Sugar is everywhere, and I really like it! When I committed to doing Whole30, I knew I’d have to give up sugar in all forms. There is absolutely no substituting sugar on the plan. I can use natural fruit juice to sweeten things, which works great in smoothies (although smoothies are frowned upon because I’m not eating my nutrients, but I don’t care) but I’m not putting orange juice in my coffee. In fact, for the past 2 weeks I haven’t put anything but almond milk in my coffee! This is coming from a girl who used Bailey’s Irish Cream as creamer in her cuppa joe! Talk about a biiiiiiig change! Turns out, I am surviving. But that’s a whole different post.
Let’s get back to sugar. I am much more conscious of the ingredients in the foods I once thought of as healthy. Processed foods and refined sugar are getting a lot of bad press, and they should. When I think back to my childhood, I remember going to the store and finding maybe half an aisle’s worth of cereal varieties. The processed food section was a fraction of what it is now, mainly because the microwave had not become the next of kin that is for most families today. Now it seems like most of the interior aisles are filled with food that has been prepared in a factory! Hmmm, I never really thought about it like that until now. The worst part, is it’s prepared by machines that don’t care about my health or my family’s health, or your health.
Take for example dried cranberries. Yes, cranberries. I went to get some to include in a salad and quickly realized they weren’t Whole30 approved. Why? Because sugar had been added to a supposedly natural food. I’m sure it has everything to do with making them palatable and giving them a longer shelf life. The problem is that nobody asked me if I wanted sugar added to my fruit and now I’m going to have to figure out how to dehydrate them myself! How rude!
Why is added sugar so bad? Clean eating, Paleo, etc are really big on nutrient dense diets and plant-based foods. Sugar is a plant-based food in its natural form. Sugar itself isn’t bad, but refined, white sugar has been stripped of its nutrients. In addition, diets high in added sugar can raise blood-sugar levels over time to a point where one become insulin resistant which increases the risk of diabetes.
Now, if you’re like me, I can’t see myself going through life never having sweet treats, muffins or ice cream. I’m a sugar addict and I don’t wanna go to rehab, I said no, no, no! So what’s a girl or guy to do? I’ve been researching the answer to that question and trying to find alternatives. Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Organic or Natural Cane Sugar: When cane juice is squeezed from sugar cane and left to evaporate and crystallize, what’s left behind is organic cane sugar. This sugar is brown and has a different texture than refined sugar. “Unrefined cane sugar contains 17 amino acids, 11 minerals, and 6 vitamins, including antioxidants that may help reverse oxidative damage. It is made up of sucrose, fructose, and glucose. Table sugar is just sucrose and calories, plus traces of chemicals utilized in the refining process such as lime, sulphur dioxide, and phosphoric acid. Organic cane sugar is not like brown sugar, which is white sugar with molasses thrown back in.” –The Recommended Daily The body gets nutrients from natural sugar. That sounds great, but it’s still sugar, still contains calories and still gets processed in the body like refined sugar.
Coconut Sugar or Coconut Palm Sugar: This sugar is derived from the coconut palm tree and is lower on the glycemic index than sugar. It also retains some of it’s nutrients like organic cane sugar including zinc, calcium and potassium, a well as some antioxidents. It also contains inulin, a fiber which may slow glucose absorption, giving a lower glycemic index than refined sugar. The bad news: while coconut sugar is fructose-free and has nutrients, it’s still mainly made up of sucrose. At the end of the day, I read several articles, and one study, that suggest coconut sugar is healthier than refined sugar because it’s manufacturing process is more natural, but it’s still high in calories and can cause metabolic problems. I guess this means I can put it in my coffee if need be, but I’m not going to be fooled into thinking it makes my muffins “healthy.”
Brown Sugar: Turns out that brown sugar is refined, white sugar with molasses mixed in. Say what?! I thought all brown foods are healthy! Brown sugar, brown rice, etc…ok, I can’t think of any other brown foods. But you get my point. While there are trace amounts of minerals in brown sugar, compared to refined sugar, it has the same effects on metabolism as refined sugar. Buyer beware.
Agave Nectar: I was so excited to use agave nectar. After all, I only had to use a fraction of the amount of refined sugar to get the sweetness I craved. It has a lower glycemic index than sugar. Jackpot! Woo-hoo! I’m sold! Uh, not so fast. Turns out glycemic index, the potential of foods to lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar, has little to do with the negative effects of sugar. The major health criminal is fructose. Fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar levels in the short-term. It does, however, lead to insulin resistance if consumed in HIGH quantities over the long-term. Insulin resistance leads to high blood sugar levels, which can contribute to diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Honey: raw, unfiltered honey contains trace amounts of nutrients and antioxidants like its natural sugar cousin. It’s similar to coconut sugar in that it is less bad than refined sugar because it doesn’t have the same negative impact on metabolism, but it still contains fructose and is not as good as no sugar.
ALL OF THE SWEETENERS MENTIONED ABOVE CONTAIN SOME LEVEL OF FRUCTOSE!
Fruit: The recommended amount of fructose in any particular food is not more than 3 grams. Even fresh fruits and juice contain fructose, but the amount is not above the recommended safe amount. Click here for a link to the fructose content for several foods. I was at our local Farmer’s Market a few weeks ago and stopped to sample a vegan, gluten-free cheesecake. I was sure that it was going to taste like cardboard. I was ready to spit it into my napkin. Turns out it was really tasty! My tastebuds were happy and I got my “sugar fix.” When I talked to the folks that made the cake they told me it contained no manufactured sugar. My shock, evidently was visible. It was sweetened with dates. Cue the Hallelujah music.
Dates and other whole foods are being used more and more in clean diets. As I was researching information for this post, I discovered a recipe for date-sweetened coffee creamer!!! Thank you to
Unsweetened applesauce apples are also a good option for adding a little sweet to baked goods. The best thing about using whole foods is that they are full of nutrients and fiber. Although the sugar in whole foods gets broken down in the body much like any other sugar but the body seems to know what to do with it better than other sugars. Click here for some ways to use whole foods as sweeteners and recipes. Lucky for me, Trader Joe’s must have anticipated my need for treats sweetened with whole foods and brought out their seasonal Spiced Cider. Guess what! No added sugar and it tastes like a piece of apple pie in my cup!
The 10,000 ft. take-away is this-consuming a diet HIGH in added sugar, no matter the form or how “healthy” it is, still leads to metabolic problems, raises blood sugar and makes it difficult to lose weight if that’s your goal. All of the sweeteners mentioned above still make their way to the liver during the digestive process and your liver doesn’t know, or care for that matter, if it’s organic/natural or not. Please, please re-read the part above where I say a diet HIGH in sugar (and ultimately fructose). Limiting added sugar in any form seems to be the most prudent course of action if trying to maintain a healthy diet.
This healthy food/diet thing is new to me and my family. I have a tough time eliminating sugar from their diets even though I did it from my own. Why? Because in my mind, sweet treats are a reward or a way to say I Love You. There’s a reason they don’t sell heart-shaped boxes filled with apple slices on Valentine’s Day. For me, sugar is an unavoidable guest at the table. Heck, sugar is yummy and even welcome on my tongue. I haven’t found a magic sugar alternative, but I am a lot more knowledgeable about sugar/sweeteners now than I was last week. I’m excited to experiment with fruit as sweeteners in my baked goodies. This will be one of the first recipes I try at the end of Whole30 is from Six Sisters Stuff:
If you get to make it before I do, let me know what you think!
Sweet, clean eating,