Sugar is arguably one of the most damaging foods to include in your diet. Despite the ubiquity of sugar in the modern diet, most people are unaware of the significant negative health effects of consuming sugar. The human body isn’t built to absorb the extremely high sugar content of most of the food that is commonly available today.
Processed sugar, and a number of sugar alternatives, are linked to a broad spectrum of diseases and health disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even cancer. An even more concerning fact about sugar is the proven neurological effects it has on the brain– sugar is able to cause addiction that is just as powerful and as hard to kick as an opiate dependency.
There are, however, a number of natural sweeteners that are able to provide a flavor hit without the negative health impact associated with sugar or synthetic chemical sweeteners. In this article, we’ll present information on the ways in which sugar damages your body as well as a list of healthy sugar alternatives.
The Health Risks Of Sugar
The health impact of sugar has only recently come to the attention of the medical and nutritional community. The reasons for this are complex, but can be traced back to interference by the sugar industry in early clinical research. In the early 1950’s a sugar industry-funded association called the Sugar Research Foundation paid Harvard University researchers a large sum of money to produce a biased research report that directed attention away from sugar as a health risk, targeting dietary fat instead.
This industry interference with the scientific investigative process had a dramatic influence on the legislative decisions made by the FDA on the regulation of sugar and the permissible sugar content of consumer goods, an action that has recently come to light due the the investigative efforts of a research team at the University of California. As a result, the public perception of the dangers of sugar consumption has been minimized, with excessive sugar content becoming de rigueur in the food manufacturing industry.
More recent medical investigations into the health effects of sugar on the human body have revealed a darker truth. In 2014, a study performed by a research team composed of members from a wide variety of research institutions, including the Center for Disease Control and Harvard University, found that sugar consumption has a strong and demonstrable link to an increased risk of heart disease induced death.
The study, which assessed information taken from nutritional surveys of the entire US population between 1988 and 2010, found that individuals whose total daily caloric intake was sourced from more than 17% sugar were more than 38% more likely to develop a cardiac disease that resulted in death. This risk increases exponentially with higher consumption levels- individuals sourcing 20% of their caloric intake from sugar more than twice as likely to die from a cardiovascular disease.
This information is extremely concerning when the high caloric content of sugar is taken into consideration. The average American citizen consumes 19.5 teaspoons of sugar every day, which equates to 418 calories of sugar-sourced energy. The average human caloric intake is around 2200 calories daily, which means almost every American is consuming sugar at a rate that places them far beyond the 20% sugar caloric content threshold that can double the risk of heart disease and death.
Aside from heart disease, sugar causes a significant number of other health disorders and diseases. Sugar has been proven to be a direct cause of fatty liver disease, a condition that leads to type 2 diabetes. The symptoms of this condition include obesity, abdominal pain, chronic fatigue, and inflammation of the liver.
Sugar and Diabetes
Sugar is also directly linked to type 2 diabetes. A health condition in which the body becomes unable to regulate the levels of sugar in the blood, type 2 diabetes is caused by a resistance to insulin, the hormone that the body uses to counteract the activity of sugar in the bloodstream. A diabetes statistics report released by the CDC demonstrates that more than 10% of the American population sufferers from type 2 diabetes, of which the symptoms include constant hunger and fatigue, blurred vision, obesity, and even necrosis of the limbs.
When the body becomes unable to regulate blood sugar levels due to insulin resistance, the extremely high sugar content of the blood damages the nerves and blood vessels of the body. If left untreated, type 2 diabetes can lead to blindness, heart failure, kidney disease, or even loss of limb.
Most concerning, however, is the scientifically-proven link between sugar consumption and cancer. There are several clinical trials that have been released in the last decade that demonstrate a strong correlation between sugar and the development of cancerous tumors. A 2016 clinical trial demonstrated that high sugar diets are able to increase the risk of developing cancer by more than 55%.
Overall, it’s clear that sugar consumption is incredibly bad for the human body. One of the best moves you can make to protect your long term health is kicking sugar from your diet, or at least minimizing your total sugar consumption. Kicking sugar doesn’t mean removing sweetness from your diet entirely, however. Let’s take a look at some of the healthy sugar replacements that can be used to sweeten food without damaging the body:
4 Healthy Sugar Replacements
There are a number of naturally-occurring compounds and substances that are just as sweet, or even more so, than sugar. There are healthy types of sugar, but if you’re seeking to completely remove sugar from your diet altogether, consider using these ingredients:
Stevia is one of the most popular sugar alternatives in the world. Extracted from the leaves of the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant that grows throughout Asia and Southeast Asia, stevia has a number of interesting properties that make it a superior sweetener to sugar.
