Refined carbohydrates are often called empty calories. Actually, they’re worse than “empty” – they’re comparable to credit cards that create nutritional debt in the body. For example, a teaspoon of white sugar seems harmless – it tastes good and contains only 15 little calories. However, a closer look at the chemistry of its metabolism reveals that a tremendous effort is needed for the body to use those 15 calories as fuel.
Luckily, there are many healthy alternative sweeteners to choose from. However, there are pros and cons to every concentrated sweetener, no matter how natural the source is. Make sure that you’re not simply replacing a diet high in refined cane sugar with a diet high in another natural sweetener.
Whole, natural sweeteners have a deeper, richer taste so you often need less than a refined sweetener. The best part is, all of them can help minimize inflammation when eaten in moderation. Recent studies have shown that unrefined sweeteners retain their natural anti-inflammatory antioxidants. By replacing refined sugars with whole food sweeteners, you’ll help protect your body from the inflammatory effects of unbalanced sugar levels, and reap the health benefits of free radical scavengers. Raw honey, molasses, whole stevia leaf, and fruits contain the highest amounts of antioxidants [Philips et al 2009; Goyal et al 2010].
Here are some healthy alternative sweeteners that can be found in my new book, Becoming Sugar-Free:
My personal all-time-favourite sweetener is raw honey. Unrefined and unpasteurized, it’s the healthiest type of honey to eat, containing all of the vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that the bees collected during their forage. It’s a source of vitamins B2 and B6, iron, manganese, amino acids, and enzymes. For thousands of years, this healthy sugar substitute has been used medicinally, but only recently has scientific research revealed how it helps heal and soothe inflammation.
Taken straight from the comb, honey contains traces of propolis, the antibiotic and antifungal glue that bees use to seal the hive and protect it from harmful microorganisms. It’s also high in hydrogen peroxide, a powerful antiseptic. Packed with a punch of anti-inflammatory antioxidants, raw honey can also reduce the damage to colon tissue afflicted by colitis [Bilsel et al 2002 in Pipicelli & Tatti 2009]. It’s also a source of allergy-staving quercetin, a powerful antioxidant that prevents histamine release from mast cells [Hamdy et al., 2009].
LICORICE – The roots of Glycyrrhiza spp. plants (usually G. glabra, G. lepidota, and G. uralensis) provide an intensely sweet anti-inflammatory medicine and healthy alternative to sugar. Syrup made from the roots can be used as an alternative to white sugar, but it’s appropriate only for those who enjoy the taste. Licorice has a strong, distinct taste that not everyone appreciates.
The medicinal properties of licorice are well documented by years of scientific research. It’s an integral part of the traditional medicines of North America, Europe, and Asia. Licorice is an excellent adaptogen, supporting the adrenal glands and helping the body cope with stress. It also helps balance sex hormones, particularly in women, because healthy adrenals produce appropriate levels of sex hormones to complement those made by the gonads [online book preview: Sena, S. F. 2001. Licorice and laboratory tests. Chapter 11, in A. Dasgupta and C. A. Hammett-Stabler, eds. Herbal Supplements. Efficacy, Toxicity, and Interactions with Western Drugs and Effects on Clinical Laboratory Tests. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ.].
Caution: Licorice naturally causes an elevation in blood pressure because it boosts the production of adrenal hormones that lead to hypertension. For people who suffer from adrenal fatigue or hypotension (low blood pressure), this is very beneficial. However, people who suffer from hypertension and/or who take anti-hypertension drugs should consider deglycyrrhizinated (DGL) licorice syrup, which lacks the substance that increases blood pressure.
TIGER NUT – Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentum) actually aren’t nuts at all. They are plant tubers, much like sweet potatoes. Because they tend to be small and round, they are sometimes called earth almonds, chufa, chufa tubers, yellow nuts, sedge nuts, and zulu nuts. They’re native to the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe and the Middle East, but they are also grown in Africa and Central and South America for their sweet flavour and nutritious medicine [Ekeanyanwu et al 2010; Adejuyitan 2011].
