As human species we are naturally "wired" to seek out and prefer sugars. However while sugars were, and are to this day rather scarce in the natural environment, they are overly abundant in our modern, processed environments. In fact today it is hard to find any altered or prepared food without added sugar. From breaded fish sticks to ketchup, sugar seems to be everywhere. Its implications on our health are deleterious as we know today without a doubt, which has had many people moving to natural sweeteners. But are any of them really optimal for us either? Through some specific examples we will examine the bigger picture of natural sugars.
With our natural predisposition to favor sugars, it has been no coincidence that as the consumption of sugar rose, we have come to see our health decline drastically. From severe weight problems, cancer and heart disease, to immune dysfunctions, emotional distress and diabetes type 2, all been on the rise and are today at epidemic proportions in developed nations. Many of these were extremely rare conditions that generally afflicted the old. Today, we have all of these conditions striking children and adults alike based on a sharp correlation to one's lifestyle habits. If your journey into the dangers of high sugar, or isolated sugar diets is just beginning, I invite you to read the essay entitled Health Effects of Sugar on Your Body - the Bitter Truth to better understand the seriousness of the situation.
For most of us however, by now we have probably heard enough to know that white/brown sugar is a completely toxic substance, which should not be ingested by the human body. Equally, we have probably heard enough about high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners to understand their dangers where our health is concerned. With this in mind, because so many of us are physically addicted to sugar and cannot imagine life without "sweets", it has forced us to broaden our search for "healthy" sugars. But do such sugars actually exist?
Many individuals have sought console from the natural and alternative health communities which today recommend all sorts of replacements for the heavily processed and toxic sugars above. These include anything from Honey and Maple syrup, to Stevia and Agave. In the midst of our search, other players that have surfaced and gotten our attention include Coconut Sugar, Turbinado Sugar, Sucanat and even Cane Juice.
But when it comes to these so called natural sweeteners, due to our love of sugar and profitability of this industry, it appears that ample misinformation exists here too, with the consumer’s health and wallet paying the price along the way. For starters no isolated sugar regardless of where it comes from will ever be optimal for regular consumption. So let us examine in more detail a few of the sweeteners that are generally recognized and recommended as healthy natural options to understand the story in more depth as to what we are really putting into our bodies.
The Agave Story
My personal journey included removing all white/brown sugar– the traditional glucose/fructose or sucrose from my diet back in 2009. Since then I have seen clear benefits in my health that have directly convinced me of the negative impacts sugar was having on my physical, mental and emotional health. My research in the acid-alkaline balance of the body had a lot to do with this, as (isolated) sugar is generally speaking a very acidic substance for our body, aside from the other numerous negative health impacts it has for us that impact our immune system, brain function, energy levels pancreas and liver. I also credit Dr. Scott Olson’s fantastic book called Sugarettes with helping make my decision to remove the major processed sugars from my diet an easy one, and seriously confront any sugar addiction present.
During this transition, and my journey expanding into natural health and nutrition, I was all too happy to have discovered Agave Nectar/Syrup. Before trying it, I read a lot about it and the general literature seemed to be full of wonderful news. Those who stick by the glycemic index praised it for not spiking our insulin levels. It was supposed to be all natural with many wonderful health benefits, not to mention great tasting.
However my love affair with Agave was very short lived. As its industry grew, as others like me thought they found the "answer" to keep some healthy sugar in their diet, more information became available as to the bigger picture story of this sweetener. To this date, I think I have come across just as much research for, as I have against the Agave sweetener. In a 2010 article on Mercola.com, Dr. Mercola blasts Agave for being worse than high fructose corn syrup. In his article he explains all sorts of problems where Agave is concerned in terms of its source, processing, contamination and effects on your health. It is definitely a bold article that raises a lot of important points for consideration to help us begin to understand the broader implications of this sweetener.
So even though my journey with Agave came to a sweet end as I read and researched more, the final nail in the coffin did not even come from what I learned, as much as it did from me continuing to adopt increasingly optimal health habits. As I continued to clean out my system from feeling the need to ingest any added, isolated sweeteners, I simply lost the interest to seek out what the next, best "natural" sweetener would be.
Of course each of our journeys is unique and each of us is at a specific point in our transition into optimal health, Agave may be a viable stepping stone and a better option than typical white sugar. If you choose to buy it however, it should ALWAYS and ONLY be Certified Organic and Raw for maximum purity and health benefits.
The Stevia Story
Stevia has been an interesting player in the whole sugar debate. Over the past few years it has appeared that Stevia's popularity waxed and waned like the moon. The FDA has rejected its approval for many years and has only recently approved a certain way of processing it to be available. This has lead to all sorts of Stevia processed products being targeted as natural sweeteners in the US. Stevia is still banned in Europe, which can raise a red flag, as the European Union is usually pretty good about how and what they regulate. But than again Japan has used it widely for many years, and seems to have no problem with it, promoting it as a very healthful option.
