The amount of sugar the average person is consuming from foods and drinks has steadily been on the rise.
Between 2017 and 2018, the average intake of added sugars in U.S. adults was 17 teaspoons daily.
The American Heart Association recommends an upper limit of no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men per day (1).
High sugar consumption has been associated with many health issues including obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, cardiovascular disease, and even certain cancers.
Unfortunately it's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid added sugars in the Standard American diet as most packaged foods are loaded with sugar to make them more desirable.
This means that it takes some effort to actually avoiding eating sugar in excess if you are consuming products that have labels or even while eating out.
The leading sources of sugar in the typical diet come from sugar sweetened beverages, cookies, ice cream, candy, breakfast cereals, chocolate, and baked goods.
But sugar doesn't only reside in obvious places like desserts and sweet treats, it's also hidden in products like sauces, cereal, yogurt, condiments, bread, and protein bars.
Added sugars that are not naturally found in nature, as well as refined sugars, are particularly damaging to health. These may include table sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and granulated sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are no better, in fact they've been shown to be particularly detrimental to health. While technically "sugar-free" and "calorie-free", artificial sweeteners like aspartame, splenda, and sucralose may be associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, glucose intolerance, and modifications in the gut microbiota (2)(3)(4).
Artificial sweeteners may also create more dependence to overly sweet foods and increase appetite for more calories by modifying food reward pathways (4)(5)(6)(7).
Though sugar in excess can certainly cause problems, natural sources of sugar consumed in moderation can actually be part of a healthy diet and even provide health benefits, which we will explore below:
Healthy sugar substitutes
This natural sweetener derived from the stevia leaf has become quite popular in natural health food products as an alternative sweetener. Though sweet, stevia does not affect blood sugar, in fact it has been used traditionally to support blood sugar balance and even weight loss.
Stevia is said to be 40 times sweeter than regular sugar which is why a very tiny amount goes a long way. Because it is naturally sweet but does not affect blood sugar levels, it is often recommended as a suitable option for diabetics (8).
You can find stevia in different forms depending on the processing. Green leaf stevia is the least processed type of stevia and thus slightly bitter however it is still 30-40 times sweeter than regular sugar. Stevia extract is often the most popular choice as it is sweeter and less bitter than green leaf stevia. Altered stevia blends should be avoided as they are highly processed and often contain GMO ingredients and chemical solvents.
Raw honey is a true superfood that is packed with nutrition including enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, B vitamins, and amino acids. Honey is also naturally anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and immune boosting.
Honey may support healthy blood sugar levels and even provide "obesity protective" effects (9).
The type of honey you choose to consume does make a difference in the benefits you receive. The typical commercial honey you will find in the grocery store is often pasteurized, meaning it loses many of its beneficial nutrients, antioxidants, and enzymes.
Choose local raw honey instead to ensure you receive all of the health benefits.
Blackstrap molasses create a thick and sticky substance made from the boiling of raw cane sugar and sugar beets. It is a rich source of vitamins and minerals such as copper, chromium, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6.
When compared to other sugars including refined sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, and honey, molasses have been shown to be the most antioxidant rich of the bunch (10).
Molasses have a low glycemic index and might help in stabilizing blood sugar by slowing the metabolism of glucose.
Blackstrap molasses also contain significant levels of chromium, a mineral that plays an important role in insulin signalling and glucose tolerance (11).
Pure maple syrup
This natural sweetener native to North America is enriched with antioxidants that combat free radicals alongside some nutrients like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, potassium, and zinc.
Darker versions of maple syrup, known as "grade B", are said to be richer in antioxidants than lighter ones. Always read the label to ensure you are choosing a product that contains only pure maple syrup and avoid syrups that may be loaded with additional ingredients and sweeteners like high-fructose corn syrup.
Maple syrup raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar however it should be used sparingly as it is still relatively high in sugar content.
Though not as well known as other sugar substitutes, yet, yacon syrup is another healthy alternative that you may want to add to your pantry staples.
Yacon syrup is considered a root vegetable, made from the yacon plant and is native to South America.
Though yacon syrup does not contain refined sugars, it has fruit sugar alongside fructooligosaccharides, which are prebiotics that help to keep the digestive system healthy, improve regularity, and increase satiety (12).
Regular consumption of yacon syrup has been shown to benefit body composition and weight loss due to its positive effects on appetite, insulin function, and intestinal health (13)(14)(15).
Originating from the date palm tree, dates are naturally sweet and a source of vitamins and minerals including potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. Dates are also high in fiber and antioxidants which contribute to many health benefits including blood sugar stability, bowel regularity, and even lowering the risk of chronic diseases (16)(17).
Dates have been shown to possess anti-diabetic effects by reducing blood glucose levels, improving insulin output, and inhibiting glucose absorption (18).
Because they are rich in fiber and relatively low glycemic, when eaten in moderation dates can be a part of a healthy diet even among diabetics (19).
Alongside stevia, monk fruit is another popular sweetener among low carb dieters and those who want to avoid sugar while still enjoying sweet treats in their diet.
While monk fruit is up to 400 times sweeter than cane sugar and up to 250 times sweeter than table sugar, it contains zero calories and does not impact blood sugar levels.
Monk fruit is often a preferred substitute for those who don't particularly enjoy the taste of stevia and still want a zero calorie sweetener that is blood sugar friendly and safe for diabetics.
Though natural sources of sugar mentioned above can prove to be healthier alternatives to artificial and refined sugars, they should still be consumed in moderation.
Whole food consumption should always be prioritized and added sugar consumption monitored. Fruit is an example of a whole food that provides naturally occurring sugars that also come with water, fiber, and sometimes protein which allows for better blood sugar balance and increased satiety.
Natural sugar alternatives are not all created equal and should always be consumed in moderation however there are many options that allow you to still treat your tastebuds without the same harmful effects of the typical added sugars rampant in the Standard American Diet.