Nowadays it seems that sugar is all around us in many forms, from the sugar in the yogurt that we pack in our kids lunch boxes to the high-fructose corn syrup in our sandwich bread to the sugar, brown sugar syrup and maple syrup in our “healthy” granola bars!
In this article:
When you start to look at the nutrition and ingredient panels of your favorite foods you begin to realize that it’s a whole lot more difficult to avoid sugar than you think!
Perhaps avoiding doesn’t have to be the solution. Yes, it is a good idea to limit your daily sugar intake no matter what the source, but what about this approach as well: switching your sweetener source for improved health without completely cutting it out of your family’s diet – something that seems to be not only impossible, but a little cruel, especially for a family with a sweet tooth! We all deserve a little sweetness in our lives after all, don’t we?
But which sugar sources are good for us and which aren’t? With so much information knocking around on the internet, it’s sometimes tough to tell. Well, we’re here to help!
The basics to understand regarding sweeteners are three-fold: glycemic index, fructose vs. glucose and nutritional value.
Essentially, the glycemic index is a scaling system used to predict how much your blood sugar will spike after eating certain foods.
We find it extremely important to understand the terms of a subject in order to understand the subject. That is why we will always define the words you are bound to hear over and over again in a way that is easy to understand and remember.
Glycemic Index (GI)
Put simply, the glycemic index is a system the ranks foods from 0 to 100 based on their effect on your blood-sugar levels.
A stalk of raw celery will rank 0 on the glycemic index, whereas a Snickers bar ranks at 55. However, a banana ranks up around 48, demonstrating, as we will elaborate on further down, that the Glycemic Index is only one variable to consider when choosing sugar sources.
Glycemic Load (GL)
This is where things get more complicated. Basically, the glycemic load helps to better determine the quality of your food. It does so by using this formula:
GI x # of carbs
It is a way to determine how each carb you eat will affect your blood sugar and, therefore, essentially, how good it is for you.
Going back to our banana example, if an average banana falls around 48 on the glycemic index with about 27 carbs.
48 x 27
The glycemic load of a banana would be around 13.
As we are champions for keeping things easy, we aren’t encouraging you to break out the calculator and figure out the glycemic load in each meal for each member of your family! We supply the definition because we know you may encounter it out there in reading up on blood sugar and also because we don’t want you to get GI confused with GL.
Thus, to keep things simple, we will say that this is where moderation kicks in. Yes, bananas are good for you. Potassium, vitamin B6, fiber and vitamin C. However, if all you ate were bananas, the amount of sugar you consumed would far outweigh the benefits of any vites and minerals you would get. Banana, however, are a far better source of sugar than, say, high-fructose corn syrup for a couple of reasons. Read on.
Fructose vs. Glucose
There are two main types of sugar to be aware of, fructose and glucose. It is important to understand these two types of sugar as our body processes each of them differently and each have their own harmful effects.
A sweetener can be all of one type of sugar, either fructose or glucose or can be a combination of the two in varying ratios. High-fructose corn syrup, for example, is anywhere between 42% and 55% fructose with the remaining percentage being glucose and other sugar. Standard table sugar is 50% fructose, 50% glucose.
Glucose is a simple sugar derived from carbohydrates such as sugary and starchy foods. It acts as an energy source for our bodies. When it is flowing through our veins it is known as blood sugar.
Glucose comes from the foods that we eat and has a direct effect on our blood sugar levels. The effect of glucose within our blood is what is being measured on the Glycemic Index as discussed above.
When talking about sugar, it is important to understand this relationship that this type of sugar has to our blood sugar.
There are a couple things that we are generally concerned with when we are watching our glucose sugar intake. The first is that it spikes our blood sugar. Spikes in blood sugar have been known to lead to diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The second concern is that eating too much sugar leads to weigh gain.
Fructose is a sugar that is found in fruit and honey and most root vegetables. Once thought to be quite healthy, it has now been found to be quite damaging in high amounts.
There are three very important things to note about fructose specifically. One is that fructose lies very low on the glycemic index at around 19, which means that it won’t spike your blood sugar. An apple, for example is at around 36 on the scale. This makes fructose seemingly a good alternative.
However, there are two other very important aspects to factor in regarding fructose. These are (1) that fructose does not convert to energy as quickly as glucose does, meaning it will store more quickly and easily as fat, and (2) that fructose goes straight to your liver. Consuming an excess amount of fructose results in your liver converting that fructose into fat inside your liver. Eventually, an overabundance will cause your liver to accumulate tiny fat droplets inside of the liver cells. This is called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
As you can see, there are some separate but equally concerning effects of both glucose and fructose.
