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Understanding Natural Sweeteners & Sugar Alternatives

Cure that sweet tooth with health in mind with these natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives!

Understanding Natural Sweeteners & Sugar Alternatives


Sugar and other sweeteners are mostly added to food to provide sweetness. However, they also act as a food preserver, lengthen shelf life, and add texture. 

Unfortunately, added sweeteners are found in abundance in the typical Western food supply. Too much added sugars in the diet are associated with an increased risk for weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.

Non-nutritive sweeteners, such as low-calorie sweeteners and artificial sweeteners, were created as a sugar substitute for diabetics. These sweeteners are considered to be low to calorie-free compared to regular sugar while being hundreds times sweeter than sugar. 

Consumption of non-nutritive sweeteners is controversial, though, and they can be highly processed when made. While more research is needed on long-term effects, some studies suggest non-nutritive sweeteners may increase body mass index (BMI), cardiometabolic risk, and other potentially harmful side effects. 

So, are natural sweeteners the best choice and is there a healthiest natural sweetener to choose from? Learn all about these natural sweeteners here! 

What Are Natural Sweeteners? 

Natural sweeteners, also known as natural sugars, come from plants or made from animals (bees) with little to no processing. They have grown in popularity as consumers are looking for alternatives to both sugar and non-nutritive sweeteners. 

Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar have gained popularity as healthy sugar alternatives. They still provide energy like sugar, but they may also provide some potential health benefits instead of just being "empty calories". However, these natural sweeteners should still be enjoyed in moderation.

Natural sweeteners are broken down in a similar way as sugar in the digestive tract, but they can contain traces of minerals, antioxidants, and even fiber.

Honey

Honey has been used not only as a natural sweetener for centuries but also for its medicinal properties. A 2017 review of health and honey suggests honey offers antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties.

Besides carbohydrates, honey also has compounds called flavonoids and polyphenols which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Consuming locally produced honey may even provide some immune benefits and allergy relief for some. Check containers to see where the honey is sourced or choose honey that is from a local beekeeper for optimal health benefits. 

Honey is sweeter than regular sugar, so you need less amount to give the same sweetness.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is made from boiling the sap of maple trees. This is why maple syrup has a somewhat more earthy flavor compared to other sweeteners. Maple syrup can provide traces of minerals such as potassium and calcium if it is purely sourced.

Be aware not all maple syrups are sourced the same way. Commercially made, cheaper maple syrup is often nothing more than high fructose corn syrup with some maple flavoring and coloring added. 

Overall, check maple syrup containers for ingredients. Pure maple syrup tends to be more expensive than commercially made syrup, but the health benefits may outweigh the extra cost.

Coconut Sugar

As the name suggests, coconut sugar comes from coconuts. Coconut sugar is considered lower on the glycemic index compared with regular table sugar which is why some consider it the best sugar substitute for diabetics. Like maple syrup, it may also provide trace minerals.

Chicago Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests coconut sugar provides inulin, a specific type of fiber considered as a prebiotic. Because of this fiber, digesting coconut sugar is slower than regular sugar and provides a slower increase in blood sugar.

Date Sugar

Date sugar is made from pulverized dates and can also provide a trace source of minerals and fiber. It has a deeper caramel-like flavor more similar to brown sugar. 

One thing to note about date sugar, though, is it does not dissolve or melt in liquids like other sugars.

Uses for Natural Sweeteners 

Natural sweeteners can be used as a sugar substitute for baking, to sweeten beverages, and any other way sugar is used. If using natural sweeteners for baking, you may need to alter and reduce the amount of sweetener used and/or the liquid ingredients in the recipe.

For example, you only need about 3/4 cup of honey for every cup of sugar when baking. It is also recommended to reduce the liquid in a recipe by 3 to 4 tablespoons.

Natural sweeteners can be used as a healthy sugar alternative to sweeten:

• Coffee/tea/mixed drinks
• Plain Yogurt
• Oatmeal
• Baked goods

Experiment with different types of natural sweeteners in different ways. For instance, you may like one particular natural sweetener for tea but another to sweeten oatmeal. 

When using any natural sweetener, keep in mind a little can go a long way for providing a sweet flavor. 

Are Natural Sweeteners Really Better than Sugar?

Using natural sweeteners in place of regular sugar may provide some additional health benefits. They may also be used in lesser amounts since they tend to be sweeter than sugar. However, that does not give a green light for consuming higher amounts.

Natural sweeteners are still considered a source of added sugars in the diet. Even though natural sweeteners may provide trace amounts of minerals, antioxidants, and/or fiber, they still should be consumed in small amounts.

The CDC suggests Americans keep their total added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. This recommendation is for any added sweetener, no matter the source. 

Also if managing diabetes, consult with a health care team before adding natural sweeteners to the diet. While coconut sugar may be a healthy sugar alternative for people with diabetes, it is important to get individualized recommendations.

References:

Natural Sweetener - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/food-science/natural-sweetener.

Sarah Asay's Photo
Written By Sarah Asay, RDN. Published on November 20, 2020. Updated on December 01, 2020.

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