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This amazing article was written by Nicole, a holistic nutritionist with a strong belief that it is possible for everyone to discover how good their body is designed to feel. Nicole works in partnership with her clients to achieve a lifestyle that is both balanced, fulfilling and nourishing. Go check out her fantastic blog with healthy recipes, or follow her on Facebook!

We all need a little sweetness in our life.

Hopefully, for you, it’s coming from some sweet and juicy phytonutrient-rich berries or natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. If it’s coming from other sources (especially those which are not nutritionist-approved), by the end of this article, you will hopefully be on board for some sweet upgrades.

The Effects of Sugar on the Body

Deep deep down, you may already be familiar with how refined sugars are like a form of evil in the body. From being highly addictive, influencing us to pack on the pounds, triggering inflammation, feeding cancer cells, negatively influencing cognitive function, messing with our energy levels and of course, presenting the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease…

Here’s how it all begins.

In the short version, when you eat or drink something sweet, the amount of glucose in your bloodstream rises. Your friend, the pancreas, is then signaled to secrete the hormone insulin -which works to regulate your blood sugar levels – trying to keep you in a state of balance.

Where’s the problem with that? Well, your body only has two real options on how to deal sugar intake:

1. It can burn it for energy (glucose) or it can store it in the liver and muscles (as glycogen) to be used for energy later

2. It can convert the sugar into triglycerides and stored it in fat cells. Depending on your genetic predisposition, you may be someone who metabolizes sugar well, aka use it for energy – or you may be someone who is more likely to store it as fat…

Unfortunately, the case for most of us is that we are more likely to store it as fat and there is a much smaller (and luckier) group, that can effectively burn this sugar excess with their fancy fast metabolisms. Regardless if you’re a fast or slow burner – too much sweetness creates a problem. Not to mention it is SO EASY for us to over-consume sugar, because it’s in almost everything.

Hidden Sugars in “Healthy” Foods

A reminder that sugar feeds our problems, it doesn’t relieve them. Having some berries in your smoothie or on top of your rolled oats is one thing. Drinking a ‘natural’ tea beverage with over 30 grams of added cane sugar, or choosing a ‘healthy’ chocolate zucchini muffin that still contains 40 grams of added cane sugar is the kind of nonsense we need to watch out for.

BTW. If you see what I did there. I’m not just picking on the mainstream big evils (aka candy, sweets, and pops). You already know

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the dangers of seriously refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. You can also get foods labeled as ‘healthy’, ‘natural’ or ‘organics” that are still packed with sugar -these are not necessarily “better”.

The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners

Then we have those artificial sweeteners: Saccharin (Sweet’N Low), Cyclamates (Sugar Twin), Acesulfame Potassium (Ace-K), Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), and Sucralose (Splenda).

These would not and should not be included in a healthy lifestyle – as many negative side effects have been debated with the use of artificial sweeteners from headaches and migraines to the shrunken thymus gland, impairment of liver and kidney function, and mood disorders.Not to mention, with the whole calorie-free sweetener thing. Studies are now showing that tasting sweet foods elicits insulin release prior to increasing glucose levels, whether that sweetener contains calories or not (this includes stevia, monk fruit, and sugar alcohols) [1].

You’d be silly not to agree that a natural and unrefined sweetener is going to be a ‘healthier’ choice compared to a highly refined, artificial or even a ‘natural’ calorie-free sweetener that provides zero nutritional value.

We all need some sweet. (Unless you’re a one-in-a-million case who was blessed with only salty/savoury cravings).

If there is one super valuable tip that I can give to anyone that is looking to decrease their sugar intake and feel better overall – simplify your routine by focusing on getting in only these sweeteners, in modest amounts:

  • Raw honey
  • Coconut sugar
  • Coconut nectar
  • Maple syrup
  • Maple sugar
  • Dates

It’s a LOT more challenging to find products free from cane and beet sugar now (and all the other garbage). If you follow this simple rule you can not only work to decrease your overall sugar intake but using some of these natural options may provide you with some additional benefits (keeping in mind that drinking a glass of maple syrup isn’t a ‘great way’ to boost mineral intake).

Natural Sweeteners that Are Better For Your Health

There are also so many different types of sweeteners now, and probably more than 75 code names- so, in my opinion, it’s actually easier to focus on the one’s that are worth including instead of the huge list of ones that are best avoided. With that, let’s meet your Sweet Substitutions:

Raw Honey

natural sweeteners, raw honey

Often in a solid state – raw honey has not been filtered or heated. Packed with enzymes, bee-vitamins, antioxidants, zinc, iron, potassium, calcium and phosphorous along with naturally occurring bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. Raw honey supports a strong immunity and a healthy gut flora. Unpasteurized honey, which is often in a liquid state (although it may solidify), has likely been filtered, but not heated, and the bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly have been removed – aka a lot of the best raw-honey properties.

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It’s best not to heat raw honey as this will ensure maximum nutrient potential. You can find raw honey at the farmer markets and directly from local beekeepers (for the best prices). The darker the honey, the richer the flavor and the greater the health benefit.