Tiger nuts are used to treat digestive ailments, and they can help calm a bloated and inflamed belly. They also help prevent diabetes by satisfying sweet cravings without sending blood sugar levels out of control. The plant sterols, vitamin E, and fibre they contain support healthy circulation by helping to lower blood cholesterol levels and prevent peroxidation of fats in the arteries [Arafat et al 2009]. They make smoothies rich and creamy, are excellent as a salad topper, and add a subtle sweet surprise to soups and casseroles.
YACON SYRUP – Refreshingly sweet and juicy, the Peruvian yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) tuber has a crunchy texture like water chestnuts and tastes like jicama. The syrup tastes of caramel mixed with molasses and a note of cinnamon.
Yacón syrup isn’t yet a well known sweetener, but it’ll probably catch on quickly because it’s a great source of the prebiotic inulin (also known as fructooligosaccaride or FOS). Inulin is a sweet-tasting complex sugar that the body can’t digest. So it doesn’t spike blood sugar. Instead, it feeds the good bacteria in your gut and helps support good digestion as well as good gut immunity.
The high inulin content means that yacón is naturally low in calories. In fact, a jar of yacón syrup contains half the calories as the same-sized jar of honey! Yacón is rich in potassium, phosphorus, chromium, calcium, iron, and B vitamins. Chromium and B vitamins support healthy glucose metabolism, making yacón an ideal sweetener for people who suffer from metabolic conditions or chronic inflammation [Valentova & Ulrichova 2003; Mentreddy 2007; Lachman et al 2003].
Caution: Yacón is part of the daisy family, so avoid it if you are allergic to these plants. It may also cause some intestinal distress in people who are sensitive to the laxative effects of inulin.
Sugar maples (Acer saccharum) are the most common trees used to make syrup, but black and red maples (Acer nigrum and Acer rubrum), paper birch (Betula papyrifera), Alaskan birch (Betula neoalaskana), and black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees also produce delicious, mineral- and vitamin-rich sweet saps. Maple sap is a light and refreshing drink on a hot summer day. And raw sap can be boiled into a syrup that is more concentrated in sugars and minerals. These all fit the bill as healthy alternative sweeteners.
Maple syrup contains an impressive amount of manganese (which helps boost levels of the antioxidant enzyme called manganese SOD or superoxide dismutase). It also contains smaller amounts of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, vitamin B1, and phenol antioxidants. Syrup made from late-season sap is higher in amino acids, including gut-healing glutamine and threonine [Phillips et al 2009; Ball 2007; USDA nutr’n database].
BROWN RICE MALT & SYRUP – Brown rice malt is made from sprouted grains that are air-heated and allowed to produce their own syrup naturally. The heat activates the rice’s own enzymes to digest starches into sugars, so no live yeasts or moulds are used to make the final malt syrup.
Malt syrups are high in maltose, a simple sugar composed of two glucose molecules. Because it must be broken down before the glucose can be absorbed, it has a lower Glycemic Index than sweeteners that are high in pure glucose.
Brown rice syrup is made from a combination of sprouted and pre-cooked grains that are cooked together until they turn into a delicious syrup that tastes like butterscotch. The germination process decreases the levels of phytates (which can interfere with protein digestion) and increases the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals [Banchuen et al 2009; Liang et al 2008].
Malts & Syrups from Other Grains – Malts and syrups can also be made from oats, barley, and other grains. These do have a lower glycemic index than refined sugars, but they are not recommended on the anti-inflammatory program because they may contain traces of gluten [Elkhalil et al 2001].
MOLASSES – Molasses is concentrated syrup extracted from the sugarcane plant (Saccharum spp.) during the refining process. Unsulfured blackstrap molasses is the least refined of the different types of molasses available, and has the most potent antioxidant power [Philips et al 2009].
It’s a good source of chromium, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels by supporting insulin’s work [Groetch in Metcalfe et al 2008]. It’s also rich in nutrients for the nervous system: vitamin B5, B6, manganese, magnesium, potassium, and calcium.
