Do you have a sweet tooth? Even if you don't (like me), when was the last time you ate something with sugar in it?
Sugar PERVADES our food supply – and it's contentious because in large quantities it does actual physical damage to our bodies, causing impaired cognitive function, compromised absorption of needed vitamins and minerals that we DO need, and has even been shown to reduce our immunity for up to six hours immediately following consumption. (Eek!)
If there's one ingredient we need to kick to the curb, it's sugar.
Yet this is insanely difficult – for two reasons:
1. Hidden sugar is nearly everywhere. It's in our condiments (even organic ones), it's in our bread, it's even in veggie burgers. And even those of us who avoid refined sugar still stir honey into our tea or grind dates into a paste to spread on toast.
2. Our bodies NEED a certain amount of sugar, so it's easy to hunger for it. But the truth is that our bodies turn all our food into the sugars they need, so sweeteners really are for the sweet taste, not to provide fuel for day-to-day lives.
Now, this said, I actually don't advocate living an entirely sugar-free life for the rest of your life. This is largely because there are lots of foods that excellent sources of other nutrients we need that also happen to contain sugar. Think of any fruit, or dates, or even sweet vegetables, such as beets or carrots. Depriving our bodies of these foods deprives them of more than just sugar and is an imbalance in the OTHER direction and I believe they can and should be eaten in moderation.
So what I DO advocate is resetting your body so that you can intentionally and healthily regulate the proper amount of sugar you eat. THIS is how you retrain your body to no longer crave it. Most important is minimizing your sugar intake and on knowing where sugar lurks so you can be intentional about including it as you desire.
If you would like to quit sugar altogether, Sarah Wilson is a consumate expert on this topic. Whether you browse her blog, join her 8-Week I Quit Sugar program, or purchase one of her books (this one is my favorite) that walks you through the steps of going sugar-free, you won't be disappointed.
First off, let's get one thing straight. There is one type of sugar that is more harmful than all the others – fructose. And FAR MORE SO – the processed version of fructose: high fructose corn syrup.
Here's why: Everything we eat eventually tells us: “okay, you've had enough.” With the exception of fructose! There is no “off switch” with fructose, which – if fruit were the only source of fructose we had – would be totally okay, because we would fill up on the fiber and other parts of the fruit long before the fructose would ever cause a problem. However, with fructose being ADDED as an individual ingredient to nearly everything because it's a cheap and abundant source of sugar, we've got a serious overload.
This is made even more serious because fructose is very quickly converted to fat, usually adipose fat, aka belly fat. Again this isn't of much worry if your only sugar is eating whole fruit in moderate doses – I'm talking like an orange and a banana per day or a small handful of dates – but in modern usage, this has become an endemic health disaster, as fructose is used as an additive in thousands of foods and it's metabolic absorption rate isn't hampered or slowed like it would be when it's eaten whole.
This is coupled with the fact that fructose, unlike other sugars, is metabolized almost entirely by the LIVER rather than used directly by the cells themselves, which is the case with glucose, which is about 80%. The liver has to break down fructose into the sugars that can be used by the body's cells, namely glucose and sucrose, and when there's an overload of fructose, it overloads the liver. I've seen pictures in medical journals where after years of heavy fructose intake, the liver actually looks the same as it does when it has dealt with years of alcohol abuse.
To make matters worse, fructose is metabolized even faster when it's in the presence of glucose, which – wouldn't you know – is exactly the make up of the sugar we stir into our coffee and use in our baked goods – sucrose, or table sugar. And in this case, it doesn't really matter whether we're talking about refined sugar or unrefined sugar – if we're just looking at how the body metabolizes these two sugars, the two are treated nearly identically.
And lastly, there is study after study that show that the high incidence of fructose in our diet literally makes us sick. It weakens our immune system, it heightens seasonal allergies, it interferes with the proper absorption of other nutrients, and a host of other illnesses.
Namely, we need to break up with sugar.
So, let's look at a few techniques for minimizing sugar intake, then I'll dive into different alternatives to sugar that you may (or may not) want to try.
1. First tip to minimize sugar: Eat fat. No, I'm not kidding. When the body starts feeling hungry, it's going to crave sugar or something it can easily convert to sugar, like simple carbohydrates, to give it instant fuel. But if you have an even intake of healthy fats, such as coconut oil and butter, coupled with high-quality proteins, like nuts or meats, your body will not crave sugar in the same way, as fat is a long-burning fuel source that leaves the body feeling satiated and without need for an instant fuel fix. Also, remember: The fat you eat is not what becomes the fat that your body stores – those are two different types of fat! Eating fat does not make you fat – SUGAR does.
2. Find herbal and plant sources to sweeten your day. Add a few lavendar blossoms, dried mint, or a cinnamon stick to your tea as you steep it to add sweetness. Use cream in your coffee instead of milk, both because it's slightly more concentrated in lactose (an okay sugar) and to give a bit of added fat. Use stevia extract in your baking – you can grow stevia on your patio just like any other herb and make the extract yourself, which tastes vastly better than anything in the grocery store, although those extracts are fine too. Drink kombucha with ginger or cinnamon. Make a smoothie of squash and coconut milk – if you add pumpkin pie spices, it tastes just like pumpkin pie. Or if you like to drink soda, try drinking bubbly water with citrus rinds in it for flavor – or stir in pure cranberry juice. It's tart but refreshing!
