You know the saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” And, unfortunately it usually helps more food and drinks go down too. One could argue that our innate love for sweetness combined with an abundance of cheap concentrated sugary food sources is responsible for our current obesity epidemic. 100 years ago sugar was a scarce commodity, only enjoyed on special occasions but today it’s hard to avoid added sugars and fake sweeteners as they even show up in foods like ketchup, bread, and crackers.
Besides drinking diet soda, the free and easy use of NutraSweet (aspartame) and Splenda (sucralose) sprinkled on or in everything should be limited. Many diet products, “light” yogurts, etc. also contain these sweeteners. One theory is that diet sweeteners may trick the brain into thinking it has received some calories. Then when the body actually doesn’t receive calories, we unconsciously seek out those calories from other sources therefore consuming more throughout the day.
White Sugar vs. Raw
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Alternative Natural Sweeteners
Stevia is an herb that is naturally sweet. It can be added to your herb garden and when you chew on the leaf it tastes super sweet. It has no calories and is actually hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. It does have a bit of an aftertaste and only a very small amount is needed. Just like with other no-calorie sweeteners, use only the minimum to meet your sweetness threshold. Some products combine stevia with erythritol-a sugar alcohol. Erythritol is less sweet than sugar and balances the super-sweetness of the stevia.
Agave nectar comes from the “Blue Agave” plant, which also gives us tequila. It contains mostly natural fructose and has a lower glycemic index than sugar or honey, but contains about the same amount of calories. It is very sweet so a small amount will go a long way.
Brown rice syrup is less sweet than white sugar and has a mild buttery flavor. It actually contains a small amount of protein, about 1 gram. The carbohydrate and sugar content comprises about 50% complex carbohydrates, 45% maltose, and 3% glucose. Maltose and the complex carbohydrates take a longer time to digest and won’t cause a rapid spike in blood sugar.
Xylitol can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables and is also produced by the body. It is made commercially using corn or birch bark. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which has a similar sweetness to sugar, but it actually can help prevent dental cavities. It has about 40% fewer calories than regular sugar and is slowly digested and not fully absorbed by the body so it won’t raise blood sugar and insulin levels like regular sugar. Another interesting use of xylitol includes helping to reduce the risk of ear infections in children. The only negative side effect may be some digestive distress if consumed in unusually high doses.
The use of honey dates back thousands of years and you really can’t get a more natural sweetener. It is produced by honey bees from the flower nectar they collect and can be up to 60% sweeter than sugar. Honey has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. It appears to be more effective at relieving coughs in children than cough medicine (and much safer). Preliminary research suggests that honey can improve glycemic control in those with type 2 diabetes and additional research is currently being done in that area.
While these are considered more “natural” alternatives to table sugar, all of them with the exception of stevia still do contain calories. They all should still be used in moderation in the least amount possible to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you do have diabetes, monitor your blood sugar carefully when making any changes to your diet.
Megan Witt, RD
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