There is no doubt that refined sugar in excess can cause impaired immune health, disturbance in our gut microbiome, inflammation, hormonal imbalance, aging of our skin, and so much more...
Our bodies can handle sugar, and if you are metabolically healthy, occasional treats will not affect your health. However, 7 out of 8 Americans are NOT metabolically healthy. So when they eat sugar, it has an exaggerated impact on their energy levels, mood, and mental clarity.
The typical western diet is so overridden with sugar that the overload becomes a burden to our immune, liver, and gut health. There is sugar in EVERYTHING - ketchup, yogurt, milk, granola bars, cereal, coffee, tea, you get the gist.
Food companies add sugar to get us hooked and buy more. Since consumers have woken up to the fact that too much sugar is bad for us, companies now try to disguise sugar in many different ways - from changing the name to misleading labels and marketing strategies, they have become masters at concealing sugar in their products.
One of the main things food companies do to hide sugar is to change the name from ‘sugar’ to something that seems to be healthier.
Food companies get creative when it comes to naming sugar on their ingredient list. For dry and liquid sugar, there are about 40+ different names they can use to disguise sugar.
Of course, there are typical pseudo names, such as glucose, fructose, and sucrose. But now that health-conscious people know to look for those, they have started using even more specific terms, because sugar comes in so many different forms.
For dry sugar, here are a few common ones:
And for liquid sugar, it is usually added in the form of a ‘syrup.’ So keep an eye out for any ingredients with ‘syrup’ added to the end, as well as:
Food companies hide sugar by promoting claims like ‘no refined sugar’ or ‘refined sugar-free.’
In reality, this wording simply means no white sugar is in the product, not that there is no added sugar.
Simply put, 'refined sugar free' can still spike your blood sugar.
Food companies will also switch out white sugar for healthier options, such as coconut sugar or agave.
While these healthier sugars are easier to digest, have a lower glycemic index, and are marketed as more nutritious, they can still spike your blood sugar and insulin, leading to metabolic problems down the line if consumed in excess.
Also, watch out for products marketed as ‘low-fat’ or ‘diet.’ Most of these foods are low-fat because they are incredibly high in sugar!
Did you know those food companies are required to list the ingredients from the highest mass in the product to the lowest?
To bypass this, food companies will use multiple sugar types in one product, so the amount of each sugar is low.
Because of this, you might not see any form of sugar in a product until near the end…
But the trick here is that when you add up all of the sugar, it can still affect your health.
When you are reading the label, make sure to verify the serving size portion.
Food companies will decrease the serving size to a small and unrealistic amount to reduce the amount of sugar listed on the label.
Keep in mind that the amount of sugar listed there is per serving, not per container.
A food company's ingredient label may even trick you by using many different types of sugar in one product.
Unexpected Sources of Sugar
Hidden sugar is almost everywhere these days; sometimes, I believe it has become harder now to find foods with sugar in plain sight.
Along with reading your ingredient labels, make sure to be cautious of these foods that contain hidden sugar.
Yogurt - Even non-dairy yogurts can contain a ton of hidden sugar, mostly low-fat and flavored yogurts.
Sauces - Everything from spaghetti sauce to ketchup, and especially BBQ sauce!
Protein bars - Protein is a very satisfying nutrient, and protein bars can be an excellent snack for those of you on the go. But some bars can contain up to 20g of sugar, so read your labels first and try to find bars with natural sources of sugar (like dates).
Cereal - An easy and quick breakfast, especially for kids. But it is also packed with sugar and low in fiber, so it can leave them feeling hungry within a few hours. When shopping for cereal, try to find high fiber to slow the sugar absorption, and make cereal an occasional fun food, a snack, not an everyday food or breakfast.
Canned foods - This includes canned baked beans, soups, and fruits.
Fruit Juice - There are a few vitamins and minerals present, but it becomes a massive serving of sugar without the fiber.
Sports Drinks - Gatorade, Vitamin Water, and Powerade are all packed with sugar. Typically, these drinks are for athletes during intense workouts for a quick boost of energy. But unless you are a professional athlete, I would steer clear of these sugary drinks.
