Sugar intake is at an all-time high in the United States. In response to these statistics and warnings from medical professionals, consumers are beginning to search out other sweetener alternatives. Artificial sweeteners are not a healthier alternative to processed sugar because they are made up of chemicals that have their own set of negative side effects. With this all said, people are still searching for alternatives to sugar so that you can enjoy sweet flavors in your food. But why is it that you crave sugar in the first place?
From the time you are born, your taste buds are inclined to sweet flavors. The first taste that you get as an infant is usually sweet breast milk. This, along with the fact that the food industry uses hundreds of variations of sugar, is why it is no wonder that you struggle to overcome your desire for sweetness.
Unfortunately, the large amounts of sugar that you have been consuming are contributing to some major diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. So, where are you getting most of your sugar from, and what types of sugar should you be avoiding?
Common Sources of Sugar
The number one place that Americans are getting their sugar from is through sodas and sweetened beverages. You’ll also find added sugars in cereals, desserts, pastries, flavored syrups, coffee creamer, sauces, yogurts, fruit juices, protein bars, and salad dressings—just to name a few food sources.
There are many names for hidden sugars that you will want to look out for, including:
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Cane juice
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Malt syrup
- Raw sugar
It’s safe to say that it’s time for us to start using healthier sugar alternatives. Here are six natural sweetener alternatives for you to explore:
Whole Leaf Stevia
This is extracted from the Stevia rebaudiana plant. Most stevia that you will find on the shelf at your grocery store is a highly refined version of stevia extract. You’ll want to look for dark whole-leaf stevia to ensure that it’s actually a “natural” sweetener; avoid the white powders, which have been processed and may contain food additives. Remember that a little bit goes a long way when it comes to stevia—it has a highly concentrated sweet flavor. If you add too much stevia, it can create a bitter taste.
Monk fruit is traditionally grown in the Southern China region. It is named after Buddhist monks who were the first to use the fruit. Monk fruit sweetener is being used as a natural sugar replacement to sweeten foods and beverages. Even though it has a very sweet flavor, it does not raise blood sugar levels. This is a diabetic-friendly sweetener that has been used around the world for centuries.
While its name may not sound like a natural sweetener, xylitol comes directly from the birch tree. You’ll find it in products like gum, protein bars, and toothpaste. Since it is a sugar alcohol, it may cause bloating, diarrhea, or gas for some people if consumed in large amounts. If you are a diabetic, this is a sweetener to avoid; it raises blood sugar.
Coconut Palm Sugar
This natural sweetener is made from the sap of the coconut palm. It has half the amount of fructose contained in white sugar and is low on the glycemic index, which ranks the value of carbohydrates on a scale according to how they affect blood glucose levels . Coconut palm sugar looks similar to brown sugar and has a subtle caramel-like flavor. This is a great sweetener to add to your coffee, oatmeal, or baked goods.
Raw honey is known for its antimicrobial and immune-boosting properties. Although it has a sweeter flavor than regular sugar, it is one of the few sweeteners that contains vitamins (e.g., thiamin and niacin), minerals (e.g., zinc and calcium), and enzymes (e.g., diastase [amylase] and invertase). Make sure to purchase honey that is labeled “raw” as most honey on the market is processed and therefore has fewer beneficial health benefits. Honey is not a safe sweetener for diabetics due to its high natural sugar content.
Grade A or Grade B Maple Syrup
Grade A and Grade B maple syrup are single-ingredient pure extracts from the maple tree. The flavor and color will vary according to the time of year, location, and from tree to tree. The darker colored syrups have a richer maple flavor than the lighter colored syrups. Refer to the label for serving size instructions before you cover your plate with a large amount of this liquid sweetener. The grams of sugar per serving are relatively higher in maple syrup compared to the other natural sweeteners mentioned above. Similar to honey, maple syrup is not suitable for anyone who has diabetes due to the sugar content and high glycemic ranking.
When buying any of these products, make sure to look at the ingredient label. Very often companies will add processed sugars to their ingredients. While these natural sweeteners are healthy upgrades for processed and artificial sweeteners, it is still important to keep your added sugar intake to a minimum. Instead, focus on incorporating sweet vegetables into your diet (sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, butternut squash, acorn squash, etc.) and small amounts of fruit. Without a conscious effort to keep your sugar intake low, you’ll be surprised how quickly your total daily sugar intake can add up.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.