Replace Sugar With Healthier Alternatives

What’s wrong with sugar? With the average American consuming close to 200 pounds of sugar per year (up from just a few pounds per year in the 19th century), it’s not hard to connect the dots and see how sugar plays a role in modern diseases like type 2 diabetes and obesity. Accusations against sugar are far-reaching, with sugar being linked to a growing number of health conditions like:

- Heart disease
- Insulin Resistance and diabetes
- ADHD and other hyperactivity disorders
- Violent tendencies
- Depression and other mood disorders
- Tumor and cancer growth
- Tooth decay and poor dental health
- Bone loss
- Anorexia and other eating disorders
- Premature aging

The evidence against refined sugar is so plentiful, numerous books have been written on the subject. If you’d like to learn more, you might want to check out books like Sugar Blues by William Dufty or Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price.

What’s wrong with aspartame, sucralose and other artificial sweeteners?

There are very few diets that don’t suggest using artificial sweeteners like NutraSweet (aspartame) or Splenda (sucralose) in order to reduce your intake of real sugar. Even the Atkins diet - which tends to focus on real food more than most mainstream diets - promotes a limited use of sweeteners like sucralose and sugar alcohols.

While some of these sweeteners may not contain actual sugar or calories, the way they affect your body is very real. Here’s just a few basic reasons to avoid artificial sweeteners:

Aspartame breaks down into toxic substances in the body (such as methanol). To quote Nourishing Traditions:

"Aspartame... is a neurotoxic substance that has been associated with numerous health problems including dizziness, visual impairment, severe muscle aches, numbing of extremities, pancreatitis, high blood pressure, retinal hemorrhaging, seizures and depression. It is suspected of causing birth defects and chemical disruptions in the brain."
Sucralose is a relatively new product in the food industry, but preliminary evidence does not look especially positive. Sucralose has been involved in very few independent scientific tests - most tests on this sweetener were funded by the companies that distribute it (now that doesn’t sound right, does it?). Here’s information about sucralose taken from the WAPF site:

"Research conducted with rats, mice and rabbits has shown that sucralose consumption can cause shrinking of the thymus gland (up to 40 percent shrinkage), enlargement of the liver and kidneys, atrophy of lymph follicles in the spleen and thymus, increased cecal weight, reduced bodily growth rate, decreased red blood cell count, hyperplasia of the pelvis, extension of gestational periods in pregnancy, decreased fetal body weights and placental weights, and diarrhea."

Are sugar alcohols good or bad?

The world of sugar alcohols (like sorbitol, maltitol, and xylitol to name a few common ones) is murky and definitely uncertain. Sugar alcohols can cause digestive upsets like diarrhea, as well as contribute to the overgrowth of gut flora like candida and yeast. Sugar alcohols may also increase seizures in epileptic individuals, and have been linked to childhood obesity. Very small amounts may be relatively harmless, but I would not count these as a real food. In my opinion, sugar alcohols are best avoided.

What about agave nectar?

Agave is a "real" sweetener (as opposed to artificial), but it’s not as healthy as we are led to believe. Basically, agave nectar is concentrated processed fructose and should be regarded in the same light as high fructose corn syrup. Kristen at Food Renegade did an excellent post on this. Frankly, I couldn’t put it better myself, so if you want to know the whole agave story, read this post.

Healthy Alternatives to Sugar

Our bodies are made to enjoy things that taste sweet. A "sweet tooth" is really one of the most natural instincts in the world. That said, throughout history sugar was a rare and expensive treat, and mostly came in the form of fruit. Our bodies were never made to cope with the ridiculous onslaught of sugar-laden foods we are faced with today.

I know from personal experience that winning the battle with sugar is not always easy. I consider myself light-years ahead of where I was two years ago, but I still succumb to the wiles of sugar often enough to bug me. So if you want to eat something sweet, it’s important to have some healthy options in mind:


This is one of my favorites. I keep a bottle of liquid stevia around at all times - I hate to run out! Stevia is a naturally sweet herb native to South America. You can find it in liquid and powder form. I prefer liquid because it’s easiest to use for the tasks stevia is best at. I find stevia to be a great sugar replacement in coffee, tea, lemonade, yogurt, kefir and whipped cream. A few drops is equal to at least one teaspoon of sugar.

Before I cut back on grains I would use stevia to replace some of the sweetener in pancakes, oatmeal and biscuits as well. It seems like you can’t tell much difference if you use a little real sugar with some stevia.

My favorite brand is Sweetleaf liquid stevia, because it's at least twice as strong as the other brands I was using. That means a 4-ounce bottle of this stuff lasts about 3-4 months for me - and we use a lot of it around here!

Unrefined Sugar Options

Sometimes you just need to use a genuine sweetener, and it's good to know there are some healthier options out there. Unrefined sweeteners are far more natural than their refined counterparts, and will generally wreak less havoc on your blood sugar. Unrefined sweeteners also contain natural trace minerals and vitamins that make them more nutritious than refined sugar. Here are some choices for unrefined natural sweeteners:

Raw Honey. In traditional cultures, honey was always revered, and of course honey was always raw. Raw honey contains enzymes and nutrients that can be highly beneficial. You can read more about the benefits of raw honey here. We always keep a jar of raw honey around. It tastes really delicious with peanut butter or in porridge.

Real Maple Syrup. Genuine maple syrup is rich in trace minerals and in flavor. It’s great in baked desserts and puddings. Be sure to choose organic to avoid formaldehyde from processing, and opt for Grade B to get more nutrients.

Rapadura (or Sucanat). These are made from dehydrated cane sugar juice and will contain a rich mineral content just like other natural sugars. Rapadura is most like commercial sugar in texture and will make a great cookie. Beware of refined sugar masquerading as unrefined, however (like Turbinado sugar). Read labels carefully to make sure you are getting a genuinely unrefined cane sugar product. If it doesn’t clearly state it’s unrefined, it probably isn’t.

Sugar is Still Sugar

Even natural sweeteners will negatively affect blood sugar levels and cause health problems if over consumed. So you don’t want to down a jar of raw honey every day, of course. But natural sweeteners are a much better alternative to commercial sugar and especially chemical sweeteners. Moderation is the key here (of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done!).

P.S. If you’re going to eat sugar, don’t forget the fat! Full-fat desserts are more satisfying and often require less sweetener to taste decadent and delicious. Plenty of fat will also slow down digestion and lower the overall glycemic load of your dessert.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade.

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