Science has shown that refined sugar in excess can cause impaired immune health, disturbance in our gut microbiome, affect our metabolic health, inflammation and hormonal imbalance. I try to strike a balance when it comes to sweet treats. I let my kids enjoy refined sugar occasionally, but in my cooking and baking, I prefer to use other methods to sweeten my food.
But there is no need to worry- our bodies can handle a little excess sugar from time to time.
The important thing to keep in mind is maintaining balance. While our bodies can digest sugar decently well, our diet is typically so overridden with sugar that the overload becomes a burden to our immune and gut health.
The best thing you can do is be informed about what you are consuming, so you can feel empowered to eat sugar and take care of your health.
That’s why I am sharing the low down on all things sugar so that you stay informed.
Table sugar & high fructose corn syrup - This sugar is in the majority of all conventional sweets. A little won’t hurt, but try to avoid consuming large doses.
Cane sugar - Less refined than table sugar but really adds very little nutritional value and will spike insulin. 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 in my cooking.
Brown rice, rice syrup - These are in my opinion not much better than table sugar, and I avoid these when I can.
Agave syrup - This one catches people out because it is touted as a low glycemic index (i.e. does not spike blood sugar). Whilst that is true, it is a concentrated source of fructose. Don’t get me wrong, 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 blood stream, 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 have caused various detriments to health, either via direct damaging effects or its effects on the gut microbiome.
Stevia - Unprocessed stevia leaves that have simply been dried and ground up is a great choice. I have a stevia plant or I buy the powder from Family Farm Toscano, a local farmer. Although it tastes 'sweet', it is a little different, and some people say they get an aftertaste with it. I usually mix it with a little date paste or maple syrup, so there is still some REAL sugar; it allows me to reduce the other sweeteners that I use by around ½ when I combine it.
Erythritol - Similar to stevia, it does not quite taste ‘sugary sweet’ but it can help to reduce the amount of other sweeteners I use. The issue with both stevia and erythritol is the processing. Sometimes these have gone through chemical manipulation e.g. bleaching, which I am not a fan of.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol. In general, sugar alcohols can cause bloating and abdominal issues because it can be fermented by our gut bacteria when not absorbed. Erythritol causes less issues in this respect compared to the other sugar alcohols like xylitol, because around 90% is absorbed and excreted unchanged in the urine. If you have IBS or gut issues, monitor your symptoms on sugar alcohols and discuss with your doctor. If you don't have gut issues, these can be good substitutes for sugar in small amounts. In larger amounts, we don't know if it may have an effect on the gut microbiome.
Honey, pure maple syrup, pure maple sugar, blackstrap molasses - These are ok choices because they contain some micronutrients. Obviously, if you are vegan, honey is not for you. In excess, these will still cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin.
My favorite out of these is blackstrap molasses due to its relative nutrient density (e.g. minerals like iron). However, it does have a unique taste that some kids do not like…. Try to combine it with another sweetener e.g. maple syrup or date paste, if you don't like the taste.
Coconut sugar - This is better than table sugar, and can contain some nutrients but it is still sugar so use in moderation.
Date paste - My sweetener of choice because it is whole foods based, so it retains some of the fiber, nutrients and antioxidants. Please note that date ‘syrup’ is different - it is usually devoid of fiber, although still better than refined sugar because it contains some antioxidants and nutrients.
If you feel you've been having more sugar than usual I would suggest that you download my detox guide. This guide will teach you how to detox your body the right way.