One tablespoon of honey contains around 16g of natural sugars – with a glycemic index of 50/100

Maple Syrup

natural sweeteners, maple syrup

Benefits of being Canadian include colorful money and local maple syrup. This natural sweetener is mineral dense in comparison to cane and beet sugar varieties. The simple process of making maple syrup includes; drilling a hole in a sugar maple tree, inserting a ‘tap’, hanging a bucket to catch the sap, boiling the sap to evaporate out the water, and then filtering of any sediment. A rich source of zinc, manganese, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium, also containing up to 24 different antioxidants.

In Canada, our maple syrup is graded by No. 1, 2 and 3 (Grades are A, B & C in the USA). Grade No.1 (or Grade A) will be the lightest in color/taste/benefits while Grade No. 3 (or Grade C in the USA) will be the darkest in color, with the strongest flavor and most benefit!

Maple syrup is heat stable and can be used in recipes that call for a liquid sweetener/syrup (3/4 cup of maple syrup = 1 cup of sugar). Enjoy your morning coffee (with some collagen for protein), add it to a cookie, cake or loaf recipes, or mix with equal parts hemp oil for a super-powered pancake syrup.

One tablespoon of pure maple syrup contains around 12g of natural sugars – with a glycemic index of 54/100

Maple Sugar

natural sweeteners, maple sugar

Same benefits of maple syrup but in a convenient granulated form. Maple sugar is made by further boiling down the maple syrup, evaporating even more of the natural water content so that you are left with only the pure maple sugar granules.

Just like maple syrup, maple sugar is heat stable and makes a great addition to recipes that call for a cane sugar. Maple sugar is a cup-for-cup substitution.

One tablespoon of pure maple sugar contains around 8g of natural sugar – with a glycemic index of 54/100

Find Maple Sugar on Amazon.

Coconut Nectar

natural sweeteners, coconut nectar

Before we have coconut sugar, we have coconut nectar. Coming from the flowering stems of the coconut blooms. This sap is evaporated at low temperatures, producing a low-glycemic and nutrient-rich syrup. A cup-for-cup substitution for a liquid sweetener, coconut nectar is a lower glycemic option for maple syrup.

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One tablespoon of coconut nectar contains around 13g of natural sugar – with a glycemic index of 35/100

Find Coconut Nectar on Amazon.

Coconut Sugar

natural sweeteners, coconut sugar

This low-glycemic sweetener, also known as coconut palm sugar, looks just like regular brown sugar and is a simple cup-for-cup substitution for granulated sugar in a recipe. Packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients. Coconut sugar is made from the coconut nectar; made in a similar way as maple sugar – the nectar is heated, and the natural water content evaporates so that you are left with only the pure coconut sugar.

One tablespoon of coconut sugar contains around 3g of natural sugar – with a glycemic index of35/100

Find Coconut Sugar on Amazon.

Dates

natural sweeteners, dates

This super-sweet fruit, normally found in a dried variety is loaded with potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. Coming from the date palm tree, there are many varieties of dates however in Canada and the USA we are more familiar with Medjool Dates (larger, softer and sweeter) and Deglet Noor (smaller and tougher).

You can make a date paste to use in recipes: first, soak some pitted Medjool dates in hot water until soft. Reserve the soaking liquid, and add the soaked pitted dates plus 1-2 tablespoons of the water to a food processor or high-speed blender. Blend until creamy and smooth. Add more water as needed to create a thick and rich paste. Store in a mason jar and keep refrigerated, lasts 4-5 days.

One Medjool date contains around 16g of natural sugar – with a glycemic index of 42/100

Agave

natural sweeteners, agave

Oh agave. I put this one on here to ensure you are reading this article fully. Although agave is touted as ‘natural’ sweetener this is not sweetener that I recommend… Instead, I advise that people stay away. The process of making agave is not natural in comparison to maple and coconut sugar products. The agave plant (which is also used to make tequila) has fibrous leaves and a natural agave juice/nectar within. During processing, the agave plant is cut and pressed to extract the sugary circulating fluid. This fluid is high in sugar, but it also contains healthy compounds like fructans, which are linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin [2].

However, when processed into a syrup, the manufacturer’s break the fructans down into fructose by exposing the sugary fluid to heat and/or enzymes. This process destroys all of the potential health-promoting properties of the Agave plant and instead produces a concentrated syrup with fructose levels that are higher than high-fructose corn syrup. A sweetener sold as “Agave nectar” is not truly “nectar” – it is a refined, processed sweetener made from Agave nectar [3].

At the end of the day, remember that sugar is SUGAR. It’s going to be processed the same way in your body and you can always have too much of a good thing. Choosing natural is the way to go, but we need to practice moderation. Don’t let a sweet tooth get the best of you. Create healthy balance in your lifestyle and when you’re feeling up for something sweet; opt-out of classic cane/beet sugar and try one of these sweet substitutions.

Find whole-food based sweet recipes at holisticole.com:

Cacao Matcha Crunch -sweetened with maple syrup or coconut nectar

Lemon Poppy Seed Zucchini Loaf -sweetened with coconut sugar

Chewy Pink Cookies -sweetened with raw honey, maple syrup or coconut nectar

Matcha Green Tea Banana Bread -sweetened with coconut sugar

Raw Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups -sweetened with maple syrup or coconut nectar

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Holisticole
Holistic Nutritionist
Nicole Eckert is a Holistic Nutritionist and the Owner + Founder of Holisticole. On her holistic living blog: holisticole.com - you can find amazing clean-eating recipes, informative blog posts and online programs.
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