When it comes to diet and health, sugar is probably the hottest topic there is and with good reason; what would life be like without a sweet treat from time to time?
Although there is a lot of confusion when it comes to different forms of sugar, it is important to understand that not all sweeteners are created equal. Depending on the type of sweetener you choose, some will come packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, while others will contain absolutely nothing at all. As with most foods, the best sweeteners are the ones that are found in their most natural forms, however, even too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
So, keep all of that in mind, let’s have a look at the best and worst sweeteners, in no particular order, so you know exactly which ones to reach for and why.
THE BEST SWEETENERS
Honey is one of the oldest and most natural sweeteners known to man. Depending on the region and season, honey can have a range of flavors, from dark and strongly flavored, to light and mildly flavored. Not only is honey a natural sweetener that has been used for generations, but it is also very well known for its health properties and nutritional benefits. Honey, specifically raw honey, is rich in beneficial enzymes, phytonutrients, is known for its antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, and contains natural enzymes, amino acids, iron, calcium, magnesium and Vitamin B6. It is also said that consuming local honey can help build up your immunity to common allergens in your area by introducing your body to the bee pollen from local bees. When buying honey, be sure to opt for local, raw and/or unpasteurized versions whenever possible to ensure it contains all of its beneficial health properties.
The process of making maple syrup is an age-old tradition that Indigenous peoples were practicing long before European settlers arrived. Maple syrup is available in a variety of different grades and colours including extra light, light, medium, amber and dark amber; the lighter the colour the more subtle the flavour. Given it is a natural sweetener made directly from the sap of maple trees, it contains a high concentration of trace minerals, namely manganese and zinc, as well as antioxidant properties similar to honey. When buying maple syrup, ensure that you are choosing 100% pure maple syrup as there are many alternative and fake versions on the market made with flavored corn syrup.
Molasses is the by-product of the creation of sugar from sugarcane, but unlike sugar is contains a wide variety of nutrients. Rich in iron, calcium, Vitamin B6 and selenium is a nutrient-dense sweetener with a slightly bitter taste, and although not as sweet as honey or maple syrup, molasses imparts a very distinct taste and works well in both sweet and savory dishes. In order to ensure that you are getting all of the nutritional benefits, be sure to opt for blackstrap molasses as it has the lowest sugar content and the highest concentration of nutrients.
Fruit is nature’s candy. In its natural state, fruit contains natural sugars and comes packed with fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals, making it the ideal form to use. However, fruit purées, fruit juices, and dried fruit are also great options as they are derived from a whole food and only lightly processed. Items such as applesauce, dates, raisins and dried cranberries are great options to help add a touch of sweetness to a recipe and can most certainly be enjoyed on their own. When opting for dried fruit, be sure to read the ingredients as some versions contain added vegetable oils and added sugars making them a less than ideal choice.
If you really need a crystalized sugar, raw cane sugar will be your best choice. Although refined white sugar also comes from sugarcane, unprocessed cane sugar is considered the most natural form of crystallized sugar. Cane sugar is the only form of crystallized sugar that is not fully separated from the molasses, hence its brownish color, and is, therefore, the least refined format available, however, it should still be used in moderation. When buying cane sugar, look for names such as raw cane sugar, sucanat, panela or rapadura as is comes under many labels.
THE WORST SWEETENERS
Although created with good intention, artificial sweeteners are not all they are cracked up to be. Artificial sweeteners are a mix of laboratory chemicals combined to create a sweet taste and were positioned as a “guilt-free” alternative to sugar given they contain zero calories. Unfortunately, it has now been well researched that artificial sweeteners actually contribute to more sweet cravings not less, and therefore also contribute to weight gain. However, the most detrimental aspect of artificial sweeteners is actually their chemical makeup, which has been shown to negatively impact our gut bacteria, which is the ultimate key to our health. Therefore, it is best to avoid all forms of artificial sweeteners including aspartame (Equal™), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low™), sucralose (Splenda™), Ace-K, and Nutrasweet™.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup, also known as HFCS, is the darling of the food industry as it is cheap to make and easy to use. In fact, high fructose corn syrup is found in everything from soda to granola bars to microwave dinners and so-called healthy cereals. Unfortunately, HFCS is one of the most processed sweeteners on the market and its overconsumption has been linked to many serious health issues, including diabetes and heart disease.
Table sugar sometimes referred to as white sugar, is the most processed version of sugar. Although traditionally made from sugarcane, table sugar is now also made from GMO sugar beets and is highly refined. Although certainly fine consumed from time to time, when opting for granulated sugar raw cane sugar will always be the best option.