We know the downsides of sugar — it's not good for you, it's like a drug, and it can seriously sabotage your diet and healthy lifestyle. So when we're making the natural sugar switch, what should we be stocking our cabinets with? We consulted Certified Diabetes Educator and Registered Dietitian Lori Zanini, who is an expert on the subject.
"The overall message is to switch to natural sugars, but eat less of them," said Lori. So before we get into the different kinds of natural sugars, it's important to establish the limit to added sugar in general: "According to the American Heart Association, men should have no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and women should have no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day."
"If you are looking at a food label, realize that 4 grams of sugars is the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of sugar." So that means daily limit is about 24 grams. But sugar "adds up pretty quickly [in our diets]," she said. "The average American eats about 22 teaspoons [88 grams!] of sugar per day — yikes!"
So let's talk about what small amount of natural sugar is best — is there a clear winner? Should we dump out our maple syrup and go for coconut sugar? Apparently it's not as black and white as we thought.
"Whether honey, maple syrup, or coconut sugar, none are substantially 'healthier' options, and all can raise blood sugar (aka blood glucose). So amount of these natural sugars are still key." So while one trendy natural sweetener may not be much better for you than another, there are still nuances to each. Basically, pick your poison based on your preferences for taste and nutrients. Let's take a look at Lori's insight to honey, molasses, maple, agave, and coconut sugar.
"Honey actually has slightly more calories per teaspoon than some of the other natural sweeteners (one teaspoon of honey has about 21 calories and 6 grams of carbohydrates) and is composed of fructose, along with other sugars (mainly glucose)," she said. "But it also has [antibacterial] benefits, especially if local and raw during cold and flu season."
Have you tried using molasses yet? It's actually a great natural sweetener in small quantities. "Molasses, especially black strap molasses (now available at Trader Joe's) does contain some iron and calcium, which can be helpful, but it is certainly not recommended to get your iron and calcium this way; it's more of a bonus if you are going to have a small amount."
There's some more reasoning to choose maple syrup, especially if you're on the Low-FODMAPS diet. "Maple syrup is about 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. It does have some zinc and manganese. It is lower on the glycemic index, so may raise blood sugar less quickly compared to regular table sugar."
"Coconut palm sugar is about 70-80 percent sucrose," she said. "Per teaspoon, it is still about 15 calories and 4 grams of sugar, so while it is trendy, certainly don't feel like it's a good idea to eat extra. Sure, it has magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus, but not enough to make it a 'good source' or any of these."
This natural sweetener is not as natural as you might think. "Agave nectar is slightly lower on the glycemic index scale than white, refined sugar, but it will still raise your blood sugar. Agave is actually quite processed, which greatly minimizes and eliminates its potentially beneficial compounds. It's also sweeter than white, refined sugar and contains more calories."
So how does a blood sugar expert sweeten her food? "In my house I have honey and maple syrup," she said. "My line of defense is to use fruit to naturally sweeten what I'm eating." Lori also shared that a sugar-free diet is still a flavorful, delicious one. She created a seven-day meal plan that's sugar-free and specifically geared toward diabetes.