Stevia is between 250 and 300 times sweeter than sugar, and contains absolutely no calories. This unique herbal extract has been used by Asian cultures as a sweetener for thousands of years, but only came to the attention of the western world in the late 1950’s. The sweet taste of stevia has a slower onset than sugar, but a longer duration, and has an almost nonexistent effect on blood sugar levels.
The use of stevia as a safe sugar alternative is backed up by a large amount of clinical evidence. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that stevia offers significant sweetening properties with no negative health effects. Stevia has even been demonstrated to offer a number of actively positive health benefits.
A meta-study on the health effects of stevia conducted by a team of nutritional researchers in 2010 observed links between stevia consumption and increased insulin sensitivity, decreased appetite, and overall satiety, or the sensation of “fullness” after a meal. Stevia also contains a chemical compound called stevioside, which has been shown to lower blood pressure, delivering a positive effect on cardiovascular health.
If you’re looking for a potent natural sweetener that’s more powerful than sugar with none of the health impact, stevia is the best option available. It should be noted, however, that stevia can sometimes have a licorice-like aftertaste in some extracts. If you’re not a fan of licorice, or want a sugar alternative that has a faster onset, continue on to read about some more healthy sugar alternatives.
Stevia fast facts:
- Stevia is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar
- Stevia can lower blood pressure and increase insulin sensitivity
- Stevia contains 0 calories
2. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is a little-known sweetening agent that is extracted from the roots of the Yacon plant, which grows in the mountainous regions of the Andes. Used as a traditional food additive by the Incas, Yacon is a common commodity throughout Bolivia and Peru, but has received little attention in the United States.
Yacon is made through an evaporative process that is similar to the process used to create maple syrup. Similar in consistency to molasses, the syrup derived from the Yacon plant is dark in color and has been linked to weight loss and increased metabolic action. The weight loss effects of yacon syrup are actually the primary reason for the recent media attention focused on this unique sweetener- the Dr Oz Show, a popular American health advice program, featured the substance in an episode on weight loss secrets.
The sweet flavor of Yacon Syrup is caused by an extremely high content of fructooligosaccharides- up to 50% of the syrup consists of these sweetening compounds. Fructooligosaccharides aren’t converted into blood glucose by the digestive system- they pass through the system and are broken down in the colon by bacteria. The sweetening agents in yacon syrup actually contribute to the dietary fibre section of the diet, not to sugar intake, and have a very low caloric content.
Similarly to stevia, yacon syrup has been demonstrated in clinical trials to have a positive effect on insulin resistance, and was even proven in a 2009 clinical trial to have a beneficial effect on body fat, lowering waist circumference size, body weight, and body mass index. Yacon also has a high antioxidant content- a 2016 meta-study performed by the Sao Paulo State University observed that nearly 1% of the total mass of dried yacon root consists of phenolic compounds, which are potent antioxidants.
While yacon syrup isn’t as sweet as sugar, at around 30% to 50% as sweet, it’s still a highly effective sweetener and has been proven to actually increase the rate at which the body is able to burn fat and can protect the body from oxidative stress, making it almost the exact opposite of sugar.
Yacon syrup fast facts:
- Yacon syrup is roughly half as sweet as sugar
- Yacon syrup promotes weight loss
- Yacon syrup is rich in antioxidants
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol made by fermenting the natural sugar found in corn. First discovered in 1848, this sweetening agent is naturally-occurring and does not affect blood sugar levels, nor does it cause tooth decay. Like yacon syrup, erythritol contains almost no calories, with 95% less total calories than sugar.
Erythritol functions in a similar way to yacon syrup. Although devoid of fructooligosaccharides, erythritol functions in a similar manner. The chemical composition of erythritol can’t be broken down by the human body, and passes through the stomach to the lower intestine, where it then enters the bloodstream and is expelled via urine.
