To make it clear right at the beginning. Just because my favorite sugar substitutes are considered “healthier” than refined sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, it doesn’t mean that we can indulge. After all, they are still sugars.
There is nothing “healthy” about sugar, especially in large amounts. No matter the source. It is like the excuse some smokers make when they claim that they smoke cigarettes with filters because they are “healthier” than cigarettes without filters. They are not. In order to be healthy something actually has to promote health. Therefore cigarettes with filters and a healthier sugar substitute is simply less dangerous or less harmful.
However our taste buds and brain loves sugar. Every time sugar dissolves nicely on our taste buds the pleasure center in the brain lights up. Similar in the way cocaine excites the brain. Did you know that the food industry uses this trick to make us buy their products over and over again?
I find there is nothing wrong with feeling pleasure while eating. As a matter of fact I actually think it is the only way we are supposed to eat. The problem with sugar is, that nowadays it is in everything. We just get too much of it. And just like with drugs, the more you have the more you need to be satisfied. It’s a vicious circle.
A healthier sugar substitute comes with some benefit
Do you know how much added sugar you consume a day? According to statistics the biggest consumers are India, the EU, China and Brazil, followed by the US. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition estimated that Americans enjoy 76 grams (18 teaspoons) of added sugar a day, while Canadians have 52 grams (12 teaspoons) per day.
Even though sugar has been linked to diseases like cancer, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, official departments seem to be reluctant to announce a dietary recommendation. The American Heart Association is the only organization that dared to skate on thin ice. It recommended a limit of 21 grams (5 teaspoons) of added sugar a day for moderately active woman. Clearly every one of us exceeds this number on a daily basis. 5 teaspoons of added sugar equals ½ can of coke or ½ cup of my favorite cereal with ½ cup of almond milk. Not much, hey?
Added sugars are pretty much in all processed or prepared foods. Cinnamon buns, brownies and cookies. Added sugars are in salad dressings, BBQ sauces, ketchup and tomato sauce. It’s in flavored yogurt and chocolate milk. It’s in cereals, bars and obviously candy. But the most dreadful ones come in liquid form like coffee drinks, soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks and ice tea.
Before I was studying the nutritional pamphlet of Starbucks a little more closely I enjoyed a 16 oz. Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino with milk and ice occasionally. That’s 60 grams of added sugars right there in one drink. Ops! I have to run 30 minutes to burn that “treat” off.
The bad thing about refined sugar is that it has nothing to offer besides calories (and taste). It is absolutely nutrient blank. So one way we can tackle the sugar issue is that we look for a sugar substitute that at least comes with some nutrients.
1. Whole fruits as a sugar substitute
Apricots – GI 31 Dates – GI 103 Raisins – GI 64 Figs – GI 61
Dried fruits like dates, raisins, figs, cranberries and apricots make a fine sugar substitute. Nuts and dates for instance are perfect ingredients for a tasty and healthier piecrust instead of refined flour and sugar. Raisins sweeten your oatmeal, apricots, figs and cranberries can be a sugar substitute in your homemade energy bars or chocolate balls.
I soak dates in a jar of spring water and use the sugary water to sweeten my Matcha latte. The soft dates go into my green smoothie or recovery pudding after a workout.
However, dried fruits are concentrated sources of simple sugar and are usually higher at the GI index. Two Medjool dates for instance have 29g of sugar and contain 140 calories. But the good thing is they also contain 3g of fiber, potassium, folic acid, niacin, iron and calcium. Apricots for instance contain bioflavonoids, iron, potassium and beta-carotene.
Bananas GI – 51 Unsweetened applesauce – GI 38 Berries – GI low 20’s
Whole fresh fruit is a great source of sweetness, too. Instead of flavored yoghurt, which is full of sugar, you could buy plain yoghurt and add fresh berries with all the goodness. I use unsweetened applesauce and bananas in baking. I also like to blend bananas and put the puree on my pancakes instead of submerging them in fine Canadian maple syrup.
