Fed Up with Sugar: the goop Guide to Alternative Sweeteners
We’ve spent the last few years trying to wean ourselves off sugar, which is so addictive, it turns out, that it’s more compelling to lab rats than cocaine (we went through the paces of kicking our sugar habit with Dr. Lipman in 2010). It might even be more harmful, too: Beyond triggering weight gain, it’s credited with decreased immunity, some chronic infections and autoimmune diseases, heart disease, diabetes, pain syndromes, irritable bowel syndrome, ADD, chronic fatigue, and candida.
And as the provocative new documentary Fed Up maintains, it’s also the primary culprit in the national obesity epidemic. Here’s one staggering statistic from the film: While 0 children in 1980 were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes (otherwise known as adult-onset diabetes), 30+ years later, there are 57,638 kids with the disease. 9 million adolescents are considered overweight, all pointing to the fact that we’re a nation in crisis.
This may not sound like anything new, but Fed Up changes the message in an important and revolutionary way: It posits that the ages-old adage of "eat less, exercise more," doesn’t actually compute, and shifts the blame for this problem from the individuals battling obesity to the food industry itself. They get the damning finger because they’ve spent the past several decades pushing the distracting mantra of calorie math, all while loading processed food with extreme amounts of added sugar in the service of stripping it of fat. (Ever notice that the % Daily Value of dietary sugar is noticeably absent on food ingredient labels?)
Sugar hides in almost every processed food we buy at the supermarket, from cereal, to salad dressing, to granola, to low-fat dairy products. And it comes in many guises: The now-maligned high fructose corn syrup is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also dextrose, glycerol, fruit juice concentrate, and so on (see our extensive list below). As Fed Up points out, there’s no exercise routine out there that could possibly neutralize the amount of sugar that many of these kids are consuming at home and at their schools’ Coca-Cola sponsored, fast-food-fueled cafeterias. Galvanized to investigate whether there are any natural, sweet alternatives that are not as destructive to our health, we turned to Dr. Frank Lipman. He demystified the concept a little more, and shed light on some acceptable alternatives.
A quick recap on sugar
What happens when we consume it, and why does too much make us fat?
Your body processes sugar rapidly. When you eat sugars, you get an initial burst of energy—the sugar hits your bloodstream almost as quickly as if you had mainlined it. Overwhelmed by this surge, the body scrambles to process it, producing insulin to transport the sugar from the bloodstream into the cells. This increase in insulin makes your blood sugar level drop. So the energy surge vanishes almost as quickly as it arrived and you "crash." This process triggers the body to crave more energy. So you eat more sugar or sugary carbohydrates to get the energy high again. A vicious cycle of craving, eating, and crashing begins.
If the cell has all of the fuel it needs, then insulin will carry off the excess glucose to be stored as fat. Over time you can develop insulin resistance, which makes your body less effective at regulating blood sugar levels, and affects your ability to use stored fat as energy.
It’s important to note that we don’t put on weight or get fat from fat, we gain weight when we eat sugar which causes insulin levels to rise. When insulin levels are high, we build up fat in fat tissue and when insulin levels drop, we release fat from fatty tissue and burn it for energy.
An increase in insulin levels also release pro-inflammatory molecules in the body leading to inflammation in general.
Also when you have a sugar crash, it puts enormous stress on your other hormones, too. Your adrenal glands need to kick in and release cortisol, a steroid-like substance, to help lift you back up. Over time, your adrenal glands exhaust themselves trying to regulate your fluctuating sugar levels. Too much cortisol at the wrong times can initiate an inflammatory process that triggers chronic disease, including diabetes, arthritis, allergies, and some forms of cancer. And an excess of cortisol in your system is also linked to weight gain.
To balance your blood sugar levels, you’ll want to avoid the "whites" (white sugar and flour), processed foods, breads, pastries, pasta, soda, juice, and even eating too many grains, as all of these will trigger high insulin levels. I believe the advice to eat less fat (including saturated fat), which spawned the whole low fat movement, may be the biggest reason behind today’s epidemics of obesity and diabetes.
The key is to lower insulin levels and to secrete less insulin in general and that means eat less sugar! In short, if insulin levels are elevated, we will gain weight and become inflamed and trigger all sorts of diseases.
