By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
You know you need to cut down on sugar… Now comes the hard part—figuring out how: abstinence, sugar substitutes or a combination of both?
(If you haven’t decided to limit your sugar intake, here’s why I think you should.)
Evolution has hardwired us to love sugar. During prehistoric times, when the availability of food was unpredictable, fruit and other foods containing natural sugars were valuable sources of calories. Our brains became conditioned to crave and consume them whenever opportunity presented itself.
Now fast forward to today.
Our brains still send us those same sugar-craving signals. What’s changed is our virtually unlimited 24/7 access to sugary foods—many enhanced with artificial sweeteners that are hundreds of times more potent than natural sugars and are not risk-free, to say the least. A diet full of these foods is a recipe for disaster—and disease—if I’ve ever heard one!
Top Two Tips for Reducing Sugar
If you’re looking to cut back on sugar, I’ve got two bits of advice for you.
The first is, eliminate processed foods. Just get rid of them! Many are full of artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes like high fructose corn syrup. They belong in the trash, not your cupboard.
The second is, ditch white table sugar and switch to natural sweeteners instead.
Benefits of Natural Sweeteners
“Natural sweeteners” are foods that contain enough of their own naturally occurring sugars that they can be used as sugar substitutes.
I’ll concede that when you use a natural sweetener, you’re still technically “adding sugar” to your food. But because natural sweeteners are consumed in the form nature made them—as opposed to heavily processed and concentrated alternatives—they’re more in line with our ancestral brain wiring and our bodies’ natural chemistry.
For example, many natural sweeteners have a lower glycemic index than table sugar (sucrose). Though they do raise blood sugar, it’s not by as much as table sugar—so insulin spikes tend to be less intense.
Also, because natural sweeteners come from plant foods, they contain vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients (e.g., antioxidant polyphenols) not found in table sugar and other sweeteners. They have the ability to help nourish the body while satisfying your sweet tooth.
My Recommended Natural Sugar Substitutes
There are many natural sweetener options to choose from, but two stand head and shoulders above the rest: honey and maple syrup.
Many people use honey to sweeten tea, cereals, and yogurt, but most probably aren’t aware of just how wide ranging the benefits of this natural sweetener are.
Animal research has shown that consuming honey results in less weight gain and obesity compared to sucrose (table sugar). Another study suggests that eating honey can raise the level of antioxidant polyphenols in the blood, which helps reduce inflammation and fight free-radical activity. Honey is also a traditional therapy for suppressing coughs, fighting seasonal allergies, healing burns and other wounds, and promoting better sleep.
Honey does have a couple downsides, however. Its glycemic index is on the higher side (though still less than table sugar), and you can’t cook with it. Heat destroys the healthy compounds, so it’s best to use honey straight out of the jar.
Most importantly, to take advantage of the benefits of honey, you must consume raw honey.
Raw honey is the purest form of honey. It’s collected from the hive and then filtered to remove large particles of beeswax and dead insects. There is no additional processing, which is why the finished product may appear opaque or contain insect parts or wax. Those are not contaminants—they are proof that the honey is real!
This is important because a few years back, a study commissioned by the website FoodSafetyNews.com found that “more than three-fourths of honey sold in U.S. grocery stores isn’t exactly what the bees produce…. the pollen frequently has been filtered out.”
Without the pollen, you’re basically left with a sugary syrup—and while it still may be “natural” and it may sweeten your tea, you’ll miss out on all of the other health benefits.
I like to buy honey from local beekeepers or from farmers markets where those producers sell their stock. Their product is usually filtered but unprocessed, so you can be sure your honey is authentic.
When the water in the sap of maple trees boils off, you’re left with pure maple syrup—a favorite here in New England.
In addition to tasting great, maple syrup is rich in the minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese. It also has been found to contain more than 50 health-supporting compounds, including some with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
One study has even shown that maple syrup might inhibit the proliferation of colorectal cancer cells. Another found it contains abscisic acid, a phytochemical that enhances insulin sensitivity.
Like honey, there are a lot of imposters on store shelves. When shopping, buy only pure maple syrup. Stay away from maple-flavored products, which often are no more than corn syrup with a little maple added for taste and color. Sometimes these lesser-quality products are labeled as pancake and/or waffle syrups; avoid them.