Pre-made Smoothies - Before you stop at your local Tropical Smoothie, take a look at what is really in your cup. If they contain loads of fruit juice and syrups they become a hidden sugar source instead of a healthy breakfast.
Flavored Coffee and Tea- Frappuccinos, lattes, and even iced teas. These popular beverages contain tons of sweetened milk and flavored syrups, which is just sugar in disguise.
The bottom line is that you need to know where to find it to be aware of how much sugar you are consuming!
The best thing you can do when it comes to packaged food is to turn the packet over and read the nutritional label - look for the 'added sugars' section to see how much sugar has been added to the product, and watch out for a trick some companies use to make this number look lower - by adjusting the portion size to be smaller... I am a proponent of being informed about what you are consuming, so you can feel empowered.
Now, when it comes to baking and cooking at home, a lot of people ask me what the best form of sweetener is, so I'm breaking it down here.
Table sugar & high fructose corn syrup - These are in the majority of all conventional processed foods. A little won’t hurt, but avoid regular consumption. Popular syrup like Aunt Jemima, Aunt Buttercup are mostly high fructose corn syrup - processed fructose is a big contributor to fatty liver disease, hormone imbalance, and metabolic syndrome. (p.s. I am NOT talking about fructose in fruit, however. This is bound to fiber and comes with antioxidants, do not fear food, but do be very weary of fructose in packaged foods).
Cane sugar - Less refined than table sugar but really adds very little nutritional value, and will spike your blood sugar and insulin (this hormone makes you put on fat). Common in processed foods and I am ok with it in small amounts because it is hard to avoid in packaged food, but I don't keep it as an ingredient in the house or use it in my cooking. Don't think 'organic' cane sugar is fine - it may be lower in pesticides but will still spike your blood sugar just like table sugar!
Brown rice/rice syrup - These are in my opinion not much better than table sugar, and I avoid them especially since they could be a source of arsenic.
Agave syrup - This one catches people out because it is touted as having a low glycemic index (i.e. does not spike blood sugar). Whilst that is true, it can be a concentrated source of fructose. As mentioned earlier, I am fine with fructose in fruits which is bound up in fiber and released much more slowly. Concentrated fructose in syrup or liquid form, however, is another story. It is absorbed and released rapidly into the bloodstream, puts a heavy burden on our liver, and in excess has been associated with fatty liver and poor metabolic health. Agave is not the healthy alternative people make it. Use sparingly.
Artificial sweeteners - Saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin) Acesulfame K (Sunett, Sweet One), Sucralose (Splenda), Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) have all been found to affect the gut microbiome and alter our metabolism so I avoid these. I share more about artificial sweeteners later in this article.
There are two types of sweeteners: Nutritive and Non-nutritive.
Nutritive - contain calories e.g. honey, maple syrup
Non-nutritive - provides no calories e.g. Splenda, Stevia, monk fruit
Stevia - is 200 times sweetener than sugar, and most people are familiar with stevia in the form of an extract, rather than whole leaf. Stevia extracts add no calories, and can be a great choice as a non-nutritive sweetener. The caveat is how it is processed and whether anything has been added to it. The extraction process may involve harmful chemicals, and many stevia sweeteners have been bleached white, and contain additives like ‘natural flavor’. These ‘extracts’ may also have an impact on our gut microbiome. Ironically, FDA has approved stevia extract Rebaudioside A (Reb A), but not the whole leaf. But personally, if I was to use stevia, I look for whole-leaf dried stevia - which is basically ground-up dried stevia leaves that have not been heavily processed, extracted, or bleached. If you have green thumbs, try growing stevia in your garden!
Whole leaf stevia may also have added benefits like cholesterol regulation.
I use this from time to time in my baking or desserts.
Monk fruit reminds me of my childhood when my grandma would brew teas using the dried, whole fruit. Again, what we know as ‘monk fruit’ nowadays in the west does not resemble the fruit itself - we usually see it as an extract. It is also known as a non-nutritive sweetener and can deliver that sweet taste without much of an effect on blood sugar. However, many are blended with sugar alcohols like erythritol, which, if you have GI issues, may cause bloating. It is difficult to find pure monk fruit without sugar alcohol. But here is one on Amazon although full disclosure, I've not tried it.
