There are many reasons to avoid sugar. Excess sugar consumption is especially worrisome because it can lead to obesity and Type II diabetes. It's important for everyone, particularly people with insulin resistance or pre-diabetes conditions, to minimize their intake of sugars where possible.
However, not all sweeteners are created equal - some have been found to cause more damage than others. And here, we will discuss the best and worst sugar substitutes you should be mindful of.
What Are Bad Sugar Substitutes?
The most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin. These chemical-based substitutes have been associated with conditions like migraines, seizures, weight gain, fibromyalgia, and cancer. They contain zero calories but are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, so they don't need to be used in significant amounts.
Eating artificial sweeteners can do more harm than good, and using them in place of sugar doesn't mean you're avoiding calories. It only means that you're swapping one health-hazardous chemical for another.
Agave syrup is high in fructose, just like regular sugar. It is often perceived as a healthier alternative to table sugar because it has lower glucose levels and higher levels of fructose - however, this high fructose ratio works against its healthy reputation. The body metabolizes the sugars differently than cane sugar, so agave syrup doesn't raise blood glucose or insulin nearly as much. However, excessive amounts can still lead to overeating and weight gain.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is cheap to produce, which made it popular in the food industry. However, this sugar substitute has been associated with obesity and diabetes, just like regular table sugar. This is because it raises triglyceride levels while simultaneously lowering HDL cholesterol, leading to heart disease.
Powdered Drink Mixes
Powdered drink mixes vary widely. While some may have benefits, others may be better left on the store shelves. It’s important to read the label as they are not all created equal. Some are high in sugar and should be consumed sparingly. However, a more concerning issue is that many of them contain artificial colors, preservatives, and you guessed it--high amounts of sweeteners.
Sugar alcohols like maltitol, erythritol, and sorbitol are often used in low-carb or keto products. These carbohydrate replacements usually have half the sugar calories (about 30% fewer) and have a low glycemic index. However, the body cannot properly digest sugar alcohols resulting in bloating, diarrhea, flatulence, and may not be good for your gut health and microbiome.
Refined sugar is best to avoid. It's highly processed and contains zero nutritional value. It's often treated as a condiment rather than an actual ingredient, which means it's used in high amounts and contributes to a large proportion of calorie and sugar intake.
The body easily absorbs refined sugar, causing rapid spikes and dips in blood glucose levels, leading to insulin resistance over time. Sugar also feeds harmful bacteria that live inside your gut called "flora." This group of microbes plays an important role in digestion. Still, when they've been fed too much simple sugar, they become out-of-control which can damage your immune system, cause inflammation throughout the body, and a host of other conditions.
What Is The Healthiest Alternative To Sugar?
Luckily, there are also sugar substitutes that can be used to replace sugar, which have none of the negative side effects.
Stevia is a plant-based alternative with zero calories and almost no glycemic index. It comes in powder or liquid form and is becoming increasingly popular for its ability to cut down on sugar consumption without sacrificing the taste.
Crude stevia extracts are 30 times sweeter than sugar, so if you want to use stevia in place of refined sugars, then try using just a tiny bit at a time.
Coconut Palm Sugar
This is a more natural sugar alternative that is minimally processed from the nectar of coconut palms. It has been linked with reductions in triglyceride levels and type II diabetes, but it still contains calories, so moderation is key when using or eating coconut sugar.
Honey is composed primarily of fructose and glucose, but it also contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, and amino acids. For thousands of years, it has been used in traditional medicine to cure ailments like sore throats or coughs caused by allergies or cold weather. Unprocessed raw honey is the best type to consume because pasteurized types are stripped of important nutrients during processing.
Raw Sugar (Turbinado)
Unrefined organic sugar cane juice which hasn't undergone excessive heat treatment retains much more nutritional value than regular table sugar. It has high levels of magnesium, calcium, potassium, and iron which can help strengthen bones and teeth, balance electrolytes in the body, and even improve heart health.
Raw sugar also contains trace minerals like zinc which help support a healthy immune system, so it's important to avoid sugar substitutes that have been processed with artificial chemicals or bleached white without any nutrient value left at all.
The monk fruit extract contains no calories and has a very low glycemic index, making it one of the best sugar substitutes available. It's also commonly used in keto products because of its extremely sweet taste, which means you can use less while still satisfying your sweet tooth.
But unlike stevia, it does not leave an aftertaste, so it's suitable to use as a direct replacement for any type of sugar. This makes monk fruit ideal for drinks like lemonade or cocktails because its flavor won't interfere with other ingredients.
Yacon root naturally contains fructooligosaccharides - this type of sugar substitute provides all of the benefits as natural sugars but with 50-90% fewer calories than artificial alternatives like table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. This makes them not only a healthier sugar substitute, but it is also a more sustainable weight loss solution since it is lower in carbs.
Yacon syrup has fewer carbs than honey yet provides similar sweetness levels without it causing to raise blood sugar levels. Yacon also contains antioxidants which make it great for the immune system and may help with reducing cancer risk. It's also prebiotic, which can improve digestive health, increase nutrient uptake, and boost metabolism.
Date sugar is made by simply drying and grinding whole dates into a powder that can be used to alternative other sugars. It has high levels of manganese, iron, potassium, vitamin B-12, magnesium, copper, and fiber. Hence, it's great for weight loss and provides many nutritional benefits like bone health or improved digestion.
Maple syrup has a low glycemic index, so it's suitable for those on keto diets or diabetic patients. It also contains high levels of zinc, manganese, and antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation in the body and strengthen your immune system.
These are the best sugar substitutes because they're less likely to cause negative reactions in the body. The natural sweetener stevia is about 200 times sweeter than table sugar but does not raise blood glucose levels, unlike refined white sugar. Additionally, it contains no calories or carbohydrates and is safe for people with diabetes and those suffering from candida or other digestive issues.
A Word Of Caution For Sugar Substitutes
Although natural sugar substitutes may be better than their sugar alternatives, it's still best to avoid them in excess since they can lead to digestive issues like weight gain, bloating, or diarrhea and the impact some newer sweeteners may have on health are still not fully understood. Although most of these sweeteners do not cause blood glucose spikes (except for agave nectar), erythritol has been known to increase insulin levels slightly, so this is something you may want to monitor.
Stevia leaves also contain compounds that inhibit protein absorption, which means it should be avoided by people who suffer from weak digestion or chronic inflammation conditions like leaky gut syndrome. While some sugar alcohols such as xylitol are used in chewing gum and are proven to prevent tooth decay, they can also cause digestive discomfort like diarrhea, bloating, or cramping.
Natural sugar substitutes may be regarded as better than their alternatives because they do not raise blood glucose levels, and many of them provide health benefits such as antioxidants or immune system support. However, it's best to consume them in moderation, to research each option, and be mindful of how they make you feel.