Erythritol is roughly 60%-70% as sweet as sugar, and is completely safe for consumption with no side effects- clinical trials in which more than 20% of the total dietary intake of participants consisted of erythritol caused no negative effects aside from slight nausea and stomach rumbling, although this is in incredibly large doses.
Erythritol is a viable alternative as a sugar replacement, but unfortunately isn’t great for use in baked goods. As erythritol doesn’t attract moisture and is not as soluble as sugar, it has a tendency to dry out baked goods and clump in recipes, so if you’re looking for a sugar replacement for making healthy cinnamon rolls or similar, you may want to consider another natural sweetener.
Erythritol fast facts:
- Erythritol is 95% lower in calories than sugar
- Erythritol is tooth-safe and doesn’t cause cavities
- Erythritol is about 70% as sweet as sugar
Similarly to erythritol, xylitol is a sugar alcohol and is extracted from a range of different berries, mushrooms, oats, sugar cane husks and other fibrous materials. Large scale industrial production of xylitol usually sources the precursor ingredient, xylan, from hardwoods. The name of the substance refers to this extraction process, being a compound word constructed from the Greek xyl, or wood, and itol, or alcohol.
Xylitol has the highest calorie content of the natural sugar alternatives on this list, at 2.43 calories per gram, which is about 60% of the caloric content of sugar. Like the other alternatives provided on this list, xylitol doesn’t affect blood glucose levels or insulin resistance, and has been demonstrated in multiple clinical trials to promote better dental health.
Xylitol isn’t converted by the digestive system into blood glucose, like sugar, but is actually a dietary fibre. Inside the digestive system, xylitol is converted into fatty acids, which provide the body with slow burning energy. A 2011 Japanese meta-study on the metabolic effects of xylitol consumption found that it is actually able to prevent obesity and other metabolic disorders.
Regular xylitol consumption is also able to improve the rate at which the body stocks minerals sourced from dietary content into the composition of the bones. A 2001 clinical trial determined that it is a possible treatment for patients with osteoporosis, as it increases bone volume and overall bone mineral content, acting as a bone health enhancing supplement.
While xylitol has a number of advantages, the high caloric content of the substance means you’re probably better off using one of the other alternatives provided on this list. Xylitol is great, however, for baked goods, and delivers far better results than erythritol in any recipe. Additional caution should be used with xylitol around dogs, however, as it is highly toxic to the canine metabolism.
Xylitol fast facts:
- Xylitol is as sweet as sugar
- Xylitol can improve dental and bone health
- Xylitol, as a sugar alcohol, doesn’t affect blood sugar levels
4 Healthier Natural Sugars
The best way to protect your body from the negative health impact of sugar is probably removing it from your diet entirely, but if you’re not a fan of sugar alcohols or stevia extract, it’s possible to sweeten your food with natural sugars that have less of a health impact than processed sugar. Natural sugars aren’t significantly better than processed sugar, but contain a number of health-enhancing nutrients or properties that make them better for you.
Let’s take a look at some natural sugars that, while still containing just as many calories as processed sugar, can offer a few advantages over their chemically manufactured counterpart.
Honey has been a part of the staple diet for thousands of years. Produced by the honey bee and common throughout the world, honey is high in sugar content but has a number of unique medicinal properties that make it a great alternative to processed sugar.
The health benefits of honey are extensive and widely documented. Honey contains high levels of antioxidants, which has a strong preventative effect against a wide range of diseases. Free radicals, or unbalanced molecules that strip other molecules of electrons, enter the body when it is exposed to pollution, toxins, and other environmental factors. The body uses antioxidants, or molecules that are able to “donate” an electron, to neutralize these free radicals.
When the body is unable to eliminate free radicals due to low antioxidant levels, oxidative stress occurs, which causes inflammation, digestive disorders, impaired immune function and other health issues. Honey has been demonstrated to be extremely rich in antioxidants, promoting overall higher health levels and protecting the body from oxidative stress.
Honey also possesses a number of antibacterial and medicinal properties. A 2011 clinical study published in the Asia Pacific Tropical Medicine Journal demonstrated that honey is able to provide a potent antibacterial effect that is able to destroy antibiotic-resistant pathogen strains, as well as speed up wound healing and promote better immune system health. Honey is also able to lower bad cholesterol levels, lower inflammation, and reduce the overall risk of contracting transmissible diseases.
