Damn Good Food

Sugar Alternatives: Not all are Created Equal

If you've been paying attention to the health field then you probably understand the concept that not all sugars are created equal. Nowadays there are so many alternatives to table sugar that it can get pretty confusing. Read our recommendations for natural sugar substitutes.

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My first piece of advice, don't always believe marketing, it's called "marketing" for a reason. Secondly, science doesn't lie and nature is much more profound than we give it credit. My recommendation always, eat sugar in it's most natural form AKA in fruits. Our body knows what to do with an apple, it isn't able to digest highly processed sugars in the same way. If you eat to feel good or to FUEL your life of adventure or simply to thrive, then continue reading on. Oh and girl, I am NOT telling you to put down that ice cream sandwich. We all deserve a little joy in our lives and if your form of joy is a little sugar here and there, I am not one to judge. But I am here to inform and give you the tools you need to make better choices down the road. ​

To understand the difference between a not so good and better sugar choice, first, you need to understand a little bit about how your body metabolizes sugar and the science behind it. Let's first talk about the differences between fructose, glucose, and sucrose.

Let's get to know our sugar friends, glucose, fructose, and sucrose:
Meet glucose. Glucose is used as an immediate energy source and/or is stored in your body for later energy use. All organs in your body can metabolize glucose, whereas fructose can only be metabolized by your liver. We will get into this further, but it's an important fact to note. Glucose causes blood sugar to rise, but please know this is a normal function of your body, it's okay as long as it's not being spiked too high or too often. To help you understand this concept, you should know that all carbohydrates (simple or complex) are also broken down into glucose in your stomach and are released into your bloodstream. Your body then releases insulin to open cell doors and allows the glucose to be used as energy or stored for later use (then called glycogen). Once the glucose is removed from your bloodstream, your blood sugar levels will begin to lower, AKA level back out. AH-HA, science! It's so interesting or maybe that's just me.

Meet fructose. Fructose has to be broken down by the liver, as noted above to be used as energy by the body. Before the mass production of refined sugar, humans rarely consumed it. Unlike glucose, fructose causes a low rise to your blood sugar... but that is because your body cannot absorb it as easily. Since your liver is the only organ that metabolizes it, in large quantities it gets overloaded and can begin turning the fructose into fat and potentially free radicals. Please note, the health effects are controversial but there has been a considerable level of evidence to justify negative health concerns when fructose is above 50g per serving.

Last and certainly the easiest to explain is sucrose. It is just the scientific name for table sugar. It's literally 50% glucose and 50% fructose which is created by extracting sugar from the cane plant. For any type of sugar, the more it's processed the more it is heated and the less nutritional value it then has.

One additional piece of science to understand is the Glycemic Index (GI).
According to Glycemicindex.com, "it is a relative ranking of carbohydrate in foods according to how they affect blood glucose levels. Carbohydrates with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested, absorbed and metabolized and cause a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and, therefore usually, insulin levels." Fructose is not the only factor that contributes to GI, but it can be a good indicator.

Now let's breakdown the nutritional value and GI for some of the most popular alternative sugars and the ones we recommend.

You should know that the potassium in sugar helps your body slowly absorb it into your bloodstream and the following article from Just Date Syrup, really helps breaks down the benefits of each of the above sugars.

A few notes to remember when purchasing your sugar alternative is that maple syrup is minimally processed, as long as it's 100% pure. Some additional minerals it's packed with not noted above include manganese, riboflavin, and zinc. Coconut sugar has the best 1:1 replacement for white sugar in baking and has high amounts of potassium, but it lacks some of the nutritional content the others hold and can be pretty processed. We still use it in our recipes, because again everything in moderation and it's much better than regular sugar, but we want to equip you with all the knowledge to make the best choice for your goals.  

Which sugar alternatives to avoid.
High fructose corn syrup falls to the top of that list, along with sugar alcohols which can cause gas, bloating, and stomach pain due to the way they are processed in large amounts. In addition, after reading the following blog post from Just Date Syrup, I decided to do a little digging myself to learn more about why agave may not be the best choice for long term health and from a nutritional standpoint. This is due to its high amount of fructose (70-90%) which makes it low on the GI scale, but also hard to process by the liver and in large quantities over a long period of time has been correlated with negative health effects. Remember... like all things in life, moderation is key so if you like to add agave to your margs (like me, but I may think twice now), as long as you aren't using it as your only sweetener you are A-okay. If you are intrigued and want to learn more, check out the following article from Healthline to learn why table sugar may actually be a better choice.

Now some of you may be thinking, what about monk fruit and stevia? These natural zero-calorie sweeteners that are both extracted from plants (the stevia leaf and monk fruit) have become very popular over the past 10-20 years, especially monk fruit given that it was just approved by the FDA in the US in 2010. Now these sweeteners have been used in other cultures for centuries, but there is not enough research to understand long term impacts. If you all are interested, I can certainly do another post and go into what we do know about these sweeteners. ​

We hope you feel more confident when deciding which sweetener to pick for all your baking and sweetening needs after reading this post! Feel free to drop a comment and let us know any other questions or clarifications you may have. Also, we love hearing any AH-HA moments, so drop them below as well.

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