3. Make non-sweet snacks easy to grab. When you're feeling munchy, usually you want something RIGHT NOW. So, keep snacks such as cheese cubes, nuts, popcorn, and hard-boiled eggs within easy reach.
4. Fall in love with coconut. This is a tip I learned from Sarah Wilson (whom I mentioned above). Coconut is nearly all glucose and very little fructose, so it's an okay fruit to use in all its forms. Also, it provides lots of “sweet” flavor even without eating the meat of the fruit itself, such as drinking coconut water. So, sprinkling toast with unsweetened coconut flakes is a super-sweet treat that's still okay. Add coconut water to smoothies or drink by itself. Use coconut milk in place of other sweeteners. Eat coconut oil in any form, any time!
5. It goes without saying – avoid processed food. Even in the “healthy” brands, there is often added or hidden sugar in some form, so cooking from scratch is always the best way to go. Even if you're overwhelmed and feel like you can't prepare homemade options for every meal, just do it as often as possible.
21 Alternatives to Sugar
Okay – when it comes to choosing your sweeteners, I've categorized them into two groups: natural sweeteners (which are alternatives to *refined* sugar but are still sugar) and true sugar alternatives.
Raw Cane Sugar – much sugar these days is made and refined from sugar beets (which are also sometimes genetically modified). However, cane sugar is not genetically modified at this time, and most cane sugars are not heavily processed (note emphasis on most).
There are also whole cane sugars, some of which are simply boiled and evaporated (which produce darker and more caramelly or molasses flavors) and some of which are partially evaporated, then centrifuged to remove the molasses. This is why there is such a wide range of colors and flavors among cane sugars, all of which can be considered “whole cane sugar,” as their mineral content and crystalline structure remain largely intact through their minimal processing.
- Sucanat – Sucanat is actually a brand name that stands for “Sucre de canne naturel” (“sugar from natural cane”), a whole cane sugar that is a great substitute for refined brown sugar.
- Rapadura – Repadura is a whole cane sugar which originates in Brazil.
- Turbinado – Turbinado is a whole cane sugar which originates in
- Muscovado – Muscovado is a DARK, molasses-like whole cane sugar which originates largely in Mauritius and the Philippines.
- Panela – Panela is a whole cane sugar which originates in Central and South America and is often packed into cakes. It is very caramelly in flavor.
- Jaggery – Jaggery is a whole cane sugar that is used widely in Africa and Asia. It is typically darker in color and flavor than other whole cane sugars.
Brown Rice Syrup
Barley Malt Syrup
Agave syrup (NOT agave nectar) – While agave nectar has rightly gotten a bad rap as a high-fructose, processed sweetener, traditionally produced agave syrup made from the agave cactus is a lovely sweetener along the lines of honey or maple syrup.
True Sugar Alternatives
It should be noted that under no circumstances should highly processed sugar substitutes be used, as most of them are nothing more than chemical stews that wreak havoc on our bodies. The obvious ones here are aspertame, sucralose, and others that come in small little packets. This ALSO includes Truvia, which is Coca-Cola's brand of stevia (which is derived from stevia, but no longer resembles anything like the plant) and xylitol, a crystalline sweetener made from birch sap.
There are real food enthusiasts who promote both of these products, and for some xylitol is an acceptable way to live completely sugar-free, but since it's highly processed and known for causing digestive distress, I consider it an ingredient to avoid completely. The ONLY time I consider acceptable to use xylitol is in toothpaste, when it is used and then spit out without swallowing. You can read more on our homemade toothpaste recipe.
Stevia – Yes, yes, I know that most people say they don't like stevia (me included). But that's because the vast majority of the stevia on the market has been so processed that it has become seriously bitter. But homemade stevia extract (which is super-simple and is ready in just a day or two) is much more flavorful and is SWEET rather than bitter – and works very well as a sweetener without a hint of sugar present
Coconut meat – As described above, coconut is naturally sweet with very little fructose, so you can enjoy it to your heart's delight. Dried coconut flakes and coconut meat pureed into a spread are both excellent options.
Coconut water – Coconut water is deeply hydrating as well as naturally sweet, so it's a great option for smoothies and drinking straight.
Coconut milk and coconut cream – Use at the base for frostings, soups, and everything in between!
Mint – Use fresh leaves, dried leaves, or dried leaves ground into powder. Also, mint extract is a lovely sweetener in spreads or coffee.
Lavender – Like many sweet herbs, dried lavender can be used when a touch of sweetness is needed, such as on top of yogurt or in tea. It lends a distinct but lovely flavor.
Spices – Spices lend specific flavors, many of which trick our brains into thinking the food is sweet so they're a great alternative to sugar.