A 1990 study that compared the use of honey as a sweetener to processed sugar found that, although chemically similar, using honey as a sweetener results in an overall lower blood sugar level and is actually sweeter, concluding that it is a more effective and safer sweetener overall.
Using honey as a sweetener has a wide range of health effects, but also has a distinct taste and isn’t vegan-friendly. Use of honey as a sweetener is generally limited to beverages and baked goods, but isn’t so great at sweetening savoury dishes.
Honey fast facts:
- Honey has medicinal properties that can improve overall health
- Honey is sweeter than sugar and has a smaller impact on blood sugar levels
- Honey is an antibacterial agent that can speed up wound healing
2. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, typically associated with pancakes, is sourced from the evaporated sap of the maple tree. Rich in nutritional value, maple syrup contains high amounts of phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. Similarly to honey, maple syrup contains an extremely high amount of antioxidants and is able to protect the body from oxidative stress.
Maple syrup is around three times sweeter than sugar, but contains just as many calories, and its high sugar content has a similar effect on insulin levels. It does, however, have a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning it’s less likely to cause type 2 diabetes, but should still be consumed in small amounts to prevent health complications.
An interesting property of maple syrup is that it has been demonstrated to provide a degree of protection from cancer. In a 2015 in-vitro trial performed by the Kinki University in Osaka, Japan, colorectal cancer cells were exposed to maple syrup in a controlled environment. The cell proliferation, or growth, of the cancer cells, was significantly inhibited in cancer cultures exposed to maple syrup, implying that the substance possesses several properties that are able to inhibit the development of colorectal cancer.
While maple syrup is rich in antioxidants, it’s almost as bad for the body as processed sugar, but if choosing between the two, is likely the healthier option. Maple syrup, like honey, also has a distinct taste that can interfere with the flavor profile of many recipes.
Maple syrup fast facts:
- Maple syrup is three times sweeter than sugar
- Maple syrup is rich in antioxidants
- Maple syrup may protect against cancer
3. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is another naturally-occurring sugar that is sourced from the sap of the flower buds that grow on the coconut palm. Popular as a sweetening agent for thousands of years throughout Asia and the South Pacific, coconut sugar is commonly mistaken for palm sugar, which is derived from a completely different plant. The sweetness of coconut sugar can vary depending on the extraction method used and the region in which it is manufactured, but is roughly as sweet as processed sugar.
Coconut sugar contains 16 calories per teaspoon, which is the same as sugar, but has a different chemical composition. Mainly composed of sucrose, or regular sugar, coconut sugar also contains about 3% to 9% fructose, which gives is a slightly lower glycemic index than processed sugar. Regular sugar has a glycemic index of 63, while coconut sugar weighs in at 54, which is a little better.
Coconut sugar can be considered to be essentially the same as processed sugar, but has a slightly better micronutrient profile and a slightly lower glycemic index, making it the better choice of the two.
Coconut sugar fast facts:
- Coconut sugar is equivalent to processed sugar, but more nutritious
- Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than processed sugar
- Coconut sugar contains a small amount of antioxidants
Molasses, also known as treacle, is a by-product of the process through which sugar is refined from sugarcane. Notable for its black color and thick, syrupy consistency, molasses is a common ingredient in many baked goods. It should be noted that molasses is essentially the same as sugar and has the same caloric content and glycemic index, so should be taken sparingly, but offers a number of health benefits not found in processed sugar.
A 2007 clinical trial found that molasses is rich in several different antioxidant compounds and can prevent the damage to DNA caused by electron-stealing free radicals. Another clinical trial conducted in 2004 concluded that, when compared to sugar, molasses show promise as a potential treatment of inflammatory bowel disease-induced anemia.
While molasses are sourced from the same raw materials as processed sugar, and has essentially the same caloric content, it does have a better nutritional profile and contains calcium, iron and magnesium.
- Molasses can prevent free radical-induced DNA damage
- Molasses contains several critical micronutrients
- Molasses may help relieve anemia
Unhealthy Sugar Alternatives You Should Avoid
Sometimes, the pursuit of healthy lifestyle habits can lead us to choose alternatives that can be worse for the body than the substances they replace. There are several sugar alternatives that are frequently used in the manufacture of sugar-free products that have been linked to a number of health disorders and should thus be avoided.