If you live in a region where maple syrup is produced, I recommend buying from local producers. One more tip: Research shows that minerals, as well as antioxidant polyphenols, are more concentrated in the darker varieties—so opt for those if you have the luxury of comparison.
Other Sugar Substitute Options
Of course, you’re not limited to honey and maple syrup when it comes to natural sweeteners. To give your taste buds additional variety, you could try:
Fresh Fruit Juice
Fruit is naturally sweet, which makes turning it into a sweetener extraordinarily simple. Just squeeze some fresh juice from grapes, oranges, peaches, or pears into whatever you’re eating. Remember, though, that fruit juice alone will have a more significant impact on blood sugar than the entire fruit. The difference is the fruit’s natural fiber, which in this case, you’re leaving behind.
Cinnamon, Cloves & Nutmeg
These spices are recognized for their distinctive flavors, but they also contain trace amounts of natural sugar. Combined with each spice’s unique flavor, those sugars can trick you into believing you’re eating something much sweeter than you actually are. Give it a try by substituting cinnamon for brown sugar on your next sweet potato or bowl of oatmeal.
Dried Apple, Coconut, or Dates
Take advantage of these options by grinding them into a powder or paste.
Remember, “Moderation, Moderation…and Moderation”
I can’t conclude without reminding you that while these natural sweeteners may be less toxic than high-fructose corn syrup and white table sugar, they are still forms of sugar. All of them will raise blood sugar, and all of them will elicit an insulin response—which means that if you want to protect your health, you must limit how much of them you consume.
What About Stevia and Xylitol?
Great question! Both of these products are marketed as natural, low- or no-calorie sugar substitutes that won’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels. At the end of the day, I’d rather you go natural and get used to your food being less sweet than load your food up with these processed sugar substitutes.
I’m okay with Xylitol when used sparingly in recipes that would normally include a lot of table sugar, but rather it be more of a here-and-there kind of substitute. Xylitol is more heavily processed than you would expect—including a step that requires the use of a heavy metal (nickel-aluminum) alloy. Most Xylitol is now produced from corn cobs, husks, and stalks, not birch bark, as in days past. Given how much corn is now genetically modified, I caution you not to become to reliant on Xylitol.
Also please note if you have dogs in your home: Xylitol is EXTREMELY toxic to dogs.
Stevia, on the other hand, is an acceptable choice if you have diabetes and need a sweetener that won’t affect your glucose level. It’s also a processed product, but to my knowledge, neither heavy metals nor GMO plants are involved. Stevia does have one side effect to be aware of—it may actually lower blood sugar. If you’re on blood sugar–lowering medication for diabetes, or take insulin, you’ll want to be mindful of this. And remember, a little stevia goes a long way—so less is more!
My bottom line with natural sweeteners? Use them… with moderation.
- Carter DA, et al. Therapeutic Manuka Honey: No Longer So Alternative. Front Microbiol. 2016;7:569.
- Guri AJ, et al. Dietary abscisic acid ameliorates glucose tolerance and obesity-related inflammation in db/db mice fed high-fat diets. Clin Nutr. 2007 Feb;26(1):107–16.
- Li L and Seeram NP. Maple syrup phytochemicals include lignans, coumarins, a stilbene, and other previously unreported antioxidant phenolic compounds. J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Nov 24;58(22):11673–9.
- Medical News Today. 54 Beneficial Compounds Discovered in Pure Maple Syrup. 3 Mar 2011. Accessed October 14, 2016.
- Medical News Today. Disease-Fighting Anti-Oxidants Discovered in Pure Maple Syrup. 23 Mar 2010. Accessed October 14, 2011.
- Mendosa D. Revised International Table of Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) Values—2008. Accessed October 13, 2016.
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- Nutrition Data. Honey. Accessed October 14, 2016.
- Nutrition Data. Syrups, Maple. Accessed October 14, 2016.
- Schneider, A. Tests Show Most Store Honey Isn’t Honey: Ultra-filtering Removes Pollen, Hides Honey Origins. Food Safety News. 7 Nov 2011. Accessed October 14, 2016.
- Singh AS, Jones AM, and Saxena PK. Variation and correlation of properties in different grades of maple syrup. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2014 Mar;69(1):50–6.
- Yamamoto T, et al. Inhibitory effect of maple syrup on the cell growth and invasion of human colorectal cancer cells. Oncol Rep. 2015 Apr;33(4):1579–84.
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