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With so many sweeteners and sugars on the market, it can be challenging to know which are the healthiest options. Despite the prevalence of processed, artificial sweeteners available, there are many natural sweeteners that are good for you and provide various health benefits.
First and foremost, what makes a sweetener artificial or natural? In other words, how can we tell if they’re fake or real? Artificial sweeteners, unlike natural ones, are often processed and refined. Despite often containing little or zero calories, these sweeteners contribute to sugar cravings, as they’re hyper-palatable. On the other hand, natural sweeteners are made from whole food sources mainly from plants. Although, keep in mind, that products labeled “natural” don’t always equal “healthy.”
Arguably, the worst part of artificial sweeteners is their negative impact on gut health. These fake sugars prove to alter bacteria in the gut microbiome, which can lead to a host of other diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even autoimmunity. Other common side effects of artificial sweeteners include headaches, diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
As previously mentioned, these harmful products are hyper-palatable. Meaning, they are created by using chemicals to taste excessively sweet, keeping your body craving more and more. As a result, real, whole foods can often taste bland or boring.
Common artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sorbitol, erythritol, sucralose, xylitol, sucralose, saccharin, and surprisingly, agave nectar. Look out for these ingredients that are hiding in your chewing gums, toothpastes, OTC vitamins or medicines, cocktails, salad dressings, ice cream, yogurt, and more. Keep an eye out for products labeled “low fat.” More often than not, they will contain artificial sweeteners to make up for the lack of fat. At all costs, avoid these “low fat” products. When a food product lists “sugar free” or “fat free”, they can actually leave you feeling even more addicted to sugar, cause weight gain, and even more fatigue due to the added chemicals and toxins needed to remove the sugar and fat.
As opposed to artificial or fake sweeteners, most natural sweeteners are less refined and contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and in some cases, fiber. It’s important to mention that even natural sweeteners should still be consumed in moderation. After all, they are still sugar. That being said, consuming lower amounts of these natural sweeteners can still be part of a healthy gut and autoimmune-friendly diet.
A common misconception is that stevia and monk fruit are gut-friendly, natural sweeteners. While they are often a better option and can be included as part of a health diet, I recommend avoiding these sweeteners in the early stages of healing the gut. Unprocessed, natural forms of stevia and monk fruit have actually provided health benefits for thousands of years. However, most of these items on store shelves are far from unprocessed. More so, they usually contain hidden artificial sweeteners, like erythritol or xylitol. Be sure to always read the ingredient label!
In my professional opinion, these are the top natural sweeteners with a low glycemic index to use in recipes.
Raw honey contains enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. However, pasteurization kills off most of the good stuff, so “raw” is the key word here. Consuming local, raw honey has been known to help build up your immunity to common allergens in your area. By introducing your body to the bee pollen from local bees, your body strengthens it’s immune system and naturally fights sneezing, itching, and runny noses. To take it a step further, raw manuka honey is proven to boost both immune and gut health!
How to Use: Drizzle honey on top of yogurt, oatmeal, or pancakes. It’s also great to bake with! This is my favorite brand of raw manuka honey with a high live enzyme count.
Real Maple Syrup
Similar to honey, real maple syrup contains high amounts of antioxidants to reduce inflammation. It also ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a wise choice for those with metabolic disease. Canada’s Finest Maple Syrup is my personal go to that’s made from Canadian maple trees and is organically certified. You can find it on Amazon here.
How to Use: In addition to enjoying maple syrup on waffles or pancakes, it’s a healthier option for salad dressings, baked goods, or even glazes.
Surprisingly, coconut sugar isn’t made from coconuts. It’s actually made from the coconut blossoms on coconut trees! This natural sweetener is a healthy source of potassium, iron, and essential vitamins.
Interestingly, coconut sugar contains the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as cane sugar, but it’s lower on the glycemic index, which helps provide a more stable release of glucose into the blood.
How to Use: Coconut sugar is an effective replacement for cane sugar in many baked goods, like breads, cupcakes, or muffins and is an equal replacement for recipes.
Blackstrap molasses is one of the most nutritious sweeteners available. This thick, rich syrup is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet. It’s an excellent source of iron (20% RDI) and something I suggest to women with anemia or those who are low in ferritin. Blackstrap molasses is also a great source of B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
How to Use: Blackstrap molasses has a distinct taste that is best used when a recipe calls for it. You might find it in healthy BBQ sauces, gingersnaps, and various glazes. I like this one here.
Date Syrup, Paste, or Sugar
Dates have a caramel-like color and taste. Medjool dates, specifically, are known for their health benefits, including boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation. You can easily use whole, pitted dates to make date paste by blending soaked dates with water. For best results, soak dates in filtered water for 8 hours.
How to Use: Use whole dates or date syrup, paste, or sugar, to sweeten smoothies or create homemade energy bars or bites.
In addition to these amazing and healthy natural sweeteners, we can’t forget about fruit! Whole fruits blended up also make wonderful sweeteners for many dishes. For example, add a few pieces of fresh blended pineapple or apple to a sauce to add sweetness. The list above is specifically focused on sweeteners that are not whole fruits and veggies.
This list of natural sweeteners should provide you with a sugar alternative for almost any dish or condiment, from baked goods to sauces and dressings! By implementing these natural sweeteners, you can better manage blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and improve your gut health and immunity!Choose small amounts of natural sweeteners in moderation instead of fake artificial sugars! Click To Tweet
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
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