11 Natural Alternatives to Refined Sugar – Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
Refined sugar is used in many recipes and foods. However, having too much sugar in one’s diet is very unhealthy. It seems that including any form of artificial sweetener or fructose in your diet is actually worse for you than consuming table sugar itself. So, what do you switch to for a viable alternative sweetener to replace sugar in your diet? Despite what you may have been told, there are natural sugar substitutes that do not have the same health risks and can be safely included in your diet.
These alternatives will be discussed below. Before doing so, it is important to note that too much of anything is never good. For example, one of the natural alternatives is fruit juice. Having too much fruit juice means taking in too many calories. There is a downside to having too much of anything. However, in moderation, the following mentioned alternatives will be great for replacing refined sugar.
11 Natural Alternatives to Refined Sugar
One of the natural alternatives to refined sugar is honey. It is a sweet replacement. Many people say that honey is a better option than all other kinds of sweeteners. Metabolic disease and liver disease have studies linking them to high fructose consumption.
Since honey has less fructose than table sugar, it is healthier. There are more calories is a teaspoon of honey than there is in a teaspoon of sugar but less honey needs to be used than sugar so that works out fine. Additionally, honey has nutrients and antioxidants which refined sugar doesn’t have. The antioxidants help to protect cells. In many studies, honey reduced the risk of cardiovascular diseases, healing burns and wounds, treating symptoms of diabetes and helping to decrease LDL cholesterol. (1)
2. Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is another great alternative instead of using refined sugar. When this is cultivated, it is made of 52%, maltotriose, 45% maltose and 3% glucose. It is important, for health reasons, to get the organic version of brown rice syrup. This alternative helps in keeping blood sugar level and making healthy baking products. It is also free of fructose as well (2).
3. Blackstrap Molasses
Another replacement for refined sugar is blackstrap molasses. This is a thick syrup product and comes from the raw sugar cane. The glycemic index is low compared to the white sugar. It helps to stabilized blood sugar. This alternative has copper, iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and zinc. The blackstrap molasses helps with many health conditions including constipation, anemia, bladder problems, gallstones, varicose veins, high blood pressure levels, skin disorders, ulcers and arthritis. This is a sweet option that is full of nutrients. (2)
4. Date Sugar
Date sugar is another alternative for refined sugar. It is considered to be the healthiest alternative as well. This consists of dates that have been dried out and ground up. The date sugar is high in antioxidants. There is a lot of fiber and phytonutrients in this alternative which makes it great for baking just about anything (2).
5. Maple Syrup
Another sweet alternative to refined sugar is maple syrup. This has a deep and sweet taste that makes it great for baking. Pure maple syrup is great for the immune system. It has a lot of zinc and manganese in it. There is only 40% fructose. This has been known to help treat irritable bowel syndrome symptoms, reduce exhaustion and improve concentration. (3)
6. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is another substitute for refined sugar. It is created from sap of a coconut tree. Many people think it tastes like brown sugar. When cooked, the melt temperature is low and it can burn easily. This alternative is lower on the glycemic index. This means those who have diabetes should use this over refined sugar. There are about the same amount of carbohydrates and calories in coconut sugar as refined sugar. When buying this alternative, check the ingredients to make sure it isn’t mixed with other things (4).
7. Fruit Juice
Many people wouldn’t consider this but 100% fruit juice would make a great replacement for refined sugar. Mashed bananas, apple sauce, prunes or pureed dates could work as an alternative as well. These all have a bit of a sweet taste and would be great in baking dishes and smoothies, instead of using refined sugar. If this is the option used, be sure to stay away from concentrated juices. (3)
8. Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is another choice for replacing refined sugar. This comes from agave plants and is mildly sweet. The only problem with this is the very high fructose content, at 90%, is much worse than refined sugar. As long as only tiny portions of this are used, it works as a better alternative to refined sugar. This is another alternative that should only be used to replace refined sugar if the organic versions are chosen (3).
9. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is a great replacement for refined sugar. Some people who have Type II diabetes have used yacon root in their treatment plan. This is an option that helps in the regulation of blood glucose levels. It helps the body from taking in simple sugars which benefits the liver greatly as well.
Yacon syrup has also been known to reduce LDL cholesterol levels. It stops cholesterol from building up in arteries which improves heart health. This alternative is also beneficial is the reduction of high blood pressure as well. (5)
Stevia is a popular choice for a natural sweetener that’s safe and has been used for thousands of years. If you are on a fat loss diet and need to count your calories, then you can’t afford to give up calories to sugar. Stevia tastes sweeter than sugar and has no calories, making it the ideal sweetener for anyone watching their weight.
