The Best Natural Sweeteners to Use
Life is certainly a little sweeter with sugar. However, the levels of sugar that our society is currently consuming is a direct reflection of our global chronic health concerns. On average, we’re only supposed to consume 25-36g of added sugar a day (this doesn’t include the beautiful natural sugars in fruits), but realistically the average American consumes 71.14g each day - that’s 17 whole teaspoons!
Excessive sugar consumption is playing a major role in overall health; it may cause glucose levels to spike and plummet, increase the risk of diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, impact immune function, lead to chromium deficiency, accelerate aging, cause tooth decay and gum disease (which can lead to heart disease), affect cognition in children, increase strength, and take the place of important nutrients.
But doing away with sweet flavors altogether doesn’t have to be an option. Here are our picks of the best natural sweeteners to use.
One of the most-reached-for sweeteners in the Food Matters kitchen is maple syrup. In it’s purest form, when taken from the sap of the maple tree, it’s taste is enough to sweeten even the most bitter of dishes with a lovely homely flavor. Not only is it a beautiful sweetener, but when enjoyed in balance it can actually have some incredible health benefits. It contains calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese, alongside at least 24 antioxidants. Plus, some active compounds in maple syrup have been shown to help reduce the growth of cancer cells and may slow down the breakdown of carbohydrates in the digestive tract. But be cautious, the pure form isn’t to be confused with maple-flavored syrup, which is sugar syrup with chemically derived maple flavors.
A simple swap for any sweet recipe is coconut sugar. This is still to be consumed in moderation (and can usually be used in half the amount that any recipe calls for), but carries a lot more nutrients than refined white sugar. It is made from the dehydrated sap of the coconut palm and retains nutrients such as the minerals iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, along with some short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants.
This fruit is one of the most nutrient-rich sources of natural sugars and can be used in anything from baking and smoothies to salads and syrups. This high-fiber fruit is perhaps best known for its powerful digestive properties, but it’s good for so much more than that. Dates have a widespread nutrient profile and are packed with various antioxidants, alongside helping regulate cholesterol levels, strengthening the nervous system, and improving bone health.
Another syrupy sweetener we often reach for is honey. This option is naturally delicious and I love it for the abundance of health and antimicrobial benefits it offers. Manuka honey for instance, a native honey produced by bees who pollinate the manuka bush, is known for wound healing, oral health, and soothing sore throats. As honey becomes more widely used for health purposes, emerging studies are confirming what we already know; that the antibacterial benefits are extremely potent and it’s a powerful last-resort medication.
Because it’s an animal byproduct, honey is technically not vegan - so may not be a suitable option for all. We also need to be cautious of sustainability. Bees are required for pollination, to ensure our ecosystems are thriving, but our growing demand for the product is leading to a honey bee decline. To meet the growing demand, industrial bee farming has become the norm - the US has seen over a 40% decline in honey bees. Supporting local, sustainable beekeepers is one of the best decisions you can make.
Monk Fruit Powder
I love getting my sweeteners from sources as close to nature as possible, so monk fruit is also a great option I keep on hand. The extract is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar and contains zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium, and zero fat. Most noticeably, it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels, making it a popular option for diabetics and health-conscious foodies. The sweetener is derived from the native Chinese plant, and many properties have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for centuries. Monk fruit powder is often available at your local health food store, so if you’re looking to branch out this is a wonderful option.
I’m not personally a fan of stevia, as it is often heavily processed and can taste bitter to me. Many of the readily available alternatives are also packed with artificial additives too. But some people like this option and it can provide sweetness without spiking blood sugar levels. Stevia is a nonnutritive sweetener, and while the zero-calorie approach may appeal to some, it’s also important to note that it lacks any good nutrients too. The lowered glucose and insulin levels found in clinical studies were not due to the compounds of stevia, but rather the elimination of standard sugar from the diet.
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