When anti-inflammatory nutrition is your work, you get a lot of questions about sweeteners. So I thought I would whip up this super simple guide to helping you make the best choices for adding a bit of sweetness to your life.
But first: A cautionary word about our collective sweet tooth
My philosophy is that if you eat a whole foods, unsweetened diet the majority of the time, no sweetener (used occasionally) is going to be a problem. I put real (organic, fair trade) sugar in my morning coffee. Just one teaspoon. And that might be the only added sugar I get in a day. Other days are sweeter to be sure, but my default is sweetener free. I dislike sweet drinks and have a very low tolerance for overly sweet foods.
The challenge is that for most of us this is not the case: our collective diets are loaded with sugar…without us even raising a sugar cube. We guzzle juice, sweetened drinks and munch yogurt as sugary as a Coke. Our condiments are sweetened, our meals are sweetened…and it has to stop. We are an overweight, inflamed and unwell bunch and added sugars have a lot to do with it. The World Health Organization suggests we limit added/free sugars to no more than 10% of our total calories…or about 12 teaspoons (50g) of sugar a day on a 2000 calorie diet. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons a day for men and 6 teaspoons a day for women…and juice is included in these numbers.
Using a non-calorie sweetener thinking that you are helping the situation isn’t going to cut it either. Because these sweeteners may or may not be benign to your health; the research is inconclusive and their unusual, hyper sweet tastes simply reinforce your sweet tooth and lead you away from healthier choices, like an apple. To get healthy, you have to wean yourself off of a sugar high by reading ingredients and avoiding foods with sweeteners.
There, I’ve said my piece! Now, let’s get the lowdown on which sweeteners I think deserve a place in your pantry.
Sweet Yourself: Which sweeteners to use daily, sometimes and (hopefully) not at all
Everyday (but don’t go overboard!) Use:
Dates – Whole food sources of sugar always beat concentrated sugars for nutrition, flavour and satiety. One (24g) pitted Medjool date is the whole food equivalent of 4 tsp (16g) of sugar. When possible, add a date to sweeten your smoothie. Puree to sweeten baked goods and energy truffles. Prunes and unsweetened applesauce are also a great choice for baking; you’ll have to adjust liquid levels.
Maple Syrup – Boiled and concentrated from the sap of maple trees, maple syrup is flavourful, meaning that you will likely use less of it than white sugar. It is mostly sucrose, the same sugar as table sugar, making it safe for low FODMAP diets. There are minerals, yes, but a tablespoon of maple syrup only contains about 15mg of calcium (1.5% of your daily need) and 0.25mg of iron. So getting your minerals from maple syrup will require you eat a ton…which isn’t good for you! Use maple syrup for sweetening, baking and cooking.
Honey – One of the least processed sweeteners (if you choose raw, unpasteurized honey). Wins on flavour and certain forms of honey, such as the pricey Manuka, may hold health benefits such as improving cough in children and supporting healthy glycemia in diabetes. Higher in fructose, so a no go for low FODMAP diets. Also, raw honey is a food safety risk for pregnant women and infants.
Real Cane Sugar – Sometimes, you just need the clean taste and physical attributes of real sugar. Vegans need to look for organic varieties to avoid the use of bone char in processing. When you can, improve the social impact of your sweet tooth by buying organic, fair trade varieties. One teaspoon of sugar is equal to 4g of sugars. Don’t think that brown sugar is somehow healthier: brown sugar is just cane sugar with molasses added back for colour, texture and flavour. And no, sugar is not poison…unless you overdo it. Then yes, sugar is a huge part of our current diabesity crisis.
Stevia – Stevia is a plant whose leaves are intensely sweet, up to 300x sweeter than sugar, with a hint of bitter, licorice-like flavour. Zero calories with a long history of safe traditional use. Keep a plant in your kitchen and use leaves to sweeten brewed tea. Use ground whole leaves or tincture to sweeten smoothies or oatmeal.
Those white packets of “stevia”? Something entirely different: isolated, concentrated steviosides cut with fillers like xylitol and inulin, which can cause digestive upset for some. While approved as safe, very little long-term research has been done on this newfangled version.
Agave Syrup – Worried about the impact of high fructose corn syrup on your health? Then don’t choose agave. It beats HFCS, with its 55% fructose: commercial agave may be up to 85% fructose and is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar. Because of the fructose content, it should have a lower glycemic index but I wouldn’t recommend it for diabetes as fructose is processed independently of the insulin/glucagon mechanism for blood sugar control. A no go for low FODMAP diets.
Coconut Sugar – Coconut sugar has a rich, caramel-like flavour and is extracted from the sap of coconut palms. It is mostly sucrose, like table sugar, with some free fructose and glucose. Slightly lower glycemic index but not enough to make it worth it. Where the flavour works, use it if you wish – I have ruined a few of my recipes trying to sub coconut sugar! I am not totally convinced of the sustainability of this sweetener as I haven’t seen enough information. Be sure to choose organic, fair trade varieties for at least a bit more reassurance of social/environmental impact.
Sugar Alcohols like Xylitol – Sugar alcohols are poorly absorbed, resulting in a low calorie intake and low impact on blood sugar. They are billed as a safe, natural alternative to sugar but I question how ‘natural’ it is to extract xylitol from wood pulp…yep, that’s where it comes from. Sugar alcohols are also a no go for low FODMAP diets and may exacerbate digestive issues.
The Fake Stuff: Aspartame, Splenda (Sucralose), Saccharin (Sweet n Low) –
My philosophy is, why put something in your body that you have no physiological necessity for? These sweeteners are intensely sweet, providing a ‘sugar high’ that nature cannot compete with – further wrangling your taste buds to the dark side.
The research is inconclusive on the health consequences of using artificial and no calorie sweeteners, with new suggestions that it might actually alter your intestinal flora in a way that harms health. Looking to lose weight? Ditch sweeteners and eat a plant-rich diet…don’t just swap sweetener with calories for one without.
The only group that might think they need artificial sweeteners are those with diabetes but according to the Canadian Practice Guidelines of the Canadian Diabetes Association, even diabetics can obtain up to 10% of their daily calories from real sugar. Remember, it is keeping blood sugars balanced through a careful selection of whole foods that matter most.
So since there is a possibility of harm…and no need to consume…these are on my ‘not a chance’ list.
Have other sweeteners you would like me to include on my list? Tell me your favourites…or ones you are interested in and I will add them!