One of the most frequent questions I receive from patients is: “Do I have to give up sugar to get well and stay healthy?”
The issue of sugar is a huge area of concern for most people when it comes to their health and happiness.
In fact, many of my patients delayed seeking the health advice they needed, for fear of being told they had to give up their sweet treats for all eternity.
And I’ll admit, the integrative health field does have a reputation for vilifying sugar to the extreme.
Fortunately, times and opinions have changed a lot. And the truth is, most people need not sacrifice all types of sugar and sweeteners to resolve health issues, prevent disease and maintain their well-being. The key is to eat a variety of delicious and healthy proteins, vegetables and good fats throughout the day, and let the sweet stuff be an occasional treat.
One thing hasn’t changed though: white sugar and artificial sweeteners are still undesirable choices for those wishing to overcome disease and maintain their health long-term…
So, what are some of the best natural sugars and sweeteners to support your health in the 21st century? Let’s take a look at 5 considerations:
#1: Coconut Sugar
This relatively new-kid-on-the-block comes from the sap of coconut blossoms, and is an excellent choice for those with stable blood sugar for 3 reasons:
- Unlike white sugar, which is completely stripped of its nutrients, coconut sugar contains beneficial trace elements like iron, potassium, and zinc, antioxidants and polyphenols.
- You can use it 1:1 in place of sugar in baking, coffee, etc. Just keep in mind, it has a dark color and brown-sugar flavor.
- It’s affordable. A bag of organic coconut sugar will set you back about $3.00-$4.00.
While coconut sugar is not appropriate for diabetics, if you do have other blood sugar issues like metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes, check with your healthcare professional to see if you can enjoy small amounts of coconut sugar.
For the rest of us, enjoy in moderation. Even though it’s a natural sugar, you can overdo it.
While it’s been around for years as a supplement, stevia is still my #1 choice when used sparingly.
Stevia comes from the stevia plant, which is native to South America, where it has used by native peoples for centuries as a natural sweetener and blood sugar balancer.
Despite its very good purity and safety record, it was banned as a sweetener (but allowed to be sold as a dietary supplement) in the United States until very recently. Now, stevia has earned GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status from the FDA for use as a sweetener1.
Stevia advocates argue this decades-old ban had nothing to do with Stevia’s safety, but is believed to have been the result of influence from the artificial sweetener industry—since Stevia presented a serious threat to their market share.
I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion about that, but it does make one wonder: if it was safe enough to be sold as a dietary supplement, why was it held back as a sweetener for so long?
These days, we can buy stevia and stevia blend sweeteners in nearly any supermarket…and they vary in quality.
When choosing quality stevia, I suggest looking for 100% pure organic stevia.
A couple brands to consider are:
- Stevita Simply Stevia—organic stevia powder with no fillers grown within a sustainable cooperative of small Brazilian farms
- SweetLeaf stevia packets—stevia powder with inulin, a natural prebiotic fiber
Both of these brands also carry liquid stevia products (which are helpful for making natural sodas and sweetening your coffee and tea) and stevia blends.
#3: Raw Honey
I truly believe we’ve only begun to understand the far-reaching health benefits of raw honey.
Loaded with enzymes, minerals, antioxidants, and disease-fighting/allergy-reducing properties, raw honey is an incredible choice for non-diabetics.
Look for 100%, sustainability raised raw honey from a trusted source.
While most raw-honey producers follow humane practices, due to the rise in popularity and demand, it pays to know your bee keeper.
If you want the allergy-reducing benefits of raw honey, be sure to choose local honey from a trusted source.
#4: Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
Maple syrup and sugar are my #3 choice for non-diabetics.
Derived from the pure sap of maple trees, this amber elixir is loaded with trace minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
It’s also lower on the glycemic index than white sugar2, which is a bonus for your energy and insulin levels.
A couple things to note when buying maple syrup:
#1: There have been rumors circulating that maple syrups could contain formaldehyde. This was due to paraformaldehyde pellets which were traditionally used to plug the tap holes in trees.
As it turns out, those pellets cause irreparable damage to the trees, and thus were made illegal. So, you don’t need to worry about formaldehyde.
#2: Look for 100% pure maple syrup—some companies dilute-down pure maple syrup with sugar water or corn syrup to make a cheaper, inferior product.
#3: Maple syrup labeling has changed since 2015. While you used to be able to find “Grade A”, “Grade B” or even “Grade C” varieties, now all maple syrup is “Grade A”.
If you want the B or C grades, which are touted as having higher nutritional value and often used in cleansing tonics, look for the label:
- “Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste” which is formerly “Grade B”
Or contact the company to get their recommendation.
One final note: while the price tag of maple syrup may seem high, you will use a lot less than regular table syrup. You can also save big by buying in bulk or at your local price club.
#5: Dates and Date Sugar
Despite their incredible flavor, nutritional profile, and natural sweetness, dates don’t get a lot of love in the natural sweetener space.
However, date paste and date sugar make excellent natural sweeteners for baking, coffee, and a variety of other sweets.
And, for some people with blood sugar issues, whole dates can usually be enjoyed in moderation.
You can buy date paste ready-made or whip up a batch yourself and use it in select cakes, cookies, tarts, etc.
As for date sugar, you can use it 1:1 in place of sugar in baked goods, but keep in mind it will have a dark color and date flavor making it unsuitable for some desserts and palates.
We’ve come a long way since the days of no-sugar diets and hard-to-find stevia extract supplements.
But remember, just because a sugar is “natural” doesn’t mean you can’t overdo it. The key is to use sweeteners sparingly and enjoy sweets as a treat, not a daily indulgence.
Note: Sugar alcohols are another category of sweeteners; we will cover that in a future post.
If you find yourself craving any and all types of sugar frequently, there may be other underlying causes at play, it is wise to seek assistance from a health care professional. We will cover this topic in a future post.
My wish for you going forward, is that this information will help you find the appropriate natural sweeteners to maintain your health and happiness for the long-term.
In health and happiness,