So Many Questions
It has become apparent that the standard Western diet is loaded with refined sugar. As a culture we are possessed by an almost obsessive sweet tooth- at the cost of our overall health. The problem seems to have two main quandaries: how to deal with sugar being everywhere and in everything, and how to increase people’s awareness of what they eat. It is very, very easy to shove whatever you want in your mouth and not think anything of it until your physician starts to make disapproving noises.
Strangely enough, our culture also has an unhealthy obsession with extreme manifestations of physical fitness, dieting, and image. Diet food- and sugar alternatives in particular- is a billion dollar industry in the United States alone.
So many alternatives to refined sugar exist and their virtue is so spurious it’s hard to know what to choose. What IS clear is that refined white sugar does cause or perpetuate numerous physical issues, including systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity to name just a few.
Trust, But Verify With Your Doctor
Alternatives to sugar, both natural and synthetic, can be incorporated into many diets safely. Keep in mind the directives of your physician, but ask questions- it is up to you to take charge of your own health, and your doctor is an important resource. In general, all sugar is sugar- your body processes it exactly the same no matter if it’s honey, molasses, or table sugar.
What makes the difference are the micronutrients and the overall health effects that come with the use of any sweetener. As a caveat, it bears repeating that North Americans have an incredibly high amount of sweet things in their diet, so exploring other (less sugared) flavors is a wise course of action.
Natural Options – Good, But Not To Excess
Natural alternatives to sugar exist- ones with wonderful flavor profiles that add complexity to the foods they enhance. These sweeteners contain real sugars, so should be used with care and discretion; that being said, they can delightfully sweeten without subjecting food to a sugary bludgeoning.
Pure maple syrup without any added high fructose corn syrup is a fantastic sweetener. Possessed of a distinct, delightful flavor and a load of minerals and antioxidants, maple syrup can be used in cooking and baking, and dissolves well into hot drinks. It’s glycemic index is considerably lower than table sugar, making it a better choice for those looking to impose their sugar intake. Some care must be exercised when using maple syrup as a sweetener, as it is very easy to overpour and overuse as a liquid.
Pure wildflower honey, unheated and unfiltered, is also a reasonable sugar substitute. Richly sweet and satisfying, it too carries an impressive array of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. To some degree, honey is also legitimately medicinal. In fact, the very word ‘medicinal’ is based on ‘mead’, an alcoholic drink made from fermented honey.
Modern science has found honey to be effective in treating sore throats and relieving some symptoms of the common cold. For seasonal allergy sufferers, local raw honey can help diminish the symptoms that accompany allergies- sneezing, watery eyes, and itching.
A tasty, not so-sweet byproduct of refining table sugar, molasses has a strong flavor and adds a dense, moist consistence to baked goods. Molasses is particularly impressive for its high iron content- up to 20% of your RDA. This thick, dark syrup is also rich with vitamin B6 and other minerals.
With a very low glycemic index, cautious use as a sugar substitute can be helpful in lowering triglycerides and avoiding insulin spikes. Because of its strong signature flavor, molasses doesn’t always make a perfect swap for table sugar, but it does work well overall.
Processed Sweeteners – Useful, But Proceed With Caution
The variety of alternative sweeteners available today is truly bewildering. Some have their roots in natural products, some not so much- but they all are highly processed and refined, which requires some scrutiny. Simple natural sugar based sweeteners require one kind of vigilance- make sure you don’t use excessive amounts- but processed sweeteners can have unpleasant side effects when used in large quantities.
Though naturally derived, the extract of the stevia plant goes through a great deal of processing and refinement before reaching the supermarket. An astonishing 20 times sweeter than sugar, stevia is made of compounds that the human body cannot break down.
Less is needed for the same level of sweet; and with a zero calorie count, stevia seems like a godsend. Used carefully, it can help stabilize blood sugar levels in diabetics and lower overall blood pressure. This useful addition must still be utilized with care, as it can increase the perception of hunger and cause weight gain through that reaction.
Erythritol and Xylitol are both highly processed forms of naturally occurring alcohols in certain fruits. While tasting like sugar with a mild aftertaste, these both have less of a caloric price tag than table sugar. They don’t cause insulin spikes or blood sugar fluctuations so they can be incorporated into a diabetic diet with care.
How Sweet It Is
There are plenty of options out there for the adventurous foodie looking for new sweet sensations. Overall, it would seem that keeping to a varied diet that takes advantage of multiple sweet sources in moderation is the safest bet. Cutting down on sugar and sweets of all types is still the wisest course of action for attaining optimal healthfulness.
Mindfulness in shopping and eating – choosing with care, eating with concentration and attention- will make the moderate treats we eat that much more satisfying and worthwhile.