and render them unrecognizable by the body and the metabolic system. In plain language: really small amounts taste super sweet, and your body doesn’t recognize these products as food. These non-food compounds get peed out, so they count as zero calorie intake.

There’s been a lot of scandal and disagreement about these synthetic sweeteners, and just how safe they are to consume. Ultimately, anything that you are ingesting as food that your body does not recognize as a digestible substance should make you stop and think.

When we taste sweetness, we train our bodies to expect flavours that are sweet. The more sweet flavours we eat, the more we crave sweet, and the more we need in order to be satisfied. Aside from how weird it is to eat something synthetic that our bodies aren’t able to process, the adjustment of your taste buds to artificially sweet tastes is my main issue with this whole category of sweeteners.