Are they really better than sugar?

Tell me….if you see the word “natural” associated with sugar, do you automatically think it’s something that is good for you?

Holy smokes….that word is so misleading, especially when it comes to labeling food.

When people use the term natural sweetener, they typically mean sweeteners that aren’t refined granulated sugar or are less processed than sugar.

Some of the claims attributed to natural sweeteners are:

  • they have minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants
  • they’re lower on the glycemic index scale (may not raise blood sugar as much as other sweeteners)
  • they’re lower in fructose/glucose
  • they are much healthier for you than sugar

Please, don’t be fooled by these misleading claims.

Some natural sweeteners are agave nectar, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, honey, maple syrup; molasses, organic cane sugar, sucanat, and turbinado sugar (raw sugar).

There are claims that turbinado sugar and organic cane sugar are healthier and less processed than sugar.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Turbinado sugar is refined cane juice and is a little darker with hints of molasses because it contains more impurities. Organic cane sugar is from organically grown sugar cane.  Both are highly refined and very similar to table sugar in terms of nutrition and how your body metabolizes them.

What does all of this mean?  It means you’re out of luck if you’re choosing these sugars because you think they provide superior nutrition.

A few years ago, I was fooled by the agave syrup trend because it was supposedly less processed.  The reality is, it is highly processed to deliver a refined and clear syrup, so it’s hard to argue that it is less processed.  Sigh….live and learn!

There are a few sweeteners that are less processed than sugar and retain some minerals and other substances. But….does this make them a better choice than refined sugar?  You decide….

Honey

Honey is a sweetener many choose over sugar for health reasons, and its claimed benefits range from preventing cancer and heart disease to regulating blood sugar. Honey does contain trace amounts of minerals and antioxidants. Darker honey has a stronger flavor and contains more antioxidants, but the amount is negligible compared to other foods like fruits and vegetables that offer many health benefits.  As one of the oldest sweeteners on earth, and the product of honeybees foraging nectar from flowers, honey is truly amazing and offers wonderful flavors.  But despite terrific tastes that vary with the seasons and flowers, and diverse culinary uses, your body treats honey pretty much like refined sugar, and you shouldn’t consume honey for health reasons.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is promoted as a good source of magnesium, but it has only 1 mg of magnesium per teaspoon. Compare that to ½ cup of cooked spinach with 80 mg magnesium, ½ cup black beans with 60 mg magnesium, or one medium banana with 30 mg magnesium. If coconut sugar makes your recipe taste great, go for it. But keep in mind that coconut sugar has the same calorie and carbohydrate content as regular sugar and is mostly sucrose.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is a product from the boiled sap of maple trees.  Maple syrup contains small amounts antioxidants and minerals (calcium, potassium, and iron), and a moderate amount of potassium and zinc. It is a good source of manganese, but, you would be better off getting your manganese from nuts and seeds, leafy greens, unrefined whole grains, or legumes.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup sounds healthy and you will see it in many commercial granola, cereal, and fruit-and-nut type bars. Similar to all sweeteners, your body breaks down brown rice syrup and treats it like other sweeteners, whether it is organic or not, part of a healthy cookie, or poured on pancakes.  Bottom line, its sugar.

Molasses

Molasses is the dark liquid that remains after sugar is extracted from sugar cane. It comes in several varieties depending on the level of processing. Blackstrap molasses is the least refined and a notable exception for getting nutrition beyond calories from a sweetener. But because of its bitter flavor, it typically not substituted for sugar.

Keep in mind, just because it is marketed as natural does not make it healthy.  For example, simply adding the word fruit to the word sugar makes people think it is healthier. In this study, consumers looking at cereal ingredients perceived the cereal with fruit sugar as healthier than the cereal with sugar, although the nutrient profiles of both cereals were the same.  Fruit juice concentrate is a common sweetener in many foods, but it is no healthier than sugar, and organic fruit juice gummy bears with no artificial flavors are not better for you than Jujyfruits.

So my take on this is despite marketing claims and labels that suggest otherwise, is that natural sweeteners are not any better for you than refined sugar.

Your best bet is to become an informed consumer, eat more whole foods, and consume less sugar, from all sources.

If you are ready to kick the sugar habit, sign up for my Free 3-day sugar cleanse that starts Monday, November 5th and ends Wednesday November 7th.  Who knows, maybe this short and sweet 😊 cleanse will help you start your New Year free living more healthfully.

Until next time my sweet,