Studies into stevia show that it has other health properties as well. The concentrate, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar in the same quantity, has a mild effect on reducing hypertension. Hypertension is known as, ‘The silent killer’ because its symptoms often go unnoticed or unchecked.
Reduce the refined sugar in your diet and replace it with stevia. The effect on your blood glucose will be dramatic, over time your insulin sensitivity will improve and you will lose adipose tissue at a rapid rate. However, before you make the move, check with your doctor, Stevia has been known to interact with certain medications, so make sure you are cleared to use it before you add it to your diet. (6)
Pure glucose, also known as dextrose is available from any online supplement retailer. Dextrose is cheap and available in bulk supply, and around 75% percent as sweet as table sugar, meaning that you will have to use more to get the same level of sweetness.
Dextrose is slightly more expensive than table sugar, but when you consider the serving size cost, it’s cheaper than most artificial sweeteners. Dextrose does contain calories but it has not fructose in it and does not pose the potential health risks associated with artificial sweeteners.
Use dextrose in tea or coffee, add it to shakes, or use it anywhere you would table sugar for natural sugar substitute that’s safe and cost efficient. (7)
Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe?
It can be misleading to think that just because you are eating something other than sugar that it automatically becomes better or healthier for you. Consuming certain artificial sweeteners can actually be worse for your health than eating table sugar. A lot of research has been done into sweeteners and their effects on human health, much of the research findings point to the fact that the majority of artificial sweeteners contain dangerous chemical compounds that have damaging effects on the body when ingested.
However, there are natural sugar substitutes that can be used safely in your diet. Here is a breakdown of the artificial sweeteners you should avoid and the natural sugar alternatives that can be used to replace table sugar in your diet. (8)
4 Commonly Used Artificial Sweeteners
1. Saccharin – The Accidental Discovery of Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners were originally synthesized by complete accident. The first ever artificial sweetener was formulated by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879. Fahlberg was working on a research project in his lab and spilled some of the compound on his hand. When he returned home that evening he tasted some of the chemical on his skin and found that it was incredibly sweet.
Fahlberg then synthesized the first ever batch of artificial sweetener which he named ‘Saccharin’ after the Latin ‘saccharum’, which translates to ‘sugar’. Saccharin was sold commercially available to the public but seldom used. However, the First World War led to rationing of sugar and it wasn’t long before the pink Saccharin packets could be found in diners, coffee shops, and homes all over the United States and Europe.
Saccharin continued to be used all throughout both the fists and second World Wars. In 1960, saccharin was studied by researchers who found that the sweetener caused the development of bladder cancer in rats. The fallout from the studies shook the FDA into action, who then proceeded to ban saccharin from being used in any form. Further research on saccharin and its effects on the body have revealed that it has no cancer causing effect and the ban on saccharin was lifted. (9)
2. Aspartame – The Evolution of Artificial Sweeteners
First synthesized in 1965 by Mr. James Schlatter, aspartame found its creation in much the same manner as Fahlberg discovered saccharin. Schlatter was working on a drug to treat ulcers when he spilled some of the compound on his fingers. He later discovered the compounds incredible sweetness when he licked his fingertips to turn a page in his notes.
Aspartame was approved for use as a sweetener by the FDA in 1981 and gained full approval for commercial use in 1991. Since then, aspartame has become the world’s most popular artificial sweetener and is used in many commercial food products such as diet versions of soft drinks.
Many people have made claims that aspartame consumption can lead to a wide variety of health issues. Birth defects, cancer development, and weight gain are some of the reported negative side-effects of aspartame consumption. Aspartame has undergone multiple studies into the compounds involved in its formulation and the final product itself. Aspartame is composed of three ingredients, phenylalanine and aspartic acid, bound together with a methyl ester bond.
Aspartame has undergone harsh criticism from the health industry. Critics suggest that the amino acids in aspartame metabolize into the dangerous chemicals formaldehyde and wood alcohol. The argument for the pro-aspartame camp says that the minimal amount of aspartame contained in food products is not great enough to impact human health. The argument for the pro-health camp states that the volume of the amino acids delivered in aspartame sweetened products can be up to five times greater than the recommended safe levels.
Both sides of the argument have credible research to support their claims. However, the FDA continues to keep aspartame on their list of safe sweeteners. The negative research results have not managed to stop aspartame from gaining a huge share of the artificial sweetener market. Many of the world’s most well-known household sweeteners such as NutraTaste, Canderel, and Equal are all aspartame-based products. (10)
3. Sucralose – Also Known As Splenda
Sucralose is made via a five-stage patented process. Sucralose is created by adding three chlorine molecules to a sugar molecule. The primary health argument with sucralose is that the bond is covalent, meaning that it does not breakdown or dissociate in the body. These covalent bonds do not occur anywhere in natural foodstuffs making sucralose a totally man-made chemical sweetener.