Natural vs. Processed Sugars
The body breaks down natural sugars like honey or maple syrup much more easily than it does processed sugars.
It is also important to note that natural sugars seem not to be reliably connected to obesity like processed forms of sugar such as refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are. Our ancestors have been eating some forms of natural sugar for centuries, whereas processed sugars, as you know, um, haven’t been.
Simply put, processed sugars add both sugar spike and calories to one’s diet while adding little to no nutritional value.
Natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup contain vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids and enzymes. If you choose to add a sweetness to your family’s day, wouldn’t you prefer all of that good stuff to go along with it?
SO WHAT SWEETENERS SHOULD I SWITCH TO?
Most honey falls around 55 on the GI scale with a majority of that sugar coming from fructose and about a third from naturally occurring glucose. Honey is a natural sugar and contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids.
Raw honey is the best option as it falls around 30 GI, whereas some processed varieties can land at about 75 GI!
Maple syrup and maple sugar, which is a crystalized form of maple syrup that can be used in place of refined sugar, has a GI of 54. It is a natural sugar containing vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It is primarily made up of naturally-forming sucrose which breaks down equally into fructose and glucose.
Stevia is one of the best alternatives as it is a sweetener that is naturally 0 GI. Derived from the stevia root or leaf, it is completely fructose free and does not seem to affect your blood sugar levels. It is a great alternative for some uses.
It does have a very distinctive flavor and an aftertaste that can take some getting used to. Some do not enjoy the flavor. Additionally, it is 200 times sweeter than sugar so must be used very sparingly and cannot be used as a cup for cup replacement for refined sugar, making recipe conversions rather difficult.
Fruits & Fruit Purees
Another alternative to sweeteners is to use fruit purees. Sweetening baked goods with applesauce, sweet potato puree or mashed bananas is a great way to add sweetness while being more whole foods conscious. Dates are also great natural sweeteners. Each fruit replacement is 100% natural and comes with its own unique offering of vitamins and minerals.
WHAT SHOULD I AVOID?
The refined sugar, or table sugar, that we are all used to clocks in at 65 on the GI scale and contains essentially no added nutritional value. It is processed, making it more difficult for our body to digest. As far as its glucose/fructose balance, it holds a 1:1 ratio. Refined sugar should at every opportunity be substituted for healthier sweetener choices.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is one of the Frankenstein’s of the early food science era. We could write a whole article just on HFCS alone! It ranks at 68 on the glycemic index, is of course highly processed and has absolutely no nutritional value.
When HFCS was introduced into the food supply in the 1970s. Since its introduction and subsequent proliferation into a vast number of our processed food items, obesity rates have sky-rocketed.
HFCS is not processed in our bodies the same way that other sugars are. It is more taxing to our bodies and more quickly leads to fat stores accumulating. Avoid high-fructose corn syrup whenever possible.
With a rather low glycemic index of 13, agave has masqueraded as a good-for-you sweetener for some years now. This is due to a preemptive prognosis by doctors several years back awarding agave syrup with the improper reputation of being a healthy alternative to other sweeteners.
Doctors even advised diabetic patients to use this as a substitute. It was later found that agave, while low on the glycemic index, is extremely high in fructose! Agave contains even higher amounts of fructose than high-fructose corn syrup! As discussed above in the fructose section, agave should not be classified as a good-for-you sweetener due to higher tendency of converting to fat and to the dangers it poses to your liver.
They fall under many names, but the most common are Aspartame (Nutri-Sweet, Equal) Sucralose (Splenda), and Saccharin (Sweet ‘N’ Low). Many may claim to be zero calories but there are many dangers that outweigh those low-cal benefits.
Artificial sweeteners can trick your brain into expecting more calories than you have actually ingested and then demand more calories to satisfy that promise, thus causing you to overeat later. Many sweeteners have also been linked to cancerous tumor growth in laboratory animals, though adequate studies on humans have never been properly performed.
It is important to weigh all of the above factors to select the best sweeteners to keep inside your household. There are, of course, others on the do list and on the don’t list, but now you have a guide to evaluate the benefits and disadvantages of each. The good news is that, due to a better educated and more impassioned health community, there are now many alternatives and substitutes that can easily turn your house into a healthier home overnight.
To your good habits and a healthier, happier family!
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