Sugar in all its guises
"Sugar is sneaky and goes by many names you might not recognize. Of course, if you avoid processed foods in general, which I highly recommend, you won’t have to worry about memorizing this list! By eating whole, unprocessed foods you will automatically avoid most of these."
- Agave nectar
- Barley malt
- Beet sugar
- Brown rice syrup
- Brown sugar
- Cane sugar
- Carob syrup
- Caramel coloring
- Coconut palm sugar
- Concentrated fruit juice
- Corn sugar
- Corn syrup
- Date sugar
- Florida crystals
- Fruit juice concentrate
- Fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
- Grape sugar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Karo syrups
- Malted barley
- Ribose rice syrup
- Rice malt
- Turbinado sugar
A guide to alternative sweeteners
A sugar-free existence is kind of a bummer, and so we dared to wonder whether there are any acceptably healthy sweetener substitutes. Unfortunately, Dr. Lipman doesn’t have the best news: "There’s no such thing as a "healthy" sugar. Sugar is sugar, whether it’s "organic," or "unrefined," or "all-natural," or "raw," or agave syrup. Sugar is sugar is sugar. Your body really doesn’t know the difference between white table sugar, palm sugar, a piece of white bread or maple syrup or molasses." However, there are some sweeteners that won’t spike our blood levels, and others that have much more nutritional value than the white, refined stuff. Here’s what you should avoid, and what you can use safely in moderation.
|DR. LIPMAN’S SWEETENER CHEAT SHEET|
|The Best Options:||Avoid:|
|Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame and Sucralose
High Fructose Sweeteners: Agave Nectar
|OK in Small Amounts:|
|Brown Rice Syrup
Coconut Palm Sugar
- "Artificial Sweeteners like Equal, Splenda, and Sweet & Low are wreaking havoc with your weight, your appetite, your hormones, and even your brain. They have been found to stimulate your appetite, leading to overeating and weight gain. They keep you addicted to sweet tastes and don’t provide the satiety needed to know that you’re full. It’s suspected that artificial sweeteners disrupt the body’s ability to know how many calories it’s consuming, which is a process that’s crucial for maintaining a healthy weight."
- "Aspartame (the generic name for NutraSweet and Equal) provides food, soft drinks, candy and chewing gum manufacturers with substantial cost savings compared to sugar, which is 200 times less sweet. It is a dangerous food additive that some studies have shown has toxic effects, including triggering or worsening epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, brain tumors, and cancer."
- "Sucralose (the generic name for Splenda) claims to be made from sugar, but it is made by chlorinating sugar. This means if you use Splenda, you are essentially dumping chlorine into your coffee. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently downgraded Splenda and sucralose from its "safe" rating to "caution" based on research that connected the sweetener with an increased risk of developing leukemia. A recent study in the journal Toxicology and Environmental Health reports that sucralose may raise blood sugar, spike insulin levels, and lead to diabetic conditions. The researchers also found that sucralose may negatively impact the microbiome by reducing beneficial bacteria colonies in the digestive tract, leading to weight issues and digestive disturbances."
- "High Fructose Sweeteners can cause mineral depletion, liver inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity. A recent study found that high fructose sweeteners in fact make people crave more and eat more."
- "Agave nectar has become a trendy sugar substitute, but unfortunately most agave ‘nectar’ found in the US is actually a highly refined sweetener made from the starchy root of the agave plant, in a process very similar to making high fructose corn syrup from corn starch. So-called agave nectar is similar in composition to the now-feared high fructose corn syrup, except that it’s even higher in fructose than HFCS."
The best options
- "Honey: If you’re going to use a sweetener, raw honey is a good option in moderation. Some benefits of honey are that it’s effective in the treatment of colds, flu, respiratory infections, and a generally depressed immune system. Consuming local raw honey can also prevent seasonal allergies. Honey has more nutrients than white sugar, but don’t be mistaken—it will still spike your blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes, pre-diabetes, or insulin sensitivity, you will have to use it very sparingly."
- How to use it: To sweeten tea and other beverages; in sauces; anytime adding liquid to a recipe won’t compromise the end result; we find it great in dressings and marinades.
- What we’ve made: We use honey to sweeten the marinade in our Broiled Balsamic Salmon.