I personally have never tried Stevia and have no intention to. I don’t sweeten any herbal tea I drink, I do not bake, and cannot see any other use for it in my life. I have heard great experience stories with Stevia and not so great ones. Some people enjoy the taste, some people really dislike it.
In terms of research, it really depends where you look. Both Dr. Mercola and Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com praise and greatly support Stevia. I personally have no doubt that Stevia, in its most natural form can be a beneficial product. Nature knows what it is doing, and when respected can offer us amazing food and medicinal benefits from its plant kingdom. The key is to knowing how to work with plants for maximum benefits, and minimum drawbacks. However, what is on the market commonly (for example: Truvia) is a processed version of the product and one I would never use or recommend to anyone else who is serious about their health to use.
In the end, if this will be your choice of natural sweetener, as a regular part of your diet, or even a stepping stone, make sure that you get the most natural, least processed version of it.
The Honey Story
Many people, including nutrition experts like myself have always thought of honey as a natural sweetener that can be a healthy addition to one's diet. This is why I was greatly dismayed when I researched honey a few years back and learned that not all honey is created equal – in fact far from it.
The liquid honey that is normally sold in stores is a type of honey that has been heavily processed and is not much different from typical white sugar. Most of this processing involves a high heat treatment, which actually eliminates most, if not all, of the health benefits of honey and leaves you mainly with a pure sugar syrup.
When we look at cultures that have used honey for healing purposes for centuries, we come to learn and understand that for maximum health benefits, honey MUST be raw, and preferably from organic sources. Honey has been used regularly as a substance with healing properties in many ancient traditions, including Ayurveda, which teaches us that honey should never be heated to maintain its benefits.
You can read and learn more about the amazing health properties of raw honey, however this should not be taken as an excuse to add honey, or more honey into your diet. Yes, it can be beneficial when eaten sparingly, but we will miss the point if we begin eating it in larger quantities than it was intended by nature. For more health properties on honey, check out what World’s Healthiest Foods says about it.
There is no doubt that honey is in many respects an amazing product, as it can be said that it is truly the only natural, isolated sweetener that nature provides. However, to be respectful honey is created by bees, for bees and it is not our right to just take as we please. Equally, regardless of how natural honey found in nature is, if we look back to early humans it still was not a food source that was eaten regularly or abundantly by any means. This is why today we cannot fool ourselves that it can somehow be included as part of our regular diet without no ill health effects. Added sweeteners, isolated sweeteners were never meant to be consumed in the amounts that we do today - or part of one's daily diet. And forget the eating in moderation idea, as there is no quantitative way to provide an amount that would be healing, rather than harmful. Aside from being used in its raw form, it should be used sparingly by those that choose to keep it in their diet.
I know that some people may feel uncomfortable eating raw honey, as various scares come from time to time as to its contamination, but in general this is a tiny risk factor in the grand scheme of things. As long as your honey comes from a reputable source and is not given to children under 1 - 2 years of age, the benefits far outweigh any risks.
The Xylitol, Sorbitol and other Sugar Alcohol’s Story
Some people consider xylitol and other sugar alcohols to be natural sweeteners, others do not. Personally I do not look at these as natural sweeteners in the traditional sense of the word. They are isolated sweeteners that have various effects on our bodies depending on which one is consumed, and in what amount.
Any sugar alcohols can induce diarrhea in large amounts, and traditionally they have been used as laxatives. Xylitol has also been linked to damaging the intestines and hence I would have great reservations using it. I have probably at some point had it unknowingly, but have never tried it purposefully.
For more information on sugar alcohols, see a previous article I wrote entitled “Quick Guide to Artificial Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes.”
The Final Story
While we can continue to dissect the different natural sweeteners out there, the final take away message is that anything processed is not the way to go, and when it comes to isolated, added sugars in one's diet they should be kept to a minimum. If you are going to eat Honey, eat raw, organic only. If you are going to eat Agave or Stevia, your product should be coming from a source you trust 100% in terms of where they got it and how they processed it to come to you. Ultimately, do not look for the magic bullet when it comes to sweeteners, as there is none. No isolated, non-whole food sugar will ever equate to optimal health, and hence must be used responsibly.
There is no doubt that whether natural, processed or artificial, we eat too much sugar today period. It doesn’t matter which product it is, we just eat too much sugar and are working against our body's natural state of balance for optimal health.
Therefore my advice to people today is that instead of stressing over which sweetener to use, I would focus my efforts instead on learning how to reduce or eliminate added sweeteners all together.
Nature provides us with so many deliciously sweet treats and we should just focus on consuming our sweets in their most natural form – from whole, natural food that also offers us the benefits of sweet along the way. From the numerous fresh and dried fruits, our world can continue to stay sweet with benefits and without the unnecessary health problems or challenges of which sweetener is the right way to go, only to be disappointed when the latest research shows otherwise.