Sugar is a hot, hot topic at the moment. It’s no wonder that the glowing faces of wellness gurus and the sugar-demonizing food documentaries who profess the wonders of clean eating can make you reconsider all the things you’ve ever put in your body. Cutting down on refined sugars is certainly beneficial, but it can be hard to know where to start. So I set out on a quest for knowledge, and decided to share my findings with you.
These are the initial questions I had that you may be thinking too:
What makes natural sugars so much better than the granulated white sugar we’re used to?
Are artificial sweeteners really that bad for me?
What about the sugar that naturally occurs in fruit?
Should I just stop eating sugar all together??
The answer is… It’s up to you. Sound like a cop out? Unfortunately there is no one and only best diet, and the truth is, it can be different for everyone. All these questions may just make you want to forget about the whole thing and go about your sugary days, but it’s not as hard as you think! Just promise me you’ll take the time to learn about some natural sugar alternatives? Ok read on.
First and foremost,
SUGAR (IN MODERATION) IS NOT INHERENTLY BAD
Let’s start by defining a refined versus unrefined sugar. Refined sugars are highly processed until they have no nutritional value whatsoever. They can even possibly be bleached by bovine bones and contain harmful added chemicals! Unrefined sugars on the other hand retain more trace essential nutrients like calcium, iron, and magnesium.
A a quick way to determine whether your food contains refined sugar is to read the nutrition label. I can’t recommend reading the labels on your food enough. The reality is, sugar is in more things than you may even realize. Try reading the label on your pasta sauce or that 100 calorie Greek yogurt. Packed with hidden sugar, right? Quick Tip: If the label contains something ending in -ose or -ide that’s sugar masquerading as one of its more scientific names.
In this guide I’m going to break down some natural alternatives to refined sugar in two separate categories- dry and liquid sweeteners. And I’ve even included some fun recipes for you to try!
- Sucanat gets its name from the phrase “sugar cane natural”. Typical sugar processing separates the sugar and molasses content, while Sucanat is made by keeping them together. Sucanat is great because normally all the nutrients stay with the molasses during processing and since the granules are naturally bonded it blends well with other ingredients.
Recipe to Try: Peanut Butter Homemade Protein Bars
- Cane Sugar is made from the juice of the sugarcane. It is the precursor to the refining process that turns sugar into the white and brown sugar varieties we’re accustomed to. It’s made up of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, whereas table sugar is all sucrose.
Recipe to Try: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Glazed Donuts
- Coconut Sugar is derived from the sap of the coconut palm tree. It’s known for it’s relatively low glycemic index because it contains a fiber called Inulin which helps slow glucose absorption (about half as slow as regular table sugar). Also, it closely subs 1:1 for your traditional granulated sugar in baking making it a great starter for unrefined sugars.
Recipe to Try: Dark Chocolate Raspberry Coconut Oatmeal Cookies
- Jaggery comes from the sap of palm trees or sugarcane juice making it extremely popular in South and Southeast Asia. This relatively unknown sugar is slightly less sweet than maple syrup and has a flavor composition similar to brown sugar. The scientific or technical definition of jaggery is an amorphous form of unrefined and non-distilled sugar prepared from the sap or the juice of plants that contains a considerable amount of sucrose or sugar. This includes things like sugar cane and certain palms like date palm and Palmyra.
Recipe to Try: Dark Chocolate Walnut Wholewheat Cake
- Honorable mentions go to Turbinado, Demara, Muscavado. While not entirely unprocessed, these three sugars are considered “raw” and still better for you than your standard refined white sugar. These three can seem very similar, but in fact each have a unique depth of flavor varying from a honey to molasses flavor. Their granulated texture makes them good for baking.
- Honey is the natural sweetener we’re all probably familiar with. Honey is made by honeybees from the nectar of flowering plants. The nutritional composition of honey varies depending on where/what kind of plants the nectar was collected from, but interestingly enough honey contains beneficial antioxidants. If you want the full benefits that honey offers go for a raw honey option.
Recipe to Try: Pina Colada Granola
- Maple Syrup and I’m not talking about the kind with Aunt Jemima’s face on it! The benefits of this sweetener will only come from 100% pure maple syrup made from the sugary sap of maple trees. Maple syrup is particularly high in manganese and zinc. Like the rest of these sweeteners, maple syrup still has a high sugar content and is primarily sucrose. To put it this way, the glycemic index of maple syrup is 54 while regular table sugar sits around 65. If you want the maximum antioxidant benefit of maple syrup then your best bet is to go for a Grade B syrup.
Recipe to Try: Raw Peppermint Oreos
- Agave Nectar gets a lot of backlash because although it’s marketed as a natural sweetener, it has a VERY high fructose content. On the surface it appears healthy because it’s low in glucose, which means it’s low on the glycemic index and won’t spike your blood sugar, but there are increasingly more studies that point to fructose being a major contributor to obesity because of the way it is processed through the liver. Agave can even have more fructose than high fructose corn syrup!
Recipe to Try: Strawberry, Watermelon, and Feta Salad
- Brown Rice Syrup is a product of culturing rice with enzymes to break down starches until a liquid sugar is released. Brown rice syrup actually contains more calories per serving and has a higher glycemic index than table sugar AND because it’s less sweet, it requires more volume to get a similar result. The main thing brown rice syrup has going for it is that it’s 100% glucose and no fructose, meaning it can be metabolized by all of the body’s cells and not just the liver.
Recipe to Try: Brown Rice Crispy Treats
Finally don’t forget about the healthiest and most natural sugar out there! FRUIT! Obviously fruit contains natural sugars, but the fiber and nutrients in them make them exponentially better for us than any refined or unrefined sugar. Dates and overripe bananas are my favorite way to add a little sweetness to smoothies and baked goods if you don’t want to always eat fruit plain.
Recipe to Try: Vanilla Date Smoothie
The conclusion seems to be that natural, unrefined sugars are “slightly less bad” than regular sugar in the sense that they’re not a health food and should still be eaten in moderation. Although a lot of these natural sweeteners lay claim to have more nutrients that refined sugar, we should approach them with moderation irrespective of the nutrients they carry. Either way they’re much better than the artificial sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup!
So have fun! Play around with these sweeteners. And most importantly, listen to your body! If you’re really craving something sweet go ahead and have a treat. Maybe try subbing some of these natural sugars where you would normally be using refined sugars. And with that I’ll leave you with one fun fact of the day. Did you know that a “sugar high” isn’t a real thing? Yeah I was pretty shocked to discover that.
*Full disclosure, I am not a nutritionist or registered dietician, just a girl with a passion for learning about nutrition. If you have serious health concerns be sure to take it up with a medical professional.
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