Our body is not designed to metabolize a covalently bound chemical structure like sucralose, as it does not have the necessary enzymes available for the task. Sucralose is meant to pass right through your system without being absorbed making it a calorie-free sweetener. However, research has indicated that up to 15% of sucralose is absorbed by your system and stored by the body.
The scientific research around sucralose products such as ‘Splenda’ show disturbing results. The first issue is that the trials on sucralose were conducted over just four days, barely enough time to judge a long-lasting physical effect. The second issue is that of the hundreds of tests, all of them have been done on animals, with only eight human subjects studied in the research
The most alarming results of the studies in animals are the side-effects experienced by the test subjects. The research revealed that the animals developed serious health conditions such as; signs of anemia, calcified and enlarged kidneys, birth defects, and in some cases, death. The FDA wrote these results off as inconsequential being that the amount consumed in a serving size for humans would not yield the same health risks as the dose was insignificant. (11)
4. Acesulfame Potassium
A lesser known artificial sweetener, acesulfame potassium, was discovered by Hoechst AG in 1967. The FDA approved its use in dry foods and gum in 1992 and by 1998 it had received full clearance by the FDA for use in liquids as well. As soon as the approval process was finalized, Pepsi announced that it would be including the artificial sweetener in a new diet product named ‘Pepsi One’. (12)
What are Sugar Alcohols?
Xylitol and maltitol are examples of common sugar alcohols that are frequently used as sweeteners in chewing gum products. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories and do not have as sweet a taste as table sugar. Different sugar alcohols have different reactions when consumed.
2 Commonly Used Sugar Alcohols
Maltitol, like the majority of sugar alcohols, is not completely absorbed by the body resulting in abdominal bloating, gas, and diarrhea when consumed in large enough quantities. Maltitol also has an effect of spiking blood sugar, inducing insulin release.
Pure xylitol does not increase blood glucose levels as much as the other sugar alcohols do and it is more readily absorbed by the body. Xylitol is reasonably safe to use as a sugar substitute, however, it will still contain calories, so make sure you include them in your diet plan. (13)
Other Sugar Substitutes to Avoid
Fructose is a natural form of sugar found in fruit. However, just because it is natural, does not mean that it is healthy. The fiber in fruit slows the digestion of the sugars. When fruit is processed and the fiber is eliminated, fructose is rapidly absorbed and spikes blood glucose levels. This effect releases insulin into the blood, storing the excess energy as adipose tissue, also known as body fat.
2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
There is a form of fructose known as HFCS, High Fructose Corn Syrup. Fructose and HFCS can be found in many consumer products such as soda, candy, chips, cookies, fast food, fruit drinks, and preserved meals, to improve flavor and extend shelf life. Most of these convenience foods have high levels of HFCS or fructose in their ingredients and as a result a high-calorie count.
The Western diet has led to increases in cases of health disorders and diseases related to excess calorie consumption from convenience foods. Cases of obesity and diabetes are now commonplace in children and adults all across America and Europe. Excess consumption of refined carbohydrates such as HFCS and fructose have been linked to other serious diseases as well.
High blood glucose levels have been linked to lower production of HDL cholesterol, the good kind of cholesterol. At the same time, it increases levels of LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol and increases the total amount of cholesterol triglycerides in the blood. Hypertension, atherosclerosis, and heart disease have all been linked to diets high in refined carbohydrates such as HFCS and fructose.
A popular fructose-based sweetener is Agave, known for its interesting flavor and aroma. While using a serving of agave is not cause for concern, using it to replace sugar is pointless as fructose may spike blood glucose even more than table sugar. (7)
The goal of reducing sugar intake in your diet is to reduce inflammation and eliminate worthless calories with low nutritional value. Changing to a fructose-based sugar substitute is by far the worst option as it has an even greater negative effect on your health than table sugar.
The side effects of chemical compounds found in artificial sweeteners also make them a poor choice for a sugar replacement, however, they have a low calorie value and do not spike blood glucose levels.
There are many great options to replace refined sugar, however it is important to note that any of these options should still only be used in small to moderate portions.The best choice for your health is a safe, natural sugar substitute such as raw honey or stevia, with stevia being the undisputed winner for a calorie-free sweetener option with no negative side effects.
Taking in too much of any of these increases calorie and/or fructose intake. However, it should be known that studies have been done on these refined sugar alternatives. The results show great promise for improving overall health and helping to treat various health issues. Refined sugar doesn’t provide any of the above-mentioned benefits. Anyone looking for substitutes for refined sugar, should try out the above alternatives.