Sugar isn’t the enemy. We’re never advocating it as such.
And it’s not about avoiding it completely, but to be mindful about the amount of sugar you consume, to consider where it comes from, and to how much it’s processed. Big Food makes this difficult as they engineer ultra processed forms of sugar that manipulate our taste buds and make us more addicted. That’s where our work and mindfulness comes into play.
So as we were ranking the sugars, we also wanted to highlight that the less processed a food is, the better. It’s usually about what’s been DONE to the food. When you consider the sugar you are eating, even if it looks like it’s healthy from the packaging, consider how much it’s been processed. The more WHOLE and NATURAL that it is, the better, and you’ll continue to see this pattern as you read on!
We even have to be cautious about natural sources of sugar. Just because they are natural does not give us the green light to consume as much as we want, and more importantly, just because they’re labeled as natural doesn’t mean that they’re not ultra processed.
More insidious are those sugars that pretend to be “natural” like stevia and agave syrup. Avoid these. Finally, there are artificial sweeteners that are specifically engineered to hook us while damaging our health. We should avoid these as much as we can.
There are over 260 names for sugar and counting, but our bodies metabolize (break down) sugar the same way independent of where it’s coming from. All sugar leads to serious health problems if we have too much. Any “sugar” we see on labels is composed of two types of sugar, glucose and fructose. Glucose is not the problem because the body can use it for energy.
The main problem is fructose. It can only be metabolized in the liver in small amounts. When we eat too much fructose which includes sources like fruit juice, we overwhelm the liver. This leads to a fatty liver, insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. And of course, we have to be aware of all of the many additives and chemicals that are in ultra processed sugar that are linked to many health conditions as well.
To help you understand the many sugars that are used in the food industry, we’ve ranked the most common sources of sugar in order of #1 (most natural) to #10 (most processed):
#1 FRESH FRUIT
Fresh fruit contains abundant sugar, and these sugars don’t count toward the AHA recommended daily amount of added sugar (25 grams/day for our kids). Yay! However, sugar in fruit still raise our blood sugar levels and cause more insulin to be produced by the pancreas. If we go overboard with fruit we do risk insulin resistance and diabetes, like with any other sugar. Thus, we should enjoy fruit in moderation. Lucky for us, if we eat fruit in its whole form, it’s pretty hard to do this. We’ll get full from the fiber before we can eat too much.
BUT let’s not mindlessly juice 10 oranges in the morning! ! When we do this, we consume more sugar than we realize. The fiber in the oranges is broken down and will not fully signal the brain that we have had enough. In contrast, when we eat a piece of whole fruit,the intact fiber slows the absorption of sugar and makes us feel more full. Our bodies are naturally engineered to eat the whole fruit intact and will rarely overdo it. Imagine the difficulty of eating 10 oranges, whereas it’s pretty easy to drink 10 oranges! Eat your fruit, don’t drink it.
Fresh fruit is also great for baking, and here are my go to recommendations:
-Ripe bananas make an excellent sweetener! (Pro Tip: Bake Unripe Bananas at 300°F/150°C to speed up the ripening process)
-Use dried dates!
Prioritize these fruits first. If there is a way to substitute natural sugar for other sugars in any recipe, go for it! Experiment with the recipes you love and challenge yourself to remove all added sugars.
#2 Raw Organic Honey
The key here is raw! Even better, try to stick with raw and local. If you buy your raw honey locally, it can help build up your immunity to common allergens in your area by introducing your body to the bee pollen from local bees. Bonus, you also help the environment.
When honey is processed, like most of the honey sold at the supermarket, most of the nutrients are lost. Raw honey contains small amounts of antioxidants, potassium, phosphorus, vitamin B6, riboflavin, and niacin. These nutrients help to neutralize free-radical damage and provide essential vitamins and minerals to keep the body healthy. We drizzle honey on yogurt and use it to make energy balls. I even use it to sweeten my coffee in the morning.
Pro Tip: Cut the amount of sugar that recipes call for in half and substitute cane sugar with honey or maple syrup.
#3 Organic Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a great source of manganese and contains calcium, potassium, and zinc. It is rich in antioxidants, so it may help neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage, which translates to less aging and better health.
When buying maple syrup, choose the darker Grade B maple syrups because they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups. For the record, the Aunt Jemima brand doesn’t cut it. It’s not true maple syrup, but just corn syrup that’s been modified by Big Food to look and taste like Maple Syrup. We recommend Coombs Family Farms Maple Syrup.
We use maple syrup in baking and to drizzle over oatmeal. But beware! Most conventional syrup that you buy at the store is just corn syrup with maple flavoring, so always read the ingredient labels. Look for good ‘ole pure maple syrup.
#4 Organic Molasses
The more natural and raw the better. Are you starting to see the theme here?
Organic molasses is one of the most nutritious sweeteners derived from sugarcane or sugar beet and is made by a process of clarifying and blending the extracted juices. Plus, blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. It also has a lower glycemic load, which means it does not raise your blood sugar as quickly. That means less insulin is needed.
Molasses has a distinct taste so look for recipes that call for it. Have you made gingersnaps with molasses yet? The flavor is incredible!