- "Stevia extract comes from a plant that is grown in South America, and the good news is that it does not spike your blood sugar levels. I recommend looking for an organic stevia (in either a powder or liquid form)—and then check the ingredient label. It should not have any other added ingredients besides organic stevia. I recommend avoiding Truvia and PureVia, which are highly processed."
- How to use it: Stevia is way sweeter than sugar, so if you’re using it, you’ll need a lot less of it than you would sugar to achieve the same taste. It’s great for sweetening smoothies and tea.
- What we’ve made: Green Mojito Smoothie.
- "Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that’s often found in sugar-free gum and candies. Xylitol does not cause an increase in blood sugar but can cause diarrhea and digestive upset if consumed in excess."
- How to use it: Since xylitol looks and feels quite like sugar (unlike many other alternative sweeteners) it mixes well with other ingredients and works great for baking.
- What we’ve made with it: Chocolate Love Smoothie.
Ok in small amounts
- "Brown Rice Syrup has a consistency that is similar to honey and contains some trace minerals including magnesium, manganese, and zinc. It’s ok to consume in very small quantities."
- How to use it: As a substitute for corn syrup, due to the high sweetness and sticky consistency; use for anything that needs some sweet binding.
- What we’ve made: Homemade Granola Bars.
- "Coconut Palm Sugar (not to be confused with Palm Sugar) is a natural sugar made from the sap of the flowering bud of the coconut palm. One way it differs from regular table sugar is that it contains several nutrients such as potassium, calcium, iron, zinc and antioxidants. Coconut Palm Sugar is often touted as a low-glycemic sweetener, and while it is a bit better than regular white sugar, it has the negative effects of sugar and should be used sparingly."
- How to use it: Small amounts enhance the flavor of savory dishes that typically call for a bit of sugar (such as curries).
- What we’ve made: Coconut Flour Pancakes .
- "Fruit. As you move away from sugar, artificial sweeteners and added sweeteners, your taste buds will adjust and you will crave sugar less. Having some low-glycemic fruit like berries, a green apple, or a pear will start to taste plenty sweet. Fruit still contains fructose, so you will have to practice moderation, but has the benefit of being a whole food that also has fiber. And avoid fruit juices, which are not healthy as they flood your body with as much sugar as soda does."
- "Dates are full of fiber, potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium, and Vitamin B6, so despite being relatively high in natural sugars, they do offer some good health benefits. Many of our patients make this as a dessert for birthdays or parties—it’s still a special treat but much healthier than eating a chocolate cake with frosting or an ice cream sundae."
- How to use it: Pureed and baked in cookies and breads.
- What we’ve made: Dr. Lipman makes these Chocolate Date Coconut Bars.
- "Molasses can be a good choice because it’s mineral-rich—it’s full of manganese, copper, iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium. Look for blackstrap molasses as this form comes packed with the most nutrients."
- How to use it: Perfect in ginger cookies, swirled into warm milk at bedtime, or to sweeten a BBQ sauce and homemade baked beans.
- What we’ve made: We recently used molasses to sweeten and thicken our BBQ sauce for Pulled Pork and Pulled Turkey. Dr. Lipman also makes a great Pumpkin Pie Smoothie recipe that features blackstrap molasses.
- "Maple Syrup has been used for centuries as an all-natural sweetener. While it is high in sugar it does contain some vitamins and minerals such as calcium, iron, and zinc—unlike refined sugar. While it is a better choice than refined sugar, it’s still important to have in moderation. It’s also very important to make sure that you purchase real maple syrup, not a product masquerading as maple syrup that’s actually made of corn syrup. As always, be sure to read the ingredient list to make sure you are getting 100% real maple syrup."
- How to use it: Besides on pancakes, mix it in cold beverages such as iced coffee and smoothies. We also use it to glaze vegetables or fruits before roasting or baking, and to sweeten salad dressings, sauces, and marinades.
- What we’ve made: We use maple syrup to glaze the sweet potatoes in our Lentil Sweet Potato Salad.
- "Palm Sugar is often confused with Coconut Palm Sugar, but they are two different types of sugar. Palm Sugar is made from sap collected from the stem of the palm tree. It is rich in several B vitamins as well as potassium, zinc and iron. It’s most common use is in Thai dishes. Just like coconut sugar, palm sugar has its benefits, but the bottom line is it’s still sugar and should treated as such."