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Ask Health Coach Maria: What are the Top Sugar Alternatives?

March 28, 2014

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Hi, I’m Maria Marlowe, a Certified Health Coach and author of Detox without the Deprivation. This is my weekly “Ask Health Coach Maria” series, in which I answer frequently asked questions that relate to health and wellness. Have a question? Ask me here. 

Sugar has been tantalizing taste buds and crashing otherwise healthy diets for ages. We’ve all been there: it’s 3 PM in the office, the amazingly healthy salad you ate for lunch is wearing off, and you’re craving a sweet treat to perk you up and keep you going. Or, the waiter brings the dessert menu after a nice (yet not completely satisfying) meal and your friend asks if you want to split the double chocolate lava cake.

I love sweets as much as the next girl, but I also know how much havoc processed sugar can wreak in my body (weight gain, break outs, inflammation, etc.). To solve this problem, instead of ditching dessert completely I instead opt for treats made from the healthiest natural sweeteners that satisfy my sweet tooth and keep my body healthy.

Here are my picks for the 6 best natural sweeteners:

Banana

Don’t look at me like I’m crazy until you’ve tried my frozen banana ice cream. It tastes like dessert, but is healthy enough for breakfast. Banana also makes a great base for a smoothie (or the aforementioned “ice cream”), and mashed banana can be used to sweeten baked goods, or to at least reduce the amount of sugar in them. Whole food sweeteners, like bananas or other fruit, deliver vitamins, minerals, and fiber in addition to the natural sugar, which makes them gentler on the body, so they are absolutely your best choice.

Dates and Date Sugar

You can use fresh or dried dates in many dessert recipes. If you can’t find any, try date sugar. Date sugar consists of finely ground, dehydrated dates, which incorporate the fruit’s vitamin, mineral, and fiber content. If you like the taste of dates, this will definitely appeal to you. Date sugar can be used as a direct replacement for sugar, and comes in a granulated form; however, it can clump, and doesn’t melt, making it an impractical substitution for certain baked goods and beverages. Dates and date sugar are best suited for raw deserts, like these chocolate truffles.  

Coconut Nectar / Coconut Sugar

Coconut palm sugar has a low glycemic index (so it won’t cause a large spike in your blood sugar like table sugar does) and is full of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, most notably vitamin B8 and potassium. It comes in both liquid (called nectar) and granulated form. While packages instruct that you replace regular sugar with coconut sugar at a 1:1 ratio, I personally find I can use a lot less coconut sugar, usually half, and sometimes even a third, of the table sugar required. Using less is more economical, too, as this is one of the more expensive sweeteners.

Raw Honey (Preferably Local)

Raw honey is one of the oldest natural sweeteners. Unlike the clear yellow honey in the honey bear jars, raw honey is opaque and whitish. I like it because it contains small amounts of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. Local honey may even help build your immunity to local allergens by introducing pollen to your body in small amounts. Just as a vaccine introduces a minute amount of a germ or pathogen into the body to create an immune response that allows the person’s body to more effectively fight the pathogen when exposed to it later on in large amounts, honey does the same thing for common local allergens.

Honey is sweeter than sugar, so you may need less than you think—try using just a spoonful to sweeten your tea or breakfast cereal. Depending on the plant source, raw honey can have a range of flavors, from dark and strongly flavored to light and mildly flavored. Honey is high on the glycemic index, though, so should be used sparingly if you have or are pre-disposed to diabetes.

Maple Syrup, Grade B

Maple syrup is made from boiled-down maple tree sap, and is a great source of manganese and zinc. Be sure to buy 100% pure maple syrup and not maple-flavored corn syrup. It adds a pleasant taste to foods and is great for baking, but may not be ideal for sweetening drinks or smaller treats, unless you really love maple. Besides being delicious on pancakes, it’s also a great topper for oatmeal and other hot cereals!

Stevia

Stevia comes from a leafy plant and has been used for centuries by native South Americans. It’s approximately 100 to 300 times sweeter than white sugar, so use it sparingly, and be aware that it can have a slightly bitter taste.

Stevia is available in a powder or liquid form for use in cooking, baking, or as a sugar substitute for beverages. Be sure to purchase the liquids and powders that are either green or brown, as the white and clear versions are highly refined. Avoid any brands that add erythritol, dextrose, or natural flavors, like Stevia in the Raw or Truvia. Instead, try Sweet Leaf Liquid or Powder, or Now Foods Better Stevia. Trader Joe’s also makes a good 100% extract.

Worst Natural Sweeteners

When talking about healthy sweeteners, I feel compelled to bring up agave nectar and sugar in the raw, which both have a “healthy halo” around them, but are really no better than table sugar. If you know someone who uses either of them, send them this post!

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a natural liquid sweetener made from the juice of the agave cactus. While it’s “natural,” it’s also high in fructose (which has been linked to overeating) and has been under much scrutiny due to manufacturing processes which are similar to that of high fructose corn syrup. Avoid or agave nectar or consume it sparingly.

Sugar in the Raw

Turbinado sugar is crystallized sugar made from sugar cane extract. It is similar to brown sugar, although paler and with larger crystals. It is made during the initial pressing of sugar cane, where white sugar is further refined. It is often sold in the United States as Sugar in the Raw. It is not much different than white sugar, just slightly less refined.

You don’t have to swear off sweets for life, just choose the best natural sweeteners you can. Many of your favorite treats, from chocolate bars to ice cream to baked goods are now made with natural sweeteners.

Do you have a recipe that uses one of the natural sweeteners above? Share it with us in the comments below!

Maria Marlowe is a Certified Health Coach and regular Wellness Today Contributor. Get your health question answered in her next column by sending her an email at healthcoachmaria@wellnesstoday.com.