Sugar. Oh honey, honey.

Raise your hand if you have a sweet tooth.  My hand is up.  And I know that I’m not alone here because according to StatsCan, Canadians consume, on average, 110 g of sugar a day.  That’s equivalent to 26 teaspoons!  While a daily recommended intake amount for sugar has yet to be set, the World Health Organization recommends a maximum of 10% of calories be from free sugars.  Do the math and it means that we are consuming 60 g above the daily recommended maximum.  Is that a concern?  You bet.  Sugar (especially refined white sugar), in excess, can become toxic in the body, weakening our immune system and eventually leading to many health concerns such as obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and the list goes on.

So we all know what we need to do here – cut sugar from our daily diet.  A feat that’s easier said than done.  And to most, is not very appealing (myself included).  A more attainable ask is to reduce our sugar intake and opt for natural sweeteners that won’t spike blood sugar, are free of toxins, and will actually add nutrients rather than strip them from the body.  Here are three options you can try:

Organic raw honey
Honey is not just a natural sweetener made by nature’s hard-working honeybees.  It has a lot more to offer than that.  First of all, honey is composed mostly of fructose (38%) and glucose (31%), both monosaccharides that are used directly by the body for a quick source of energy.  Second, it contains a number of enzymes that enhances the metabolism of carbohydrates such as sugar and starches.  Third, it is rich in the following nutrients: amino acids, vitamins B and C, and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese.  Fourth, thanks to honey’s high phytonutrient content (flavonoids, antioxidants, and others) it is often used as an effective anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungus, anti-tumor (colon), and anti-inflammatory agent.

Honey is low on the glycemic index, with a score of 55, indicating that it does not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.  So you don’t have to worry about getting a sudden surge in energy only to crash and burn later on.  Studies conducted on patients with type 2 diabetes show that natural honey caused a significantly lower rise in blood sugar levels than refined sugars.

So what should you look for when buying honey?  Keep in mind that heat destroys the healing properties and nutrients that are found in honey.  Therefore, to get the full benefits, be sure to buy raw organic honey.  Unpasteurized honey is the next best thing as it is only exposed to slight heat during processing.  Pasteurized honey is the least beneficial as most of its healing constituents have been destroyed by the heating process.  You’ll also want to remember this heat concept when using honey in your hot beverages, like tea.  It’s best to wait for the beverage to reach a drinkable temperature before adding the honey.  The other thing to keep in mind when making your selection is that darker honeys will contain a greater amount of antioxidants.

Honey can be easily substituted for sugar in most recipes when cooking or baking.  For every cup of sugar that the recipe calls for, use one-half to three-quarters of a cup of honey, and reduce the amount of liquid by one-quarter of a cup.  In addition, reduce the cooking temperature by 25°F since honey causes foods to brown more easily.

Pure maple syrup
Maple syrup is also a natural sweetener made from the sap of sugar, black or red maple trees.  The trees are tapped for their sap, which is then boiled to evaporate the water, leaving behind the maple syrup.  The main sugar in pure maple syrup is sucrose, with the darker syrups having small amounts of fructose and glucose.  Sucrose is a disaccharide so it will need to be converted in the body to glucose before it can be absorbed and used for energy.

Like honey, you can find many nutrients in maple syrup that are beneficial to health.  For starters, maple syrup contains the minerals calcium, potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron.  Next, you can find trace amounts of vitamins B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B3 (niacin), biotin, and folic acid, as well as trace amounts of amino acids.  And when it comes to healing properties, pure maple syrup is jam packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory substances – 54 phenolic compounds to be exact – which have been shown to fight cancer, diabetes and bacterial illnesses.  In fact, scientists at the University of Rhode Island have found that the phenolics in maple syrup help in the management of Type 2 diabetes by inhibiting two carbohydrate hydrolyzing enzymes.

Be sure to look for 100% pure maple syrup instead of maple “flavoured” syrup.

Raw evaporated cane sugar
The juice of the natural sugar cane is made up of sugar and water, and is high in the minerals calcium, chromium, cobalt, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, zinc, and iron.  It is also rich in vitamins A, C, B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6, along with a high concentration of phytonutrients, antioxidants, proteins, soluble fiber and a number of other health supportive compounds.  After the juice has been pressed from the sugar cane plant, it is then hand-stirred with paddles under low heat to evaporate the water, and then the dried juice is formed into a block of sugar.  This process ensures that the nutrients of the sugar cane juice are preserved and remain in the sugar.  Doubtful? Check out the study conducted at the Simon Bolivar University.  However, not all evaporated cane sugar undergo this process, so you must be sure to look for Rapadura, Panela, or Sucanat.  All other cane sugar (like Muscavado, Turbinado, Demarara) are all refined, although not to the extent as white sugar.

Evaporated cane sugar is also rich in polyphenols, including a large amount of antioxidant phytonutrients.  These polyphenols, combined with the vitamins and minerals, all work together to help slow down the body’s absorption of sugar (sucrose), preventing a sharp rise in blood sugar levels.  As well, thanks to the healing properties of the polyphenols, evaporated cane sugar has been studied for its role in health benefits such as fighting cancer, stabilizing blood sugar levels in diabetics, and assisting in weight loss.

A word of caution
So the next time you cook, bake, or have a sugar craving, consider one of these natural sweeteners over the typical refined white sugar.  But remember, consuming too much sugar, natural or refined, can be detrimental to your health.  So enjoy responsibly, consume in moderation, and always adhere to the advice of your health care practitioner.

Over to you….
What natural sweetener do you use as a substitute for refined sugars?  Leave a comment below and share with me your tips for reducing sugar intake.
Sources: 1.; 2.; 3.; 4.; 5.; 6.; 7.; 8.; 9.; 10. Vertolli, Michael, A Herbalist’s Favourite Home Remedies, Vitality Magazine, December 2013/January 2014 issue, p. 24.

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