Excessive sugar consumption is a problem we just can’t ignore. Sugar refers to refined, processed simple sugars such as cane sugar (table sugar) and high fructose corn syrup. Most Americans consume almost 4 times the maximum amount of recommended sugar per day, and globally our intake has increased by 40% from 1990 to 2016. Sugar substitutes offer a healthier alternative to processed sugar. In this article we’re going to cover the dangers of processed sugar, how to identify added sugars on food labels, the benefits of reducing processed sugar, and 3 healthier sugar substitutes.
Dangers of consuming too much sugar
Sugar is so tasty and addicting, but what is it doing to our health? We wrote an in-depth article answering that very question. You can find it here: How Processed Sugar Affects Your Health & 4 Nutrition Plans That Can Help You Avoid It.
Let’s just say there’s no body system that ISN’T affected by the negative impact of too much sugar. Sugar negatively impacts our brain, metabolism, heart, teeth, skin, gut, and even increases risk for cancer. It promotes inflammation in the body and increases our risk for chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and cognitive disease. The list goes on!
Processed Sugar Robs Your Body of Nutrients
Sugar actually depletes the body of nutrients. When we eat processed sugar, it actually requires nutrients, such as B-vitamins and antioxidants, to convert that sugar into energy. Certain natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup and molasses provide trace amounts of micronutrients, so they don’t deplete your nutrients in order to metabolize them. Whereas, refined and processed sugars lack nutritional value, so converting them into energy actually comes at a nutritional cost.
Processed Sugar Causes an Energy Roller Coaster
Sugar also depletes the body of energy. Mitochondria are the little powerhouses in your cells that make cellular energy. Sugar damages mitochondria, impairing the body’s ability to produce energy.
When you consume processed sugar, it’s broken down and absorbed quickly, resulting in a rapid spike of blood glucose (sugar) levels. This often comes with a burst of energy. If you’ve ever seen kids shortly after eating candy or drinking soda, you know what I mean. What goes up, must come down, and a spike in blood glucose is often followed by a sharp decline, or crash. When your blood sugar crashes your energy usually also tanks.
Sugar Increases Inflammation
Processed sugar also causes an increase in inflammation in the body, which is bad news. While short-term acute inflammation is normal and even helpful in the body’s healing process, chronic inflammation is at the core of most chronic diseases. Chronic inflammation weakens the body’s immune system and can lead to damage of the body’s cells, tissues, and organs. Simply put, chronic inflammation is not supportive of health and well-being.
Sugar Impacts Hormones
Eating sugar triggers the body to release a hormone called insulin. Insulin regulates the body’s storage or use of glucose in the body. Constantly eating large amounts of sugar leads to something called insulin resistance, which means your cells become less responsive to insulin. This makes it harder for the glucose to get into your cells, causing the glucose to build up in your bloodstream and eventually leads to type 2 diabetes. Less glucose entering the cells results in less cellular energy production, and that makes you feel tired.
Insulin also impacts estrogen and testosterone by reducing a protein called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG). SHBG binds to excess estrogen and testosterone in the blood, so when SHBG is lowered, it results in more of these hormones circulating freely in the body. If you read our article on excess estrogen, you know it can be a problem when too much of this hormone is roaming freely.
There is another hormone involved in the regulation of blood glucose levels. It’s called cortisol, and is often referred to as the body’s stress hormone. When blood sugar dips too low, it triggers the release of several hormones, including cortisol. So, eating processed sugar results in a blood sugar spike that is followed by a blood sugar crash, which triggers the release of cortisol. Cortisol is involved in many health functions, including metabolism and your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural 24 hour rhythm), so imbalances in cortisol also impact metabolism and sleep. You can see how consuming processed sugar at several points during the day sends blood sugar and hormones on a little roller coaster ride with many health consequences that aren’t supportive of optimal health.
What Foods Contain Processed Sugar?
Foods that contain these refined, processed sugars include sugar-sweetened beverages, cookies, candy, crackers, breads, breakfast cereal, granola bars, cakes, pies, other pastries, and other foods made from refined grains and added processed sugars.
Sugar-sweetened beverages deserve a highlight. They seem so innocent. No big deal, just hitting up the local coffee shop for your daily triple-pump-mocha-frappe to enjoy on your jaunt to work, right? Wrong-o. The problem with beverages as a source of processed sugar is that it’s unopposed. What I mean by that is this: it’s straight up liquid sugar…there is usually little to no protein, healthy fats, or fiber to blunt the blood sugar impact. This stuff is getting absorbed fast and shooting your blood glucose level straight to the moon. Wonder why you always feel like you need a mid-morning nap? As noted above, a blood sugar spike is usually followed by a crash, and that crash makes you sleepy. So if you feel like you need toothpicks to keep your eyelids propped open halfway through your morning, you might want to look at what’s in your cup.
