Some sweeteners to avoid or minimize are obvious, while others are downright confusing. That’s because “sugar” is such a broad term for a vast array of sweeteners and companies often use clever marketing to make their products seems healthier than they are. So, it’s important to get clear on what’s out there and learn about the shocking details of traditional, modern, and even some “healthy” sweeteners that can potentially sabotage your health.
By choosing natural alternatives (in conservative amounts) with a healthy, plant-abundant diet, you can reduce the risk of serious health issues such as Type 2 Diabetes and obesity. Plus, you can support natural energy, a healthier immune response, hormonal balance, and glowing skin.
Here is the list of potentially sabotaging sweeteners we’ll explore:
- White or Refined Sugar
- Sugar Alcohols or Polyols
- Evaporated Cane Juice or Evaporated Cane Sugar
- Turbinado Sugar
- Raw Sugar
- Brown Sugar
- High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) or Corn Syrup
- Conventional, Adulterated Maple Syrup
- Conventional, Adulterated Agave Nectar or Syrup
- Conventional, Adulterated Stevia
- Conventional, Adulterated Honey
- Conventional, Adulterated Monk Fruit
NOTE: I also recommend avoiding artificial sweeteners.
Always read nutrition labels and ingredient lists for foods, beverages, sweets, mints, and gum so you really know what you’re ingesting and can make the most empowered choices for your short-term and long-term health and sense of wellbeing. I also recommend prioritizing organic ingredients to best support our collective health and the health of the planet.
White or Refined Sugar: A potent sweetener, white sugar or refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. Domestically, sugar cane is mainly grown in Florida, Louisiana, California, and Hawaii. The largest growers of sugar beets in the country are in the Midwest. Here’s where things get interesting. In 2012, the USDA greenlit GMO sugar beets and does not require companies to disclose if they use them. That means avoiding genetically modified sugar is extremely uncertain unless the sugar is certified organic. Both refined cane sugar and beet sugar are composed of sucrose. Their nutritional profile, taste, and sales are more or less equal.
Given that sugar is highly processed, stripped of its natural phytonutrients, and carries a long list of health risks, I recommended keeping it to an absolute minimum in your diet or avoiding it all together. If you do consume it, prioritize certified organic.
Beyond health concerns lies a serious ethical motivation to boycott sugar. Much of the cane sugar consumed in the states is still imported and it can be tied to modern-day slavery from countries such as the Dominican Republic. Some of the victims include children who’ve been kidnapped near the border of Haiti, are forced to work all day, and are beaten if they try to escape.
Whether you’re considering the health, environmental, or human rights impact, we all need to be asking where does the sugar in our food, beverages, and beauty scrubs come from and at what price? Explore more through eye-opening documentaries such as Fed Up, That Sugar Film, and The Price of Sugar.
Sugar Alcohols or Polyols: These sweets have a short-chain carbohydrate structure that’s kind of like a combination between sugar and alcohol. Since they aren’t completely absorbed by the body, the blood sugar and caloric impact is lower than conventional sugar. However, sugar alcohols can also ferment in the intestines and cause gas bloating, or diarrhea. For anyone with IBS, choosing a low-FODMAP diet often excludes the majority of sugar alcohols. Some versions are extracted from plants, but most of the time they’re made from sugars and starches in order to sweeten and/or thicken processed foods, drinks, gums, and mints. Different types include:
- Hydrogenated Starch (HSH)
*Of the sugar alcohols listed, erythritol is known to be the most resistant to fermentation in the colon since 90% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted through the urine. If you choose to ingest it, I recommend organic versions over non-organic.
Evaporated Cane Juice or Evaporated Cane Sugar: This one is the marketing genius within the “natural” foods world. In a traditional sense, this sweetener would simply be evaporated, unrefined juice that has its nutrients intact. What most of us are getting in store-bought cookies, cereals, and such isn’t that different from white sugar though. Yes, there are some extra vitamins and minerals, but they’re pretty low compared to sugar cane that’s been pressed and processed with low heat the way the unadulterated version, Rapadura or Sucant, is.
To give credit where credit is due, many companies who manufacture foods and beverages with evaporated cane sugar do tend to use higher quality and organic ingredients. So overall, this sweetener, when organic, can be a better option than the run-of-the-mill conventional choices. Still, it’s best to keep evaporated cane juice or evaporated cane sugar to a minimum.
Turbinado Sugar: This sweetener is derived from a process where the raw cane sugar crystals are separated and washed with steam. Some sugar manufacturers say it isn’t filtered through bone char the way white sugar might be. If you use it, be sure to go organic.