Caution: Keep in mind, however, that the high sugar content of molasses can still slow down liver function if you eat too much. Make sure to use molasses in moderation.
COCONUT SUGAR – Coconut trees and other palms can be tapped for sap in much the same way as maple and birch trees. The sap is rich in sugar, particularly sucrose, and can be dried into a granular form [Ranasinghe & Silva 2007]. It’s sometimes called toddy, but this is actually the name of the fermented, alcoholic drink made from coconut sap.
Unrefined coconut sugar is rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients that can help protect against diabetes and hypertension. Some of these phytonutrients inhibit the activity of some carbohydrate-digesting enzymes (namely alpha-glucuronidase and alpha-amylase) and therefore help to decrease the amount of glucose that is absorbed into the bloodstream from the intestines. Other phytonutrients inhibit an enzyme that is involved in increasing blood pressure [Ranilla et al 2008].
This is a natural sweetener derived from a South American plant (Stevia rebaudiana), which is related to chrysanthemums and daisies. It’s also known as honey yerba, sweet leaf, and sugar leaf.
Unrefined stevia (which is about 30 times as sweet as table sugar) is sold as a light green powder or whole leaf liquid extract. It has a strong anise or licorice flavour and some people may find that it clashes with the taste of other ingredients in a recipe. For baking and cooking, some people may prefer to use refined stevia.
However, in its whole, raw state, stevia is anti-fungal and antibiotic. This makes it suitable for people trying to balance levels of candida or other microorganisms in the body. It’s also anti-inflammatory and safe for diabetics. Mixing whole stevia extract with freshly squeezed lemon juice and water makes a fantastic refresher that masks the licorice aftertaste.
Refined stevia is a calorie-free sweetener that can be liquid or granular. However, if you use too much, you may find it overwhelming, as it’s up to 200 times sweeter than table sugar. The white granular stevia commonly found on grocery store shelves may be cut with maltodextrin (which is most commonly derived from GMO corn), so look for a brand that is maltodextrin free.
Caution: Avoid stevia if you have an allergy to plants of the daisy family. In a two-year study, European scientists reported that sperm production in male rats was reduced when they were fed high doses of stevioside, one of the sweet-tasting compounds from the stevia plant. However, this has been neither tested nor proven in humans. Another important point to consider is that studying the activity of isolated plant compounds doesn’t necessarily reflect how the whole, unrefined plant may impact a person or animals. What are the main messages here? Avoid eating any sweetener in extremely high doses.
Recently, agave products have exploded onto the market with claims that they are a safe alternative sweetener for diabetics and people suffering from other metabolic disorders. However, these claims are controversial and the truth is more complicated than what the public was originally told.
Cheap agave syrup is an industrially refined product that may be processed with black mold, spiked with corn syrup, and/or much higher in fructose than is safe for consumption by people with diabetes or liver diseases.
Organically grown agave tends to cause less environmental destruction, but all agave farming poses a threat to four endangered bat species that rely on agave for food. I recommend that people use agave sparingly or avoid it altogether.
Caution: Agave sweeteners may cause problems for those who have bowel intolerance to fructose, and it may cause gas or bloating. A high fructose diet can also lead to insulin resistance and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
Prosopis spp. is the botanical name for various species of mesquite, a legume tree that thrives in arid soil across the southern Americas, Africa, and Asia. Mesquite is a sweet blend of cinnamon, cacao, carob, and coffee – almost like a cinnamon mocha. It is absolutely delicious!
It has an excellent mineral profile, providing high amounts of iron, manganese, and zinc. It’s no wonder that it’s used as an energy booster for high performance athletes and people under stress! It also contains a decent amount of protein, including all of the essential amino acids (in Africa it’s used as a meat substitute!) [Odibo et al 2008; USDA].
Mesquite’s plant sterols can actually help regulate the immune system through their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects [Lamarque et al 1994]. Mesquite is usually sold as a dry powder, so you can use it as a substitute for granular sugar in your recipes.
With all of this good news about healthy alternative sweeteners to help you become sugar-free, what are you going to try first?
Check out some great recipes at www.juliedaniluk.com
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