How to Identify Added Sugars on Food Labels
Label reading is your friend. The ingredient list is something you should get comfortable with. It is usually located below, or near, the nutrition label and should be the first thing you look at when deciding if you want to purchase any food or beverage. The ingredient list tells you what ingredients are in that item.
To identify if a food or beverage contains added sugars, look for these ingredients on the ingredients list:
- Sucrose (table sugar)
- Cane syrup
- Corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Agave nectar
- Maple syrup
- Dextrose (a simple sugar that’s chemically identical to glucose)
- Concentrated fruit or vegetable juices
Not all of these sweeteners are ‘bad’, but they do all impact blood glucose levels. Awareness is key. Look at the ingredient list to find out if a food or beverage has these sweeteners added to them.
Benefits of reducing sugar intake
In this article we talked about the impact that processed sugar can have on your health. Now we’d love to share what the benefits of reducing sugar intake are for your health and overall wellbeing. Here are just a few reasons why you might want to consider cutting back on processed sugar:
- Improved heart health: Eating too much sugar has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. By reducing your sugar intake, you can help protect your heart and lower your risk of developing cardiovascular problems.
- Better dental health: Sugar is a leading cause of tooth decay and cavities. Reducing your sugar intake can help protect your teeth and gums from damage and decay.
- Increased energy: Eating too much sugar can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels, followed by crashes that leave you feeling tired and lethargic. By reducing your sugar intake, you can stabilize your blood sugar levels and maintain a more consistent level of energy throughout the day.
- Improved mental health: Studies have shown that eating too much sugar can contribute to anxiety and depression. By reducing your sugar intake, you can help improve your mood and mental wellbeing.
- Reduced inflammation: Excess sugar consumption can lead to chronic inflammation, which has been linked to a wide range of health problems, including autoimmune diseases and cancer. By cutting back on sugar, you can help reduce inflammation in your body and lower your risk of developing these conditions.
- Better skin health: Sugar has been linked to the development of acne and other skin problems. By reducing your sugar intake, you can help improve your skin health and reduce your risk of developing these conditions.
- Better hormone balance: As we noted above, processed sugar can have a major impact on your hormones. Cutting it out can support more balance in your hormone system.
Overall, reducing your processed sugar intake can have a wide range of benefits for your health and wellbeing. If you’re looking to lead a healthier lifestyle, cutting back on sugar is a great place to start.
3 Healthier Sugar Substitutes
These 3 sugar substitutes are healthier options that won’t impact your blood glucose levels. They are 3 of my favorite swaps for processed sugar.
1. Monk Fruit
Monk fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo, is a small green melon native to southern China. Its extract has become increasingly popular as a natural sweetener, thanks to its zero calorie content and lack of impact on blood sugar levels. Here are a few benefits of using monk fruit as a sugar substitute.
Monk fruit has no impact on blood sugar levels
Monk fruit extract has a glycemic index of zero, which means it does not raise blood sugar levels in the same way that sugar does. This makes it an ideal sweetener for anyone looking to balance blood sugar levels.
Monk fruit has anti-inflammatory & antioxidant properties
Monk fruit extract contains antioxidants called mogrosides that also have anticancer and antidiabetic effects. These effects may be due to the anti-inflammatory properties of monk fruit, as shown in this study.
Monk fruit has no aftertaste
Another benefit of using monk fruit extract as a sugar substitute is that it does not have the same aftertaste that some other sugar substitutes, such as artificial sweeteners, can have. Monk fruit extract has a mild, fruity taste that is similar to sugar, which makes it a good substitute in recipes that call for sugar.
Monk fruit is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so when used in powdered or granulated form, it is often blended with other sugar substitutes to get a sweetness similar to sugar. Make sure to read the note on erythritol below as some monk fruit blends use erythritol which may not be ideal. Consider a product like this one which is monk fruit blended with allulose, another healthy sugar substitute that we’ll touch more on below!
In addition to the granulated and powdered blends, monk fruit can be used as an extract. I use a few drops to sweeten my morning coffee, tea, and in recipes where a liquid sweetener makes sense.
Side effects of monk fruit
It is possible to be allergic to anything, and this holds true for monk fruit. Some people are sensitive or allergic to monk fruit, so if you find yourself to have a reaction when eating monk fruit, it’s best to avoid it.
Stevia is another popular natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, native to South America. Stevia is commonly used as an alternative to sugar, again, thanks to its zero calorie content and low glycemic index. Here are a few benefits of using stevia as a sugar substitute.
Stevia has no impact on blood sugar levels
Much like monk fruit, stevia has a glycemic index of zero, which means it does not raise blood sugar levels in the same way that sugar does. This makes it a nice option as a sugar substitute for anyone looking to balance their blood sugar.
