By Ali Wetherbee
Why choose natural sweeteners? There are many reasons to avoid highly processed sugars. They are bad for your teeth, spike blood sugar and insulin, have been implicated in heart disease, can lead to obesity, and may cause mood and behavioral problems. Refined sugars go by various names, including granulated sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, glucose, fructose, dextrose, and maltodextrin. Products with unspecified “sugar” in their ingredient lists often contain sugars derived from genetically modified sources. More than half of the sugar in the United States, including white granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and brown sugar, is made from sugar beets, and 95% of sugar beets in the U.S. are grown from GMO Roundup-resistant seeds. While it may be wise to limit sugar consumption in every form, there are many GMO-free and natural sweeteners available for moderate use. Some of these so-called “natural sweeteners” are not as great as their labels suggest, but others may actually have benefits to your health. So how do you know which natural sweeteners to seek out and which to avoid? Read on to find out!
Natural Sweetener #1: Raw Cane Sugar
Though not actually a raw food, this natural sweetener is a minimally processed extract of sugar cane. The molasses is retained, leaving this sugar brown in color. Because only water is evaporated, the nutrients are also retained, so turbinado sugar contains some calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, and other trace minerals. Raw sugar is vegan-friendly, since no animal by-products are used (white sugar is usually decolorized with bone char). Rapadura, Demerara, turbinado, muscovado, and sucanat are varieties of raw sugar with varying amounts of moisture and variations to the drying process. Raw sugars, although similar in appearance, are different than brown sugar, which is simply processed white sugar with some molasses added back in. Rapadura and sucanat retain higher amounts of molasses than some of the other varieties, and rapadura is probably the least refined of all the cane sugars.
Natural Sweetener #2: Molasses
Molasses is the by-product of sugar refining. As the sugar cane is boiled and sugar is crystallized, the remaining syrup is removed and sold as molasses, a natural sweetener. “First boiling” molasses is a light-colored syrup, and “third boiling” yields the dark blackstrap molasses, which is an excellent source of iron, calcium, and magnesium, manganese, and vitamin B6. Nearly all the nutrients that are stripped out of white sugar end up in blackstrap molasses, making this a nutrient-dense natural sweetener.
Natural Sweetener #3: Honey
Honey is the food produced by bees from nectar through regurgitation and evaporation. It is low glycemic. Some of the many benefits of honey include its antibiotic, antiseptic, antibacterial, and antiviral properties, and its high levels of antioxidants. Raw local honey may help those with seasonal allergies. Did you know honey can even be used externally on cuts, wounds, and burns to speed healing? Manuka honey is best for this purpose, as it is a medical-grade medicinal honey. Honey should not be given to infants, because in rare instances it has been known to cause botulism, so choose a different natural sweetener for your little ones.
Natural Sweetener #4: Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a natural sweetener made by boiling sap from maple trees. It contains a variety of nutrients and more minerals than honey — calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium. Maple syrup is also high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Just be sure that the product you purchase contains 100% pure maple syrup, since there are many look-alikes on the market. Look for Grade B, which has a higher mineral content and more robust flavor than Grade A varieties.
Natural Sweetener #5: Stevia
Produced from the leaf of the stevia rebaudiana plant, this natural sweetener is a popular sugar substitute since it contains zero calories. Research finds that stevia may help lower high blood pressure, with no effect on normal blood pressure. In diabetics, it lowers blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity. Stevia may also reduce LDL cholesterol and arterial plaque build up. Stevia adds a natural light sweet taste to several of our protein powders and supplements.
Natural Sweetener #6: Agave Nectar
Made from the Mexican Agave cactus (the tequila plant), agave nectar is sweeter than sugar. Because it is low in glucose, it is low glycemic, a vegan alternative to honey, and often marketed as a health food product. The fructose content, however, far exceeds that of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is linked to numerous health problems. Agave nectar is hard on the liver, and increases the risk of heart disease and fatty liver disease. It may also lead to insulin resistance. Furthermore, it seems that the production of agave involves some questionable chemical processes very similar to the production of HFCS, so most natural food experts now recommend avoiding agave altogether, as it is not truly a natural sweetener.
