There are times when you need to add some sweetness to a recipe. As a general rule it is better to use minimally or unprocessed natural sweeteners instead of artificial ones or standard table sugars. However, it is not quite that simple. Some ‘natural’ sweeteners are heavily processed. You also still need to consider the amount used in a recipe and how this may impact you blood sugar. There is little point in swapping white sugar for a natural sugar if you end up using double the amount! Below gives you the lowdown on the various sweeteners on the market…
Sweeteners to avoid:
- Artificial sweeteners – these include aspartame, saccharin, acesulfane-k and sucralose. Their complete lack of calories has made them a long standing favourite for diabetics and those trying to lose weight. However, I would not recommend their use as they have been found to contribute to weight gain, increase appetite and negatively alter beneficial bacteria in the gut.
- Alcohol sugars (e.g xylitol, sorbitol) – Whilst they are useful for diabetics as no insulin is required to metabolise them, these sugars are far too processed to be considered natural products, and can cause digestive side effects such as bloating and diarrhoea, especially if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Fructose – this is the sugar present in fruit, but is also available as a white powder and was once thought to be a healthy option as it does not raise blood glucose levels and is processed by the liver. However, in the absence of nutrients and fibre present in whole fruits, fructose has been shown to interfere with appetite hormones and has been linked to fatty liver and insulin resistance making losing weight even more difficult.
- Agave – a very popular alternative that is marketed as ‘healthy’. Commercially available agave is very refined and can contain up to 90% fructose so I would not recommend its use
Sweeteners to use sparingly:
- Honey – Use this sparingly as it is a simple sugar consisting of glucose and fructose. It will have an impact blood sugar levels so try to avoid it if you are diabetic or trying to lose weight. Avoid blended honey and use organic if possible.
- Whole foods – this is a great choice. Bananas, dates, raisins, figs, carrots, beetroot. However, dried fruits are high in sugar so it is important to be careful with portions and read the sugar content relating to the amount you plan to use.
- Molasses – this is the by product of the extraction of sugar from sugar cane. It contains vitamin B6, potassium, magnesium and manganese and is much lower is sugar. These qualities make it a more nutritious option but it does have a very strong taste.
- Maple syrup – this very commonly appears in ‘healthy’ recipes. Pure maple syrup contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory polyphenols as well as significant zinc, calcium and manganese. Beware of imitation maple flavoured syrup, only buy the real stuff! It is still sugar so use it sparingly. Works well in cakes and flapjacks.
- Brown rice syrup – this is an unrefined product of sprouted barley which is dried, cooked, filtered and reduced to a thick brown syrup. Its contains some vitamins and minerals and is low in fructose and sucrose, meaning it has a lower impact on blood sugar. It has a malty flavour and works well in flapjack recipes.
- Stevia – this has recently gained popularity as it is not absorbed in the digestive tract, therefore does not effect blood sugar. However, it can increase appetite in the same way as artificial sweeteners and can have a bitter after taste. If you do choose it ensure it is pure stevia with no additives.
- Coconut sugar/coconut nectar/coconut blossom syrup – this is produced from the sap of the flower buds of coconut trees. It contains some B vitamins, minerals and inulin, which is a prebiotic and can help to feed beneficial bacteria in the gut. It has a similar impact on blood sugar to white sugar but at least contains some nutrients so use sparingly. It is good as a replacement for brown sugar in baking
- Yacon syrup – this is sourced from the naturally sweet root of the yacon, a member of the sunflower family. It contains significant amounts of the prebiotic FOS, which gives it sweetness and does not effect blood sugar as it is not digested so is suitable choice for diabetics. However the FOS content may mean it is not suitable for those with IBS. It works well as a replacement for honey in baking.
- Date syrup – this is a good unrefined sweetener to use as it is made purely from dates, it can be used in a similar way to maple syrup. However, still only use small amounts.
- Lacuma – this is a relatively new sweetener. It comes in powder form and has a minimal impact on blood sugar and contains fibre which slows the down the release of glucose into the blood stream. This makes it another good choice for diabetics.
In summary, swapping standard table sugar for a natural sweetener does not mean you can use infinite amounts. It is still sugar, just in a more nutritional form. This makes it a better choice but still needs to be used sparingly, particularly if you are diabetic or trying to lose fat.
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About The Author
Sarah Turner is a registered nutritional therapist, researcher and blogger here at Louise Digby Nutrition. She is currently studying physiotherapy and plans to practice a fusion of nutrition and physiotherapy once she has graduated.