Taste of stevia
Another benefit of using stevia as a sugar substitute is that it does not have the same aftertaste that some other sugar substitutes, such as artificial sweeteners, can have. Stevia has a slightly sweet, herbal taste that is similar to sugar, which makes it a good substitute in recipes that require sugar. That said, some people still find stevia to have an aftertaste, so it’s all about your unique taste preference! Stevia is 150 to 450 times sweeter than sugar, so a little goes a very long way.
Baking with stevia can be tricky because its consistency and chemical properties are different from sugar, it may not provide the same texture to baked goods. Often baking formulations using stevia will be blended with another sugar substitute, so make sure to read the label. Below are a few examples of stevia products. The product in the packets is blended with inulin, a prebiotic fiber.
The protein powder that we use is sweetened with stevia… and it’s delicious! You can learn about the protein powders we like here.
Antioxidant & health properties of stevia
The glycosides, flavonoids, and fatty acids in stevia provide potential health benefits. Studies have indicated stevia can support kidney and oral health, and has anticancer, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and immune-supportive properties.
Side effects of stevia
As was mentioned with monk fruit, it is possible to be sensitive or allergic to stevia. Avoid it if you notice any adverse effects. Aside from potential allergy, human studies have indicated no other side effects with stevia.
Allulose, also known as D-allulose, is a low-calorie sugar substitute that is gaining popularity. It has a similar taste and texture to sugar, making it an excellent option for those looking to reduce their sugar intake. Let’s explore what allulose is, how it compares in baking and cooking, and the benefits and drawbacks of using it as a sugar substitute.
What is allulose?
Allulose is a simple sugar that occurs naturally in small quantities in some fruits, such as figs and raisins. However, it is predominantly produced through a process that involves enzymatic conversion of fructose. It is chemically classified as a monosaccharide and is considered a rare sugar because it is not metabolized by the body in the same way as other sugars.
Allulose in cooking and baking
Allulose also has a similar taste and texture to sugar, unlike some artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes, which can have a bitter aftertaste or a different texture when used in baking. Allulose will caramelize, thicken and get sticky, which other sugar substitutes do not do, making it a great option in those recipes where a caramelizing effect is needed.
Overall, given its taste and chemical properties are so similar to sugar, allulose is an excellent substitute for sugar in baking and cooking. This is the sugar substitute I have opted to switch to for my baking and cooking needs when a granulated option is called for. (For a liquid sweetener, I use monk fruit extract.)
Allulose has no impact on blood sugar levels
Allulose actually has 0.4 calories per gram versus table sugar which has 4 calories per gram. Allulose, however, is not absorbed by the body, so it has NO impact on blood glucose or insulin levels. This makes allulose a great option for anyone looking to replace processed sugar with a healthier alternative.
Allulose doesn’t cause tooth decay
Much like stevia and monk fruit, allulose does not cause tooth decay. Using these sweeteners as sugar substitutes is good for your oral health!
Side effects of allulose
If consumed in large quantities, allulose can cause bloating and gas, but if eaten in normal quantities it shouldn’t have this effect.
Erythritol: A Word of Caution
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that is made by the body, found naturally in some fruits and vegetables, and is commonly used as a sugar substitute. It is sometimes added to granulated and powdered sugar substitute formulations. The amount of erythritol used as a sugar substitute far exceeds any amount made by the body or found in food. While this sugar alcohol is used as a sugar substitute because it has no impact on blood glucose, recent research warrants caution.
Recent research, published in March 2023, has found that erythritol used in large amounts, as it often is when used as a sugar substitute, increases cardiovascular risk. It is considered “generally regarded as safe” (GRAS) by the US FDA and the European Union, however, the amount needed for its use as a sugar substitute may be to blame for its potentially harmful effects. In vitro and ex vivo studies with erythritol found that platelet aggregation and adhesion (clumping together) increased with increasing doses of erythritol.
If you’re using erythritol as a sugar substitute, this research is reason enough to swap to another option, such as those mentioned above.
Processed sugar can pose serious problems to our health. From hormone imbalance to increasing inflammation and sending energy on a nose-dive, processed sugar isn’t doing us any favors.
Reducing or avoiding processed sugar consumption is a great way to support overall health in so many ways. The first step in this process is awareness. Finding the ingredient list on food labels will help you identify if added sugars are present in the product.
If you’re looking to swap processed sugar for a healthier option, monk fruit, stevia and allulose are excellent options to consider. If you’re someone that has used erythritol in the past, it may be worth considering switching to another option based on recent research indicating it can pose a risk for heart health.
Have you used any of the healthier sugar substitutes mentioned in this article? What is your favorite?