Everyone by now realizes that a diet high in sugar leads to health issues and obesity. Artificial sweeteners are a substitute for sugar but are also linked to health and weight issues. Today, we have an array of alternative sweeteners on the market. Which ones are better and are they the magical solution to having dessert while maintaining a healthy lifestyle?
Our brains are hard-wired for the taste of sugar. Our foraging ancestors would determine if a food was safe or rich in nutrients by how sweet it tasted. Sugar and added sugars (those not naturally occurring in food) are so prevalent in our diet that the average American consumes 32 teaspoons of sugar per day. So can we still splurge and satisfy our sweet tooth while maintaining a healthy lifestyle? If you search for low carb desserts on the Internet, you will find many recipes for brownies, cakes and cookies that are made with honey, coconut palm sugar or maple syrup. Let’s examine the pros and cons of these common alternative sweeteners.
Honey is one of the oldest sweeteners known to man. Its structure is similar to high fructose corn syrup in that it is 38% fructose and 31% glucose. The main difference is that honey contains beneficial properties like enzymes, other proteins, minerals and polyphenols. Polyphenols are micronutrients that help protect us against cardiovascular disease and cancer. Raw honey has a better nutrient profile than regular (pasteurized) honey because nutrients are lost during the heating process. Raw honey is opaque and much thicker than pasteurized honey. Some agree that local honey is preferred over store bought since it contains plant pollens from the local area providing protection against seasonal allergies. One teaspoon contains 21 calories.
The Native American Indians brought us maple syrup. It is made from the sap of the maple tree. Most maple syrup originates from Canada. It is mainly sucrose. The extraction process is performed in two steps and 100% natural. You may have noticed there are grades listed on labels of the brands of syrups-Grade A and Grade B. Grade A is further classified based on the color of the syrup-light, medium or dark amber. Grade A syrup is best for use on pancakes, French toast and waffles. Grade B maple syrup is very dark and is best used in baking. Maple syrup does contains minerals and antioxidants. The darker the syrup the more there are of these health-promoting compounds. One teaspoon contains 17 calories.
The last alternative sweetener we will talk about is coconut sugar sometimes called coconut palm sugar. This sugar is derived from the sap of the coconut flower not the coconut. The extraction process is also a natural two-step process. Its main components are sucrose and glucose. Coconut sugar tastes and looks similar to brown sugar. It contains some minerals, polyphenols and antioxidants just like the other two. It also contains short chain fatty acids and a type of fiber known as inulin. Inulin helps to slow the absorption of glucose into the blood stream helping to better control your blood glucose response. One teaspoon contains 15 calories.
So to recap, while the above sweeteners contain trace amounts of antioxidants, minerals and polyphenols that are beneficial for health, in the end they still are sugar. Yes, they are a better choice than refined sugar because of their added benefits however they are not a miracle food. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that desserts made with these are healthy and can be eaten frequently. Sugar, in its variety of forms, still has the same effect on our health and waistlines. On those special occasions when you need a treat then chose a recipe using an alternative sweetener. Keep the emphasis on “special” and don’t make it a habit.