By now, you’ve been trained to fear all things sweet because of their deleterious health effects and unwanted weight gain. But you’ve also been wired to desire them every now and again (and again and again and again).
Straight-up white sugar has been sufficiently trashed in the media by now to make it undoubtedly clear to everyone that it’s bad news. But many other natural sweeteners are still being marketed as “healthy alternatives” that can get you that sweet fix without all the negative consequences.
You don’t want to be duped by false advertising and inadvertently harm your health. But you also desperately want to believe! You’ve been waiting with baited breath to hear that some sweeteners are perfectly harmless to eat, and that some – hope of all hopes – could actually even be GOOD for you!
And now, here it is…drum roll please…insert nervous lip biting emoji here…recent studies have rolled in that suggest that certain sweeteners actually may have health benefits associated with them!!!
Warning Warning Warning: This does NOT give you free reign to use any sweetener indiscriminately and without portion control, as eating too much of anything has negative health consequences, and caloric sweeteners are still calorie-rich and definitely contribute to weight gain. However, if you are going to treat yourself every now and then for sticking to your weight loss program and staying committed to good health behavior, than its definitely better to reward yourself with sweet things that reward your health as right back.
Here’s what science has to say about these 13 popular sweeteners.
Sweeteners that May Come with Some Sweet Health Benefits
Stevia is a green leafy plant and plant extract that is native to South America. Its commercial popularity has grown considerably in recent years among dieters seeking no-calorie sweetener alternatives, but the science behind its safety has been a long time coming. This is because of research that emerged from Japan back in the ‘90s that found that steviosides (the active ingredient in stevia) transforms into toxic compounds inside the guts of rats, causing a large spike in mutagenic DNA damage. While steviosides appeared to be harmless to humans, the question still remained whether or not a similar reaction may occur in our guts when we eat stevia.
The jury is finally in, and it turns out that harmful mutagenic compounds are produced in our guts and absorbed into our blood stream when we eat a certain amount of stevia. However, the World Health Organization considers the consumption of 4 mg of stevia per kilogram of body weight to be perfectly safe. This means that limiting yourself to about 2 stevia-sweetened foods per day can be considered harmless. While this means that stevia isn’t necessarily the answer to all of our sweet prayers after all, other studies have found that consuming stevia in these limited amounts in place of sugar could be associated with health benefits such as lower blood pressure, blood sugar levels and risk of diabetes.
Erythritol is naturally found in pears and grapes, but for the purposes of industrial production we make erythritol ourselves using yeasts. It’s a sugar alcohol that is favored among low-carb eaters because it contains no calories, does not affect blood glucose, and unlike some other sugar alcohols (like Xylitol), laxative effects are not commonly reported. It doesn’t cause cavities and has not been implicated in many of the health issues that other sweeteners have been associated with, like headaches, hyper-tension, pre-term birth, fibromyalgia, brain disorders or platelet disorders. It appears to be well tolerated and shows no signs of toxicity. Even more exciting news is that a 2010 study published in Nutrition shows that erythritol may also come with beneficial antioxidant benefits, helping to protect red blood cells from harmful oxidative damage. This means that erythritol can be used to safely replace sugar and, at the same time, also helps to reduce unhealthy free radical damage. Look for erythritol that is GMO-free.
3. Date Sugar
A recent article in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association measured the beneficial antioxidant content of a whole list of common sweeteners. Agave nectar, corn syrup, cane sugar and brown sugar all basically weighed in with the same score as regular white sugar, equally demonstrating essentially no antioxidant benefits. Turbinado sugar came in just a little bit higher, while the sweetener that scored even lower than conventional white sugar was brown rice syrup.
Date sugar, on the other hand, showed impressive antioxidant health benefits. Date sugar is not actually sugar – it’s just whole dates that have been dried and pulverized into a convenient powder. Moreover, as a whole plant food, it retains its fiber and therefore has a lower glycemic index than many common sweeteners. Alternatively, you can simply use fresh pitted dates or date paste (fresh whole dates that have been soaked and puréed) to sweeten baked good, smoothies and other dishes – just be sure to soak them in water overnight before using them, to soften them and make blending easier. Use fresh dates to make this high-protein low-carb skinny chocolate mousse.
4. Blackstrap molasses
While this is a by-product of the sugar-refining process, blackstrap molasses is considered a healthy nutritive sweetener because it retains many of the micronutrients from the whole sugar cane plant, rich in potassium, copper, iron, calcium and B vitamins with a relatively lower glycemic index than refined sugar. Black strap molasses has a distinctively rich sweet flavor and a deep, dark color. Blackstrap molasses came in second best after date sugar as a sweetener with significant antioxidant health benefits. Molasses is a calorie sweetener, and you should stick to unsulphured blackstrap molasses from organic sugar. It melds perfectly into this exotic coconut curried salmon with sesame ginger green beans dish.
5. Raw Wild Honey
Honey ranks relatively high on the glycemic index, which means it spikes your blood sugar rapidly and must be eaten in small controlled amounts. However, raw unfiltered Manuka honey contains natural antioxidants, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. It also exhibits potent antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-tumor properties, which is why it has been widely used for hundreds of years as an effective wound healing agent and medicinal treatment.
Avoid pasteurized and processed honeys, as these are devoid of most of the beneficial properties that raw honey displays (and a recent study showed that most popular-brand processed “honeys” don’t even contain real honey anyway). One hundred percent pure, raw, unpasteurized, unfiltered wild honey is the healthiest honey that contains the largest amount and variety of beneficial nutrients.
6. 100% Pure Maple Syrup
Made from evaporate maple tree sap, pure maple syrup contains magnesium, zinc, calcium, B vitamins, vitamin A, and over 100 bioactive compounds with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Moreover, after a wave of recent research on maple syrup, the American Chemical Society has declared that 100% pure maple syrup may actually be considered a functional brain food along with the likes of other prestigious brain foods like green tea, red wine and turmeric. These ground-breaking maple syrup studies demonstrated significant protective effects on the brain that could possibly stave off or slow down the onset of brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
While maple syrup contains less net carbs than honey and coconut sugar, it is still a caloric sweetener and should be consumed in moderation. Be sure that the product you buy specifies that it’s 100% pure maple syrup that is free of preservatives, artificial dyes or flavors, and avoid maple flavored syrups, pancake syrups and other imitation syrups.
Enjoy brain-boosting maple syrup in this fabulously uplifting weight-loss dinner recipe for Maple-Glazed Chicken Breast.