2. Natural sugars and sweeteners as sugar substitute
Natural Sugar – GI 54 1 Tbsp. = 13g of sugar
The access to pure organic maple syrup is a real treat when you live in Canada. It is my go to sweetener. However 1 Tbsp. of the liquid gold has 13g of sugar, so I use it in small amounts for salad dressings, in yogurt or baking.
Maple syrup features over 54 antioxidants and high levels of zinc, manganese and other trace minerals. Zinc is a crucial mineral for your immune system and for sperm health (in case you’re a male).
When you get your hands on maple syrup check the label to make sure it’s formaldehyde free.
Raw, unpasteurized honey
Natural Sugar – GI 55 1 Tbsp. = 16g of sugar
Raw, unpasteurized honey is a splendid sugar alternative. It is a highly concentrated source of many essential nutrients. It contains half of all the amino acids, some minerals and vitamins. Raw honey is rich in amylase, the enzymes that helps to digest sugars. It’s also known for its antibacterial and hygroscopic properties and is a source of antioxidants. Raw honey is not safe for children under 1 year, since they lack sufficient stomach acid to deactivate bacteria spores.
I don’t use raw, unpasteurized honey (NOT pasteurized!!!) for baking, since the heat would destroy some of it health benefits. Enjoy it with your oatmeal, porridge or toast or let is dissolve in a lukewarm beverage.
Hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid make honey a great first aid bandit, since it promotes healing of cuts and burns (which I have often – hidden dangers of the kitchen).
Most low quality stuff sold at supermarkets is pasteurized (heated) and super filtered. Find a local beekeeper that sells honey in its most natural form still in the comb. Next best thing is raw honey in a jar, which has been cleaned without heat. Unpasteurized honey is filtered and could have been heated up to 40 degrees C.
Coconut palm sugar
Natural Sugar – GI 35 1 Tbsp. = 16g of sugar
Thanks to the fiber inulin, coconut palm sugar has a low glycemic index of 35, which makes it great for people with diabetes. However, it still has 60 calories per 1 Tbsp. Minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with other nutrients are an added bonus.
Coconut palm sugar is made from the sap of the coconut tree blossoms and has a bit of the taste of molasses or caramel. Because of its texture it is a good sugar substitute for white or brown sugar in baking.
Natural Sweetener – GI 0 1 Tbsp. = 0g of sugar
If you like it super-duper-sweet than this herb from Paraguay is for you. It has zero calories and is 100% natural. The body actually doesn’t absorb Stevia at all, which means it has no impact on your blood sugar. However, it is incredible sweet (200-300 times sweeter than sugar) and has a light bitter aftertaste.
Despites all its positive aspects I haven’t really found a use for stevia yet. The powder is not a sugar substitute for baking, since it doesn’t add bulk. You could experiment with sweetening your desserts, smoothies, whip cream or baked goods, which do not require the bulk from sugar.
However, if you use stevia than be aware that you’re kind of fooling your body. Your taste buds taste sugar but your body doesn’t actually get any. This could result in cravings afterwards.
Organic unsulfured blackstrap molasses
Sugar Extract – GI 55 1 Tbsp. = 10g of sugar
This sugar substitute is highly nutritious and packed with minerals like iron and potassium as well as vitamins. It has a moderate glycemic load of 55. One Tbsp. contains 60 calories. However, not everyone enjoys the distinct flavor. Try it as a sweetener in your tea or hot cereal. You can also use it in cooking and baking.
Here is a recipe I like Hemp Protein Bars that uses dates, bananas and maple syrup as sugar substitute.
About the Glycemic Index
The Glycemic Index (GI) indicates how quickly 50 grams of carbohydrates of a food will get your blood sugar to rise. Blood sugar spikes cause an insulin response. The lower the GI-number the better. Glucose was used as a common denominator with a GI of 100.
Low GI below 55
Medium GI 56 to 69
High GI above 70
A last note: I do not consider highly processed agave syrup as a healthy sugar substitute.
I don’t have any experience with sugar alcohols like xylitol or erythritol. Leave a note in the comment box if you would like to share your experience with your favorite sugar substitute.
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Sugar substitute – My favorite “healthy” natural sweeteners by Tanja Knapp