Natural Sweetener #7: Palm Sugar
Palm sugar, or arenga sugar, is obtained from the sap of the flowers of several species of palm trees, which is then boiled down to a syrup. Palm sugar from the coconut palm is specifically known as coconut sugar, coconut syrup, or coconut nectar. Palm sugars contain iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, and other vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. They also contain inulin, a fiber which slows the absorption of glucose, and is low in fructose. One notable fact about palms is that when the sap is used for sugars, those flowers will not produce fruit. So while this is a healthy natural sweetener, no coconuts will grow on trees used for coconut sugar, making this practice ultimately unsustainable.
Natural Sweetener #8: Yacon Syrup
The yacon plant is a South American root vegetable that looks similar to a sweet potato. The juices of the root are extracted, filtered, and evaporated until it reaches a thick, dark syrup state. The end result is a natural sweetener that is an excellent source of inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS), and contains only a third of the calories in sugar. The FOS in yacon can help regulate digestion by increasing stool bulk and feeding healthy gut bacteria. Even better, earlier this year, Dr. Oz introduced yacon syrup as a potential weight loss aid. He asked a group of women to eat one teaspoon of yacon syrup with each meal for four weeks, and a whopping 73% of them lost weight! Other research supports Dr. Oz’s results, including a Clinical Nutrition study in which women who used 3-4 teaspoons of yacon syrup a day, cut calories, and exercised, lost an average of 33 pounds and 4 inches off their waists — while those who exercised and cut calories without taking yacon syrup lost nothing. Additional benefits of yacon syrup include lowered insulin levels, better cholesterol, and more frequent bowel movements.
Natural Sweetener #9: Brown Rice Syrup
To make brown rice syrup, cooked brown rice is treated with ezymes to break the starches down into sugars. The result is extremely high in glucose, and thus high on the glycemic index, but very low in fructose. Brown rice syrup is a natural sweetener that is vegan, gluten-free, contains some B vitamins and vitamin K, and very small amounts of minerals, including calcium, magnesium, zinc, potassium, and manganese. A warning: brown rice syrup can contain significant amounts of arsenic, and foods and baby formulas made with this syrup have also been found to have arsenic. Brown rice syrup is also known as “brown rice malt syrup” or simply “rice syrup.”
Natural Sweetener #10: Barley Malt
Barley malt syrup or granules are produced from sprouted barley and contain mostly maltose, some glucose, and very little fructose or sucrose. Barley malt is a natural sweetener containing complex carbohydrates, protein and fiber, making it closer to a “whole food” than most sweeteners. Aside from fruit, barley malt may be one of the healthiest natural sources of sugar. While barley malt is more slowly absorbed by the body than simple sugars, it is not low glycemic. It also contains small levels of gluten, which may be a problem for those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
Natural Sweetener #11: Erythritol
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, derived from cane sugar or corn starch but also naturally found in fruits, that is usually produced by a yeast fermentation and crystallization process. It is very low calorie (0.24 calories per gram, compared to 3.9 calories per gram in white sugar). Erythritol does not cause blood sugar or insulin elevation. In large amounts, it may cause digestive distress.
Natural Sweetener #12: Xylitol (Birch Sugar)
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol derived from birch mark, and is low in calories, with 2.4 per gram. Good for dental health, it has been found to reduce cavities, repair enamel, and prevent decay, which is why it is often added to chewing gum and toothpastes. Xylitol may also improve bone density and protect against osteoporosis. It does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels and is not easily converted to fat. Birch sugar can also help control yeast issues and candida. Xylitol can cause digestive issues when consumed in excess. It is also lethal to dogs, so keep it away from your family pet and wipe up any spills or crumbs immediately.