Raw Sugar: Some sugar brands label their product in a way that may imply that the product is raw sugar, but all commercial sugar is refined to some degree in the U.S. The sale of truly, raw sugar is prohibited by the FDA.
Molasses: Molasses is an unsulphured by-product from refining cane sugar that comes in different grades and tastes. It isn’t passed through bone char and so the brown color remains intact. Molasses is high in iron and some other nutrients, but shouldn’t be considered a health food. Lentils, spinach, and quinoa are better iron-rich, calorie-smart choices that won’t spike insulin levels the way molasses will.
Brown Sugar: This sweetener is simply refined sugar with some added molasses. It is not a health product.
High Fructose Corn Syrup or HFCS: The Corn Growers of America will likely tell you that high-fructose corn syrup is basically natural and no big deal. However, here are a few things to consider. Most of the corn used for production has been genetically modified to create a starchier, more sugary plant. In fact, at least 90% of all corn in the U.S. is genetically modified. Studies also suggest that HFCS inhibits the communication between the brain and the digestive system to indicate being full. So, the potential risk is that you’ll overeat or overdrink. It’s also been linked to Insulin Resistance and mercury has been found in trace amounts of HFCS due to the manufacturing process. Watch out because now manufacturers can put “high fructose corn syrup-free” on the front of a package while still including it under the ingredients list as “fructose” or “fructose syrup.”
It’s also helpful to know that caloric sweeteners commonly derived from GMO corn in the United States come in other forms beyond HFCS and corn syrup such as dextrose, glucose syrup, maltodextrin, crystalline fructose, and trehalose. Some of these can also be derived from wheat, rice, and potatoes. If the label doesn’t disclose the source or if it isn’t certified organic, I recommend steering clear of them.
Xylitol (pronounced z-eye-luh-tall): It doesn’t sound natural, but it’s definitely been marketed that way. Found in products such as gum, toothpaste, mints, candy, and baked goods, xylitol is a sweetener that I recommend avoiding as much as possible. Here’s why. It’s often made from GMO corn (not just birch), refined with synthetic chemicals, and the company who manufactures a substantial amount of it is owned by the chemical company, DuPont. If that isn’t enough to convince you, xylitol can also cause stomach cramps, diarrhea, and a laxative effect when consumed in large quantities or by people who are sensitive to it.
Conventional, Adulterated Maple Syrup: Maple syrup comes from tree sap from maple trees and has a lower glycemic index compared to sugar. Traditionally, pig fat, butter, milk, or cream was (or is) added to maple syrup to de-foam it. Now vegetable oil or synthetic de-foamers are typically used.
Famous brands like Mrs. Butterworth and Log Cabin are made with ingredients such as corn syrup, natural and artificial colors, and preservatives. So, if you want the real deal look for certified organic labels that also state “100% pure maple syrup.” Organic maple syrup generally contains more minerals and only vegetable oils are used for de-foaming (no animal products or synthetics.) 100% pure maple syrup also contains more vitamins and antioxidants. Even so, it’s best used sparingly since it’s a concentrated source of sugar.
Conventional, Adulterated Agave Nectar or Syrup: Produced from several species of agave plants native to Mexico, the juice and starches are extracted from the core and then heated. Enzymes transform the sugar molecule chains into more simple sugars. Since the end result is high in fructose, it’s best to only consume it in moderation, if at all. Some forms of agave “nectar” (a marketing term) are rather mild while others are stronger and taste more like caramel. This is usually due to heating methods. There’s much debate over how agave is really produced, labeled, and can sometimes even be adulterated with undeclared sweeteners like HFCS and sugar. The best bet if you’re using it is to buy certified organic versions, but there are certainly healthier alternatives to agave nectar.
Conventional, Adulterated Stevia: Stevia, in its pure, natural form, is a medicinal herb known for its health benefits and super sweet taste. Unfortunately, it’s been highjacked by Big Food.
This natural, zero calorie sweetening herb has a unique flavor (that’s a perfect alternative for anyone accustomed to artificial sweeteners.) The most popularized so far is a white powder often found in little, paper packets. Those are the most convenient, but they’re also highly processed. Truvia, developed jointly by Cargill and the Coca-Cola Company, is a “stevia-based sweetener” which mostly contains erythritol, a sugar alcohol derived from GMO corn! As a result, I recommend completely avoiding Truvia. In contrast, organic liquid drops of stevia as well as canisters of the naturally green powder that are grown organically are available and would be a better choice in my opinion.