Some artificial chemical sweeteners or sugar analogs have been found to interfere with the production of insulin in the body, disrupt hormonal levels, or even cause cancer. Here are a few sugar replacements you should avoid:
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup, or HFCS, has caught a large amount of negative press in recent years due to the wide range of health complications it has been linked to. Created by converting corn starch into fructose, HFCS was first invented in the early 1970’s as an economical alternative to sugar. Commonly used in soda and sweet drinks, HFCS is chemically similar to sugar but is metabolized differently by the body.
HFCS is used extensively in the manufacture of products in the United States, and accounts for almost 40% of total caloric sweetener use. Despite the widespread use of this sweetening agent, many people are unaware that is has been linked to high obesity and dangerous cholesterol levels. A report released by the American Medical Association in 2009 concluded that HFCS contributes more to obesity than processed sugar. Another clinical study has also demonstrated that HFCS increases the risk of developing hypertension and metabolic syndrome.
As an alternative to sugar, HFCS should most definitely be avoided, as it causes all of the negative health effects of sugar but is more prone to causing obesity. To avoid HFCS, always keep an eye on the labels of the food products you purchase, and avoid sweetened carbonated beverages.
2. Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is a sweetener that is derived from the agave plant, which grows throughout Mexico and South America. Sweeter than honey, agave nectar is commonly mistaken for a “healthy” sugar alternative due to its botanical name, but is, in reality, far worse than processed sugar.
Most of the sources that recommend agave nectar as a healthy alternative to processed sugar reference a single clinical trial performed in 2009 by the San Diego State University that concluded agave nectar may have a positive influence on weight gain and obesity. The trail consisted of an extremely small sample size of just 18 ICR mice over 34 days, and failed to observe any statistically significant differences between the agave nectar fed mice and a processed sugar control group.
The chemical composition of agave nectar reveals that it is, in fact, far higher in fructose content than regular sugar, at over 85%. Fructose has been linked to a broad spectrum of health disorders, including increased body weight, obesity, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disorders.
Although agave nectar may sound healthier than processed sugar, and is commonly marketed as such, it should be avoided due to the significant health risks it presents.
Aspartame is a popular non-caloric artificial sweetener that is almost 1000 times sweeter than processed sugar. Extremely popular in the manufacture of sugar-free sweets and chewing gum, aspartame cannot be digested by the human body, and passes through the digestive system without being metabolized.
While aspartame has been approved for distribution by the FDA, recent scientific insight has linked it to increase cancer rates. The sweetener has caused a large amount of controversy due to allegations of conflicts of interest in the FDA approval process, and although it has been conclusively proven to cause cancer, is still permitted to be used as a food additive.
A 2014 clinical trial released by the Ramazzini Institute called for an immediate regulatory re-evaluation due to observations made in an extensive meta-analysis that demonstrated the significant carcinogenic potential of the substance. Another clinical trial released by the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center in 2006 concluded that aspartame causes multipotential carcinogenic effects at a dose of just 20 mg/day, which is far lower than the current FDA acceptable daily intake of 50 mg/day.
While the FDA and various other regulatory bodies around the world have approved aspartame with the caveat that consumers should avoid consuming more than a certain amount every day, it’s safe to say that consuming even a small amount of a known, proven carcinogen is not a very smart idea. Aspartame should be avoided at all costs.
Natural Sugar Alternatives Summary
Removing sugar from your diet is probably one of the best choices you can make to protect your health and avoid serious illness. By cutting sugar from your diet, you’ll minimize your risk of developing heart disease, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cancer.
Although we’ve provided a number of healthier sugars in this article, switching to stevia is the healthiest option of all, as it has no damaging health effects and is significantly sweeter than sugar. The occasional indulgence in a sugary treat isn’t likely to cause too much damage to your body, but when indulging it’s best to select an option that uses healthier natural sugars over unsafe alternatives such as HFCS.
When purchasing foods, always be sure to check the label for sugar content, especially when considering any product that claims to be “sugar free”, as it may contain dangerous artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Fortunately, the FDA has recently changed the legislation around sugar labeling on products, introducing a new “nutrition facts” label that provides a simple and clear summary of the sugar content of a product.
By following a healthy lifestyle and providing your body with a balanced diet, it’s possible to live a long and healthy life with no significant risk of illness, even with the occasional sugary treat- but, as with any indulgence, moderation is the best policy.