During office visits with my patients I always take time to discuss improving their diets. This can be done in many ways, including lowering saturated fat intake, eating more vegetables or cutting out fried foods. Today, I want to talk about another important way to eat a healthier, more natural diet – reducing your consumption of refined sugar.
Many healthy foods contain natural sugars, such as fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. These sugars are fine as part of a balanced diet. The sugar you want to cut down on is the refined type, or the highly processed white stuff used in most baked goods.
Refined sugar in liquid form usually goes by the name, high fructose corn syrup, and is found in soda and many processed foods. These sugars, aside from being anything but natural, cause blood sugar levels to spike rapidly, resulting in a “sugar high” followed by a “crash” that leaves you feeling sluggish and craving more sugar.
All this may leave you wondering if there is any natural alternative to unhealthy refined sugar. Fortunately, there are several natural options ranging from calorie-free sweeteners to unrefined forms of sugar that can be used in baking. You are sure to find one that satisfies both your desire to eat healthfully and your sweet tooth.
Natural Sweetness Without Calories
If you are trying to cut calories in order to lose weight, you do not have to use the artificial sweeteners of decades past. You probably remember that saccharine, the sweetener in Sugar Twin and Sweet N’Low, has been hotly debated since the 1970s because of a rumored connection to cancer. Although the National Cancer Institute has declared saccharine safe for normal human consumption, many people object to its chemical aftertaste. Aspartame, another traditional chemical sweetener, is not considered safe and should be avoided.
I recommend Stevia, the product made from a naturally sweet herb commonly grown in South America. Stevia can be about 300 times sweeter than sugar and is an excellent addition to your cup of coffee or tea. In the United States, Stevia is sold as an herbal supplement, though it has been marketed for years as a natural sweetener in countries like Japan and Brazil.
Thanks to technology, researchers have found ways to make calorie-free sweeteners by starting with actual sugar. Splenda is the best known of these and is made by altering sugar’s molecular structure through a complex process. The result is a substance called sucralose which is heat stable, making it an option for use in cooking and baking. Though not strictly “natural” like Stevia, Splenda is technically sugar, albeit in altered form.
Save Room for These Unrefined Options
If you are not counting every calorie, but strive to eliminate processed foods from your diet, you’ll be excited by the variety of new options on store shelves. Sucanat (an abbreviation of “natural cane sugar”) is pure, dried sugar cane juice that retains its molasses-like flavor and grainy texture, unlike regular sugar. This is a flavorful substitute for refined brown sugar in recipes.
Maple sugar flakes are made by drying pure maple syrup and crushing it into flakes. One trusted brand is Equinox, which uses kosher, organic maple syrup to make its flakes. This is a neat product to experiment with in your kitchen.
Agave nectar is another favorite of mine. As the name implies, this is a liquid product, made from the Mexican agave plant. Unlike refined sugar syrup, it is low on the glycemic index, meaning it will not cause that rapid spike in blood sugar. Though it does contain calories, it is sweeter than sugar, so you should be able to use less in your favorite recipes.
Now that you know about the wide variety of natural options available, you should be able to find a sweetener that fits your healthy lifestyle. Whether you are a gourmet cook or just need something to sweeten your daily coffee run, it is easy to keep life naturally delicious.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.