Conventional, Adulterated Honey: Honey has a long history of being used as an immune booster and healing salve. Like so many other foods and sweeteners though, conventional honey has been de-natured by many commercial companies, resulting in few (if any) medicinal properties. Pasteurized and even cut with sugar or high fructose corn syrup, the enzymes, antimicrobial properties, and complex flavors are lost. Conventional honey, specifically imported from China, is also known to be high in heavy metals and tainted with various chemicals and antibiotics. Only 5% of imported “honey” is tested by the FDA. If you choose to use honey go for a raw, organic, and preferably local brand and use it sparingly. In general, prioritizing organic products and produce is critical in supporting the health of powerful pollinators such as bees and butterflies. Honey should not be fed to babies younger than 1 year old because of the potential risk of botulism. Honey, royal jelly, propolis, mead, bee pollen, bee bread, and beeswax are avoided by strict vegans.
Conventional, Adulterated Monk Fruit: This fruit has been used for medicine for hundreds of years in China. It also happens to be about 300 times sweeter than sugar. Much of what’s commercially available is highly processed and not all-natural the way some marketing labels may imply. Since it’s imported from China (which often lacks sufficient health, safety, and environmental regulations), I highly recommend only seeking out certified organic powders or liquid forms if you choose to have it in your diet.
Holistic Secret: Chromium is a trace mineral that helps balance glucose levels and reduces cravings for carbs. Many Americans are deficient in it due to consuming high amounts of processed foods and depleting sweets. Good sources include: broccoli, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, green beans, asparagus, plums, onions, tomatoes, whole grains, potatoes, garlic, and basil.
What Are Smarter Sweeteners?
Natural alternatives to sabotaging sweeteners focus on options that are minimally processed, produced without pesticides, do not contain chemical ingredients or additives, and generally contain more nutrients. Many of them are also gentler on insulin levels than refined sugars.
Here is a list of smarter sweeteners to consider:
- Organic Whole Fruits (top choice)
- Organic Fruit Juices
- Organic Stevia (ideally homegrown or a green powder)
- Organic Coconut Sugar
- Organic Date Syrup
- Organic Brown Rice Syrup
- Organic Barley Malt Syrup
- 100% Pure, Organic Maple Syrup
- 100% Pure, Organic Raw Honey
- 100% Pure, Organic Monk Fruit
Read more about these in Smarter Sweeteners – Choosing Natural Alternatives.
All in all, most people in the U.S. are eating too many sweeteners, whether they’re processed, natural, wanna-be natural or synthetic. If you steer clear of HFCS, refined sugar, and artificial sweeteners, you’ll be headed in a healthy, holistic direction. To really promote vitality, good dental health, and a happier endocrine system though, you’ll want to be conservative with adding any kind of concentrated sweeteners to your diet.
My mission: As a Holistic Health Coach & Eco Expert, I’m dedicated to leading you straight to the core of what it takes to enjoy a new level of vitality, desired weight loss, sustainability, and detoxification. Enjoy my transformative programs and experience true health with true purpose!
 NFBBlog.com “Black Sugar: Modern-Day Slavery in the Dominican Republic” by Carolyne Weldon. February 1st, 2013. Accessed June 25th, 2019. https://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2013/02/01/black-sugar/
 LowCarbDiets.com. “What Are Sugar Alcohols?” by Laura Dolson. Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://lowcarbdiets.about.com/od/whattoeat/a/sugaralcohols.htm
 CenterForFoodSafety.org. “About Genetically Engineered Foods.” Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/about-ge-foods#
 Mercola.com. “Why Do You Continue to Eat When You’re Full?” January 16, 2010. Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/01/16/why-do-people-continue-to-eat-when-they-are-full.aspx
 The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. AJCN.Nutrition.org. “Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome 1’2’3” by Sharon S. Elliot, Nancy L. Kleim, Judith S. Stern, Karen Teff, and Peter J. Havel. 2002. Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/76/5/911.full
 WashingtonPost.com. “Study Finds High-Fructose Corn Syrup Contains Mercury” January 28, 2009. Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/26/AR2009012601831.html
 CrunchyBetty.com. “Xylitol: Should We Stop Calling It Natural?” June, 15, 2011. Accessed September 30th, 2015. http://www.crunchybetty.com/xylitol-should-we-stop-calling-it-natural
 FoodRenegade.com “Your Honey Isn’t Honey” by Kristen Michaelis Accessed June 11, 2018. https://www.foodrenegade.com/your-honey-isnt-honey/