Modern diets are crammed with sugars and sweets; junk food and pop aside, tons of other foods might be hiding sugar, including sauces, dressings, and “healthy” snacks. In this climate of excess sweet, a whole bunch of sugar replacements have popped up. Ever wondered why there are so many alternatives to sugar out there? Let’s take a look at sugar; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What our bodies do with sugar

Sugar is a carbohydrate, meaning it is made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which is relevant to the way in which it is processed in the body. Carbohydrates are important sources of energy. When we eat carbs, our bodies break them down into simple sugars that go into our blood stream. The pancreas releases a hormone called insulin to move the sugar into our cells so that it may be used as short term energy. A proper amount of insulin is required, or the body does not use up the energy properly, causing the sugar to stay in the blood stream and cause problems. The slower this process happens the better; whole grains do not break down into sugars quickly, but white grains do, and, obviously, eating straight-up, simple sugar causes a more immediate reaction.

Sugar comes in many different forms, of course, but common table sugar is mostly sucrose.What’s important to know here are the terms glucose and fructose. Glucose is considered the good sugar, and an important form of human energy found in complex carbohydrates. To put it simply, fructose, again occurring in plants, is considered the bad sugar, but not in its original form, fruit. A piece of fruit also contains fiber, meaning the body gets all of its benefits. However, too much fructose in its simple form seems to overwhelm the liver’s ability to process it, leading to some complex problems…

The basic problem

The problems with sugars such as refined, white sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup are endless, and could probably take up this entire post. So, here is a quick summary of why sugar is toxic. Basically, sugar has been linked to heart problems, weight gain, leptin resistance, cancer and addiction, to name just a few problems. In fact, sugar’s effects on the body are considered by some as equally dangerous as those of alcohol, and calling for it to be regulated as such.

Sugar is considered toxic because it is an empty calorie; when consumed in as many different ways as it is today, it does not have any other nutrients for the body to help process it, meaning it sucks our bodies of vitamins and minerals as we work to flush it out. This has been linked to sugar craving, addiction, and mood swings.

Sugar addiction is definitely a problem these days, leading to people who require sweets all the time to look for other alternatives, which has not exactly solved the problem, and even things that don’t seem “sweet” can be hiding an enormous amount of sugar.

Not to mention, conventional beet and cane sugar are sometimes refined using bone char, not making them a very good vegan choice.

Continuing the problem: artificial sweeteners 

Unsurprisingly, the problems persist when trying to replace sugar with artificial sweeteners. Aspartame sound familiar to you? Chemical sweeteners, like aspartame, are used to sweeten things without sugar, such as diet sodas. The Harvard Medical School admits that the way our bodies respond to these sweeteners is complicated, and the use of artificial sweeteners can mean shunning more healthy options as they don’t contain sugar, and lead to an inability to associate sweetness to caloric intake…meaning that consuming something sugar-free will not necessarily mean weight loss. As an example of more concrete harm, aspartame has also been linked to epilepsy and cancer, though the American Cancer Society does not claim any direct link.

In short, taking the sugar out of sweetness is not an easy fix. It’s just a good idea to decide what’s going to work for you, so read up, and maybe try something more natural! Or, when in doubt, just opt for whole foods.

Natural replacements 

Fortunately for everyone (because who doesn’t like a sweet treat every now and then), there are lots of alternatives that are plant-derived for sweetening all manner of things. A good natural sugar replacement is maple sugar or syrup. It’s great as a topping, in icing, and even in coffee. Just be careful that you are getting the real deal; there are fake maple syrups made from regular sugar, as it’s much cheaper.

In terms of baking, it’s important to understand that sugar plays roles other than adding sweetness to the final result of a recipe, so doing a little research into how to replace it is a good idea. Really, it’s not too tough, though. There is plenty of natural sweetness in the world! When baking, agave is a good way to go. Not dissimilar in taste and texture to honey, this liquid comes from the same plant as tequila.

Another increasingly popular replacement is stevia, a plant-derived, nutrient-rich alternative that is much sweeter than white sugar, and low-calorie. It is not without its concerns, though, and is not yet approved as a food additive by the FDA.

Nature’s candy being fruit, there are ways of adding their sugars into your recipes. Date and coconut sugars exist. Ideally, fruits are a good form of sweetness, and even natural alternatives should be used sparingly; adjusting taste-buds to crave less sugar is ideal.

The bottom line

When including a sugar in a recipe, it’s best to use raw, natural options, and to avoid consistent reliance on white sugar to make your food yummy. Especially avoid it, and artificial alternatives, as sweetener for drinks such as coffee and tea. The “natural replacements” section has some ideas on how to substitute these ingredients out. And, in the end, everything in moderation, right? Even over-using the natural sweeteners too often isn’t ideal, generally cutting back is what’s important. But, sugar can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet. It’s all about being reasonable.

Got a good refined sugar replacement or low-sugar cooking/baking tip? Post in the comment section so that everyone can benefit!