The first major issue with “sugar” as we know it today, is that we are ingesting large amounts of it! Did you know that 100 years ago, we were consuming less than 4 pounds of sugar a year? That's around 1 tsp a day. Now we are up to 22 teaspoons/day (80 pounds per year) - GULP!
With Canada's obesity levels on the rise, and a greater understanding of just how bad for us sugar can be, the hunt is on for alternatives. But hold on a hot minute. Many sugar substitutes are synthetics and are no better for us than real sugar. What’s more, some of these synthetics (like aspartame), have been linked to cancer. Read on for more information and some Little Warrior approved alternatives.
What are the impacts of sugar consumption?
- Sugar is a nutrient robber. When we consume sugar, it binds to certain nutrients in our body and renders their ability useless!
- Sugar feeds the bad yeast and bacteria in our guts, altering our microbiome.
- High sugar consumption is linked to chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.
- Sugar weakens the immune system by lowering your white blood cell activity (your infection fighting ability).
- In fact, just one tsp of sugar suppresses your (and your little ones’) immune system for up to four hours. Yikes!
Other additives to be on the look out for
- Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, nutrasweet - believed to be carcinogenic)
- High Fructose Corn Syrup: Can increase LDL cholesterol, may contribute to the development of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc
- Food dyes: may contribute to behaviour problems in children, may be linked to cancer
So what do health-conscious mamas do to satisfy their sweet tooth when the mood strikes? Unfortunately for those with specific health issues, elimination may be the only way. For everyone else, the goal is to find a balance between vibrant health and indulging our sweet tooth.
Let's take a look at some alternatives: Natural, unrefined/raw sweeteners
First and foremost, it’s important to point out that these options still have an impact on blood sugar levels. They are calorie dense and can still cause the sugar rollercoaster that ultimately results in cravings. One of the main differences between these sweeteners and refined sugar is that they often provide additional nutritional value.
Natural fruit sugars: Eating fruit may curb a sweet tooth, and fruit provides the body with beneficial fibre, antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients. Highly processed fruit juice however, is not the same as eating the whole fruit (see below for more information on this). If a package reads "Fruit-Juice Sweetened,” the food probably has no more health benefit than if it contained straight sugar.
All-natural maple syrup: Incredibly flavourful and rich in calcium, potassium, iron, and other trace mineral, maple syrup can be used to flavour foods. Options include liquid syrup or granulated maple sugar crystals for adding to recipes and for baking.
Local raw honey: Unprocessed honey is a great option as it has antibacterial properties, and is filled with phytonutrients. Keep in mind it loses those benefits when heated. **Not recommended for little ones under a year old.
Brown Rice Syrup: Although brown rice is highly nutritious, rice syrup contains very few nutrients. It also has a glycemic range of 25-98 (depending on the brand, it may be higher than almost every other sweetener on the market). Lastly, arsenic has been discovered in rice and rice syrups (as well as products sweetened with them.) In certain places, rice fields grow where cotton once was, contributing to a higher toxic load.
Black Strap Molasses: A thick, dark, by-product that remains when sugar is made from cane or beet (it's basically the nutrients that were stripped away when making the white sugar), black strap molasses is high in iron, calcium, vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, and others. Buy organic and avoid GMO's!
Rapadura or Sucanat: Made from organic cane sugar but is unrefined (so the nutrients have not been stripped away), sucanat contains vitamins, minerals, and other trace elements.
Coconut Palm Sugar: Also known as “coconut nectar sugar” or “coconut sugar”, has a lower glycemic index. Avoid the brands that mix in cane sugar with coconut palm sugar. Good to have on hand for baking.
Yacon: A lesser known syrup, yacon might be a good replacement for brown rice syrup. It’s extracted from the roots of the Yacon plant. It's high in FOS (fructooligosaccharides), which feed good bacteria and is a 1 on the glycemic index scale. Delicious! We like this one by Organic Traditions.
Agave: Commercially produced agave nectar contains a whopping 90% fructose (almost twice as high as high fructose corn syrup). High levels of fructose consumption may be associated with adverse health effects such as insulin resistance, increased abdominal fat, and fatty liver disease. We don't recommend using this.
Stevia: Naturally very sweet, Stevia is an herb that doesn’t raise blood sugar levels like other sweeteners. Be careful of Stevia products on grocery store shelves which often are made from highly refined stevia leaf extract. The best option is the ground up leaves (will be a green powder).
When deciding on a healthy sugar alternative, consider these guidelines:
- Choose as natural as possible.
- Look for alternatives that provide additional nutritional value.
- Choose options that are lower on the glycemic index.
- Look for options with the least amount of processing.
- Always practice moderation for you and your little ones. The more sugar we consume, the more we want.
- When adding sugar, consider the glycemic load of the food: Does it have a significant amount of fat, protein and fibre compared to the carbohydrate/ sugar content? All of these will decrease the spike in blood sugar.
- Look for “Fair Trade Certified”: this is a biggy from an ethical and environmental perspective.
- Finally, when you do go for it, really enjoy! Close your eyes, take your time and enjoy it guilt free! In Chinese medicine, sweet is one of the essential flavours meant to keep the body in balance.
What about fruit juices?
Many parents seem to be under the impression that fruit juice is part of a healthy diet. Marketing does a good job of convincing us of this. However, when compared to soft drinks, fruit juice doesn’t appear much different;
- A 12 oz serving of 100% orange juice contains 165 calories and 34 grams of sugar. The same amount of cola contains 156 calories and 36 grams of sugar!
- Lack of fibre: Although fruit juice comes from a nutritious fruit, the final product doesn’t include the skin and the pulp which contain almost all of the fibre. Without fibre, sugar is absorbed quickly into the blood stream.
- Decreased phytochemicals: Processing the fruit into juice may also reduce disease-fighting phytochemicals which also reside mainly in the skin and pulp.
Note: There is a major quality and nutrient difference between heavily processed juices and cold-pressed organic juice. However, even cold pressed juice can have a high glycemic index and it wouldn't be wise to consume these in large quantities (especially children).
A Word on Fructose
According to Dr. Ingrid Kohlstadt, a fellow of the American College of Nutrition and an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, "fructose — the sugar found naturally in fruit — is perfectly fine when you get it from whole foods like apples (about 7 percent fructose) — it comes with a host of vitamins, antioxidants and fibre. But when it’s commercially extracted from fruit, concentrated and made into a sweetener, it exacts a considerable metabolic price. Research shows that it’s the fructose part of sweeteners that is the most dangerous. Fructose causes insulin resistance and significantly raises triglycerides (a risk factor for heart disease). It also increases fat around the middle which in turn puts you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and Metabolic Syndrome"
The Bottom Line
From a functional nutrition perspective, we've come to believe that raw honey (produced from local bees, and not given under one year of age) and pure maple syrup (loaded with natural minerals ) would be better suited 'sweeteners' if you choose to sweeten at all. For a dry sweetener option, coconut sugar would be a good option. Keep in mind, we do not recommend adding sweeteners into your little one's diet until AT LEAST 1 year of age, and ideally not until after age 2.