This article is Part 3 of 3 in my series of articles on sugar. In Part 1 I discuss the negative impacts of sugar on your health. Part 2 covers the dangers of artificial sweeteners. So for this third and final article, I’m going to share some of what I believe to be the top natural sweeteners.
While there are many more natural sweeteners than the ones I list below, I selected these particular sweeteners as my favourite because they are less processed (I even list some whole foods themselves), they provide nutrients along with a pleasant sweet taste and many are low on the glycemic index too! I recommend these sweeteners to use as an alternative to refined white sugar or artificial sweeteners when you need to use some type of sweetener. Just remember that although they are better alternatives to artificial sweeteners and refined white sugar, they are still sweeteners, so moderation is key.
1) Yacon Syrup
One of my favourite go to sweeteners is Yacon syrup. It is derived from the juice of the Yacon root which grows in South America. It is sold in liquid form and I would describe its flavour to be similar to molasses. What makes Yacon syrup one of my top picks is that it is made up of about 50% Fructo-Oligosaccharides (FOS) which are a prebiotic that help to promote friendly bacteria in the gut. Thus unlike refined white sugar which contributes to the overgrowth of bad bacteria, Yacon is actually good for intestinal health.
Yacon syrup has also been shown to have other benefits including regulation of blood sugar and insulin levels, improvement in cholesterol levels, and strengthening the immune system. It is very low glycemic (it scores a 1 on the GI scale) so it will not cause a rapid rise in blood glucose.
One word of caution with Yacon is that it can cause gas and bloating if taken in excessive quantities given that it causes fermentation in the gut (a natural by product of being a prebiotic). It is also quite expensive and not very easy to find. I have to purchase mine from a health food store or natural grocery store.
Lucuma is also another great sweetener. It comes from the pulp of the Lucuma fruit that grows in South America. It is sold in a powder form and has a pleasant taste that resembles maple syrup (only not as sweet). I really enjoy the taste of Lucuma and the fact that it contains calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, zinc, vitamin C, beta-carotene and insoluble fibre! It is suitable to bake with or you can add it to yogurt or your smoothie.
3) Apple Sauce, Bananas, Dates
This is a no brainer to me. These are the ultimate true natural sweeteners! While I’m sure you have no desire to stick a banana in your coffee, I find apple sauce, bananas and dates wonderful to bake with or even to sweeten smoothies. You can mash up bananas and make a banana loaf or cake and that’s all the sweetness you need – no added sugar required. I’ve used chopped up dates with nuts or oats to make homemade granola bars or even the crust for a pie and you can add a couple of dates (just a couple though) to your smoothie if you feel you need the added sweetness. Apple sauce is also great to use in baking.
When you are using these items, you’ll have to experiment and may have to slightly modify the recipe since you are adding in more moisture. A few things to bear in mind; if you are using dates (or other dried fruit for that matter) make sure that they don’t have any added sugar – yes even dried packaged fruit may have added sugar. Same with apple sauce. Check the label. Better yet, if you have a high powered blender or food processor you can make your own apple sauce with your own blend of apples.
4) Raw Unpasteurized Honey
I put raw honey on my list because it is a natural sweetener that contains many nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin C, magnesium, potassium, calcium, zinc, phosphate and more. It helps support good gut bacteria and has anti-bacterial properties. It is also lower on the glycemic index than white sugar. You can add it to your tea instead of white sugar or use it to make your own granola. Make sure you are purchasing raw, unpasteurized honey as pasteurizing the honey will destroy all the nutrients. Do note however that raw unpasteurized honey should not be given to children under the age of 1.
5) Black Strap Molasses
Black strap molasses is a by-product of the production of white sugar. Molasses is a thick syrup with a strong flavour. Like honey, it contains many minerals and vitamins, including iron, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, manganese and potassium. Of the aforementioned minerals, black strap molasses is well known for being a good source of iron and containing the optimal ratio of calcium to magnesium which helps to enhance their absorption. It is also a mild laxative that can help improve regularity. It has a moderate GI at 55, slightly lower than white sugar (which has a GI of 65). Make sure to purchase organic, unsulphured black strap molasses.
6) Coconut Sugar
For those times when you have a recipe that is best made using granulated sugar, coconut sugar would be a better alternative to white sugar. It is ideal for cooking, has a wonderful flavour similar to brown sugar, and is lower on the glycemic index than white sugar (it has a GI of 35). Also, unlike white sugar, it contains some nutrients like potassium and inulin. However, it still has the same calories and carbohydrates as white sugar. Coconut sugar is more costly than white sugar, however, it is fairly easy to find in most grocery stores these days.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol found in fruits, vegetables and some fermented products like soy sauce and beer. Although it is called a sugar alcohol, it doesn’t contain any alcohol. Rather the term ‘alcohol’ refers to the class of compounds it belongs to (along with other common sugar alcohols like xylitol, mannitol and sorbitol). It is chemically a hybrid of a sugar and an alcohol and therefore not technically a sugar, which is why products containing sugar alcohols can be labeled sugar free.
Erythritol is derived by liquefying sucrose and adding a fermenting agent which converts the sucrose to erythritol. It actually resembles and tastes similar to white sugar, however, it’s only about 60% as sweet. It has a GI of 0 and therefore does not cause a rapid rise in blood glucose. Since the majority of erthritol is absorbed before it enters the large intestine, it is not known to cause digestive upset such as cramps, bloating and gas, like many of the other sugars.
The brand of erythritol I have used is Organic Zero. I am not sure what other brand names it would go under in other countries but I welcome your posts in the ‘Leave a comment’ section below if you happen to know. Do note that because erythritol is not as sweet as sugar it is often combined with artificial sweeteners like aspartame when it is used in commercial products. So if you are picking up a product sweetened with erythritol, be sure to read the label and avoid anything containing aspartame or sucralose, as discussed in the article on artificial sweeteners.
Prior to concluding just a small note with regards to xylitol, which as Andrew and Martina confirmed, is pretty popular in Europe. As a matter of fact it is also popular here in North America. Being a sugar alcohol like erythritol it therefore has the same net effect of not being considered a sugar. The issue I have with xylitol is that even though this sweetener is sourced naturally, it exists in birch bark, beets and oats; and most of their commercial varieties are derived from corn which unfortunately in North America tends to be highly genetically modified. However this is not the case in Europe where GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are not allowed. The bottomline is therefore that xylitol derived from Europe is fine. It is however important to note that sugar alcohols can cause gas and bloating if consumed in large amounts with erythritol having the least such impact from the above mentioned sugar alcohols.
So there you have it – my top picks for natural sweeteners. Keep in mind that I’m in no way suggesting that just because these are natural sweeteners they give you a free pass to consume in large quantities. Rather, my intention for this article was to share some better alternatives to artificial sweeteners or refined white sugar (or brown sugar – it’s not any better – don’t be fooled because it’s brown) so you can make a more informed choice. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, they should be consumed in moderation. Remember it’s all about balance.
To fitness with love,