If you’ve ever tried to cut sugar out of you’re diet, you understand 1) how hard it can be and 2) the effect sugar has on your body. This year I did the 21 day Clean Program Cleanse where I cut out a whole list of foods and the hardest for me was sugar. I couldn’t believe how dependent my body was on sugar (I thought I ate so healthy) but once I got over the hard first week, I had never felt better. Now when I have something high in sugar I get a headache, weird right?
I have experimented with different sugar alternatives and natural sweeteners and sometimes feel overwhelmed by just how many there are! But are they really good for you or does the body treat them like sugar?
Here’s a little bit of research I found on 6 popular natural sweeteners.
The Natural Sweetener Breakdown
Probably the most popular sugar alternative right now, stevia is in so many products and can be bought at just about any grocery store. But it makes me wonder is stevia really healthy? Stevia comes from rebaudiana plants (see below) where the compound of the leaves are extracted for their sweet (and semi-bitter) distinct taste.
But why is it usually white? Well, you can find green powdered stevia that is made from the whole stevia leaf that is said to be more nutritious, but the one most of us find is the white powder where the only the sweet compounds of the leaf are left. This white powdered stevia or droppers can be heavily processed with chemicals including sugar alcohols and bleached to get its sugar looking white shade.
There have not been many studies on the stevia we see in the grocery store, but the natural stevia leaves you can grow in your back yard have been shown to LOWER blood sugar.
Verdict: it does not raise your blood sugar, but be careful with the processed store-bought versions.
This natural sweetener has been stealing a bit of the spotlight from stevia and becoming very popular. Monk fruit itself comes from the luo han go fruit that looks similar to a melon. But the sweetness you may be familiar with is the extracted mogroside compounds found inside the fruit. It is classified as much sweeter than table sugar and even stevia, I actually prefer monk fruit’s taste over stevia.
The monk fruit found in stores is made from juicing the fruit and processing it into a crystal form. It does not raise your blood sugar and does have zero calories, so it is a great option with a great taste. But just like stevia, be careful with the processing ingredients
Verdict: the taste is very sweet for an option that does not raise your blood sugar and is zero calories, the only downside is that it can be hard to find and processed with other sweeteners. Also it is highlu concentrated so a little bit goes a long way for me!
Date Sugar / Date Syrup
If you’ve ever had a date, you know that they are VERY sweet, truly “nature’s candy”. Since it’s sweetness comes from the fruit itself, people love having it as a sugar alternative. Dates also have great health benefits and are richer in potassium than a banana!
However, since this is natural occurring sugar it is not calorie or carbohydrate free. Two teaspoons of date sugar has around 20 calories and 5 carbohydrates which is lower than the typical sugar. Since it has natural sugar, it will raise your blood sugar. There was also an interesting study done that found some antibacterial properties in date syrup.
Date sugar is usually made from finely chopped and dried dates and syrup is easy to make at home in your blender with just some dates, water, and lemon juice or oil.
Verdict: it can be a very clean and unprocessed way to sweeten up your food, but it is not zero calorie and does have naturally occurring sugar components.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, a hybrid of molecules that give your taste buds a sweet sensation. It’s considered a natural sweetener because it cant be found in fruits, vegetables, and even our own bodies produce a small amount.
It looks and tastes like sugar but can be processed from plant fibers in birch trees. Xylitol does not contain any vitamins or minerals, and therefore is technically a refined sweetener.
Blood sugar is not raised when consuming xylitol and it contains very little calories, making it great for low-carb dieters or diabetics.
A VERY interesting part of xylitol is that there have been numerous studies showing that it helps prevent tooth decay, reduces acidity of saliva, and increases absorption of calcium. That’s why it’s often found in sugar free gums!
Verdict: this plant sourced sugar alcohol taste like sugar but with 40% less calories, negligible effects on blood sugar, and has oral hygiene benefits.
Pure Maple Syrup
Not to be confused with “breakfast/pancake syrups” which are made from high fructose corn syrup, pure maple syrup is made from the actual sap from a maple tree and is graded very intensely in both the U.S. and Canada. It is often compared to honey but there are some notable differences.
Pure maple syrup is fairly lower in calories than honey – 1 cup is 819 calories and 1 cup of honey is 1,031 calories. When looking at the vitamins and minerals, maple syrup has a good source of iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and potassium but does not have the vitamins that honey has.
Verdict: the taste and minerals make pure maple syrup is a great alternative for sweetening oatmeal, baking, pancakes etc but it is not low calorie or low carbohydrates to drizzle lightly.
Since honey is not considered vegan, agave has become so much more popular. It was originally marketed as a natural healthy option, but now there is loads of information that agave is just as bad or worse for you than sugar. It does have more calories in comparison to sugar.
The nectar is created from boiling the sap of the agave plant and when it is processed into a syrup is destroys the health benefits from the plant and turns into fructose.
Verdict: the medical dictionary says that “agave is not healthier than sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or any other sweetener”.
What sweeteners do you use?
There are so many other natural sweeteners on the market and as you can see, most have comparable differences regarding how ‘healthy’ they are.
I am also not a nutritional expert, so talking to your physician and doing additional research to find what’s best for you is highly recommended.
Leave a comment if you replace sugar with any natural sweeteners, I’d love to hear your favorites or experiences!