As explained above in the avoid list, the non-nutritive sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (Equol) are big no-no’s in my books. There is some preliminary evidence that these may negatively affect our gut microbiome and linked to insulin resistance. Steer clear of these.
Now here is the twist.
Although non-nutritive sweeteners do not provide calories or increase our blood sugar, they might still trigger our reward system in the brain and lead to more sugar cravings/increased appetite. Non-nutritive sweeteners like Monk fruit and stevia are a lot sweeter than sugar and when we consume them, our sweet taste receptors are activated. These ‘hyper-palatable foods’ can then trigger our reward system and can lead to overeating or more sugar cravings. More research is needed in this area, but for now, I would use pure monk fruit and whole-leaf stevia in small amounts. It's not a free for ALL for me as I personally believe it can lead to overeating.
There are two main ones.
Erythritol got some pretty bad rep recently in a study published in Nature Medicine - with headlines everywhere jumping on the bandwagon and claiming erythritol was associated with increased risks of heart attack and strokes. I must give credit to the Cleveland Clinic for doing this investigation, I've always had my doubts about these non-nutritive sweeteners and was glad to see some research... BUT, when you unpack this paper, you see that the headlines made were really unsubstantiated.
1) They measured blood erythritol levels in people who were unwell and undergoing cardiac assessment and found that those who had the highest level had double the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The problem is... they did not look at the dietary intake of these participants. And because our body naturally makes erythritol, there is no way of knowing if those with a high erythritol level even consumed the sweetener erythritol... or if their bodies made it. Since erythritol may be an early marker of cardiometabolic dysfunction, it is very possible that those with an increased risk of heart attack and strokes naturally made more erythritol endogenously inside their bodies, and that it had nothing to do with the sweetener. I am almost shocked they didn't address this important question in the study and assessed the dietary intake of erythritol in subjects.
2) They then gave 8 healthy individuals HUGE amounts of erythritol (30g) and measured their blood erythritol levels - they concluded that ingesting erythritol led to a marked and prolonged rise in blood erythritol to levels that were found in petri-dish studies to increase blood clotting. First of all, most people would not ingest anywhere near the amount they gave to the healthy volunteers. If you've ever tried erythritol, you'll know it is REALLY sweet - it's sweeter than sugar! Secondly, this does not in any form support the first point which they sort of tried to associate...
So... erythritol still remains my sugar alcohol of choice. I would not be consuming a lot of it, but I would continue to use it sparingly in my baking and desserts until I see better data on this.
So out of the two, erythritol is a better choice although it may still cause GI upset in some people, and the jury is out on its cardiovascular effects until we have more studies.
My favorite way to sweeten things is to use ripe bananas or homemade date paste.
Simply soak 10 pitted dates in water for 4-5 hours then blend into a smooth liquid/paste. If I want a slightly thicker and sweeter paste I use 1/2 cup water. If I want a more runny consistency, I blend with 1 cup water.
In my opinion, this is a better option than maple syrup - because it is almost the whole food itself, with some fiber and antioxidants included.
I also like coconut sugar, because it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, and contains way less fructose (only about 9%, compared to cane sugar which is 50%) - my favorite brand is Big Tree. Again, don't go crazy - it is not HEALTHY by any means, it is just a better option.
Honey, pure maple syrup, and blackstrap molasses are also other great options I use sometimes too - they all will still spike your blood sugar, but each contains some micronutrients. Obviously, if you are vegan, honey is not for you, but it can contain polyphenols and beneficial compounds. Maple syrup can provide some minerals, and blackstrap molasses can be a source of iron!
In reality, what I often do is combine whole-leaf stevia or monk fruit with coconut sugar or maple syrup - this allows me to add a sweet taste while using smaller amounts of a mixture of these - to minimize using any of them in large quantities.
If you want healthier comfort food recipes like chocolate mousse, cupcakes, pizza, check out my Comfort Foods ebook (10% off via this link) - full of drool-worthy, gluten, dairy, and refined sugar free recipes to satisfy those cravings in healthier ways!
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