#5 Coconut sugar
Coconut sugar can be substituted for cane sugar in a 1:1 ratio. Coconut sugar is not stripped of its nutrients like many sweeteners on the market and is a good source of potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron. Similar to maple syrup, it is also a low glycemic index sweetener.
Sometimes a recipe just needs good ole fashioned sugar. In that case, use coconut sugar and get a less processed and slightly more nutrient-dense sweetener. But remember, it’s still sugar! We like this brand by Big Tree Farms.
Next here are our top 5 “sugars” to avoid or consume as little as possible.
Remember, having a bit of these every once in a while is okay, but avoid regular consumption, and do your best to substitute these with the sugars above.
#6 Organic cane sugar (brown sugar, evaporated sugar, etc.)
Cane sugar consumed in small amounts is safe and tolerable. It has been around for thousands of years, but it’s the processing to avoid. Look for the least processed forms of cane sugar, and always choose organic. The other types of sugar below have only been around for a few decades.
#7 Natural low calorie sweeteners (LCS)
Stevia, monk fruit, allulose, and yakon syrup are “natural” low calorie sweeteners. These sugars may be a bit better for us given that they come from plant;, however, keep in mind that many brands of these sugars are still very processed. Health experts argue that it’s not what’s in the food (or sugar) rather what’s been done to it. Plus, wWe just don’t know the long-term effects of LCS’s on children’s growth and development.
Nevertheless, these natural sweeteners are gaining popularity. Why? Because they come from plants and they don’t appear to affect blood glucose levels. Not so fast! These sweeteners alter our taste buds and may excite us to crave other sugar and carbs. This can lead to overeating and serious weight gain. Further, they elicit an insulin response in the body, which may lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. LCSs may affect the gut microbiome and lead to a leaky gut, systemic inflammation, depression, and anxiety.
For adults, consuming organic stevia or organic monk fruit in small amounts probably isn’t going to hurt us; however, we should limit LCSs for our kids. And beware of stevia. Most stevia produces on the market are ultraprocessed and some don’t include much if any true stevia at all.
#8 Sugar alcohols (SAs)
Xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and maltitol are fairly common. Sugar alcohols are similar to sugar but modified to not be absorbed. They are well known to cause digestive upset: bloating, abdominal pain, gas, cramping, and diarrhea. This is because our body doesn’t absorb and fully digest these sugar alcohols so that they sit in our guts and ferment.
Also, they are not as sweet as sugar and are often combined with other low calorie sweeteners. Thus, all the unknowns we face regarding “natural” low calorie sweeteners also apply to SA’s.
That said, xylitol in gum or mints can be helpful for our dental hygiene and can replace sugar-loaded candies and gum. Other than that, SA’s in our diet should be limited as much as possible!
#9 High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High Fructose corn syrup is an artificial sugar made in the lab! Yummy! 🙁 It is a sweetener made from cornstarch with a higher fructose concentration, which makes it more dangerous for our bodies. Remember, our liver can metabolize fructose. Thank you Big Food for making us sicker while you cut costs!
HFCS is a cheaper form of sugar used to sweeten everything from our beverages to yogurt to peanut butter to hamburger buns. Multiple studies have shown that HFCS is a key factor contributing to obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease, and heart disease. Avoid it. It’s the worst.
#10 Low calorie artificial sweeteners (ASs)
Don’t the following “sugars” sound so appetizing: Acesulfame K (AceK), aspartame (Equal), neotame (NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet ’N Low), and sucralose (Splenda). No thanks!
These are chemicals that are made in the lab and have been linked to cancer. In addition, ASs are usually combined with chemically engineered additives, which is very scary. These additives interfere with the 37 billion billion chemical reactions per second in our miraculous body. Some of the breakdown products of these additives can “short” critical parts of our metabolism.
Aspartame breaks down into methanol, which crosses the blood brain barrier and is associated with birth defects in the central nervous system! Another breakdown product known as methylene chloride may have cancer causing properties. The FDA has received tens of thousands of serious adverse health impact complaints ranging from headaches to abdominal pain regarding AS.
One may argue that ASs are considered GRAS by the FDA and so they must not be that bad. But remember that trans fats (heart attack fat), Olestra (oil that caused you to spend more time in the bathroom than sleeping), Quorn (ultra-processed fake meat) were also once deemed safe. Unfortunately, we can’t always count on the FDA to have our best interests in mind, and remember the effect of ASs on children’s growth and development is still unknown.
For all of these reasons, we stay clear of this type of sugar.
Remember that the most important thing to consider is how much something has been processed. You might find fake honey that’s actually been cut with corn syrup or “stevia” products that don’t include any stevia at all but just erythritol. Big Food also engineers fake sugar to manipulate our kids’ taste buds and make it more addictive. It’s hard that Big Food does these things, but lucky for us, reading ingredient labels isn’t too difficult.
Choose organic when you can, and look for sugars that have only one ingredient. Enjoy sugar in it’s most whole, natural form. Sugar isn’t the enemy, and we don’t want to treat it as such. It’s the lab made, ultra processed sugars, that create the problems and havoc.
Sugar is a treat for all of us and not something to be scared of! Let’s work together to raise families who have a healthy and mindful relationship with sugar!