Our bodies just don’t do well with unnaturally concentrated amounts of sugar; they send our system off on high alert in an effort to mop up the excess sugar in the blood. As physicians, we have enough stress to sort through without giving ourselves an additional dose, right?
Many people have turned to sugar substitutes as the answer. However, they are just as bad, if not worse, in their own right. These are not only inflammatory in nature, but have been linked to disease in the body. For example:Aspartame is linked to headaches, nausea, dizziness, and is thought to precipitate and/or worsen conditions like multiple sclerosis and other autoimmune conditions. Saccharin (otherwise known as Sweet'n Low) has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
So let’s weigh our options here, are sweets worth the price of cancer and disease? As we are advocates for health by profession, we need to take good care of ourselves. But, is there any way to sweeten up our diet that won’t harm us? Indeed there is! Thank you nature. Here are 6 of my favorite alternatives that are less inflammatory and lower on the glycemic index. Sweeten up your morning coffee without guilt!
1. Stevia is a natural sweetener that is derived from the stevia plant. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar, yet is negligible on the glycemic index and calorie free. This making it a great substitute for diabetics. Many stevia products are available on the market and now there are even naturally flavored versions such as chocolate, vanilla, hazelnut, and more. For some, stevia may be an acquired taste, however recently (2008) the FDA approved rebaudioside-A, a compound extracted from the stevia plant. This has led to the production of better tasting stevia products such as Truvia® & Pure Via.
2. Sucanat is literally whole cane sugar completely unrefined. It retains its molasses, which gives it the brown color and its distinct taste. The cane juice is extracted and mechanically heated and cooled to form grainy crystals. Sucanat has fewer calories, and a smaller proportion of sucrose, and because it’s unrefined, sucanat retains some nutritional value. It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals including potassium, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A and others. If you are a fan of brown sugar, this is the best alternative.
3. Turbinado is the unrefined version of cane sugar. It’s processing is very different from sucanat in that the cane juice is extracted, heated, and then turned into crystals. This doesn’t leave much of the molasses intact, therefore the turbinado has a lighter appearance and a milder taste. However, this sugar can also be used in place of brown sugar in recipes and food preparation, and it contains the same nutrient benefits as does the sucanat.
4. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol contained in the fibers of many fruits and vegetables. It is commonly found in chewing gum. While it can give some indigestion to some upon initial consumption, it is considered a healthier sugar. It is lower on the glycemic index, which make is preferable for diabetics over regular sugar, and it has been shown to fight cavities.
5. Agave is a combination of fructose and glucose sugars and is made by extracting and purifying the sap of the blue agave plant. This sugar alternative is low on the glycemic index, which makes it better for diabetics, however it is also higher in fructose than the rest of the sugars and thus must be consumed in moderation. High fructose intake is thought to be linked with obesity because of the way the body processes the sugar. In addition, high fructose consumption may increase the risk for heart disease over time. So enjoy this sugar alternative only in moderation.
6. Raw Honey to some is considered a super-food as it is packed with vitamins, minerals and healing nutrients. Some specific types of honey, such as clover and orange blossom are a little lower on the glycemic index. However, diabetics must still take care and consume this with moderation because it can spike the blood sugar if overindulged. Also, it is important to read the labels when purchasing honey to be sure the honey is RAW, as processed honey is no better than table sugar. Its processing strips all of its nutrient value and leaves it high up on the glycemic index.
7. Maple Syrup is a naturally occurring syrup that is an excellent substitute for table sugar. Its high mineral content, especially manganese and zinc, can help stabilize cholesterol. However, it does have a high glycemic index, so diabetics must use caution to avoid this particular sugar alternative. There are different grades of pure maple syrup (A, B, C) that refer to the level of processing. The higher the grade, the less processed the maple syrup is, leaving it with distinct tastes between the three. The most commonly used is grade A.
There are plenty of alternatives to traditional table sugar, however, even healthy sugars and sugar substitutes should be consumed in moderation. Over indulgence in even these “healthy sugars” can lead to any of the inflammatory diseases mentioned earlier in the article. Avoid refined sugars, and products containing high fructose corn syrup. These types of sugars, as you may know, have an addictive property and contribute to weight gain. Enjoy these natural sweeteners in moderation and keep your blood sugar levels and health in balance. By doing so, you will be in your best condition to be able to provide quality attention to your colleagues, patients, family and friends for years to come.Maiysha Clairborne MD