by Stephanie Jo McCann
While we all understand that sugar is not part of an ideal, health-promoting diet, many of us still struggle with limiting its presence in our lives. We know it’s not good for us, but we also can’t imagine giving it up completely! Here I will highlight some natural sweeteners, strategies to minimize sugar’s effects, and solutions for unbearable cravings. By the time you are done reading this article, I hope you will feel empowered to make healthier choices leading up to this holiday season.
Choosing the best natural sweeteners can be extremely overwhelming, especially when weighing conflicting claims of different industries. My favorites are listed below in no particular order. All of these are minimally processed in order to preserve any naturally occurring nutrients:
Manzanita sugar is the powdered pulp of manzanita berries. Simply pulse the dried berries in a food processor and sift through a mesh strainer to separate the seeds and skins. You can find these dried berries at HAALo, or you can responsibly harvest your own in summer and early fall as they grow abundantly throughout this region. Relatives such as bilberry, uva ursi, and whortleberry have been repeatedly studied for their effectiveness in managing diabetes, so although there currently is only limited research, manzanita could potentially have similar effects. The beautiful pink sugar is incredibly versatile and can be used in many dishes, but the real draw of this local food is its high antioxidant content. These powerhouses pack even more punch than superfoods such as blueberries and pomegranates!
Monk fruit (Lo Han Guo) is a Chinese herb related to melons that is traditionally used as a Yin tonic for the Lungs. It can relieve sore, dry throats and a number of lung ailments. Versions on store shelves could be highly processed, but luckily HAALo sells the whole and crushed dried fruits as well as an extract made by Spirit Farmer Medicinals. In addition to boasting zero calories and zero glycemic index, recent research has also shown monk fruit’s potential in managing diabetes. Try the powdered fruit and extract in dessert recipes or use the crushed fruits to sweeten your teas.
Stevia is an herb from South America that is gaining popularity as a zero-calorie and zero-glycemic index sweetener. It is important to find a version that is still green, as the white granules and extracts found in stores are highly processed. It is easy to grow your own stevia at home, but you can also find the dried herb and powder at HAALo. My favorite use for it is in small amounts to sweeten herbal teas and other beverages. Large amounts can leave an unpleasant aftertaste, but since it is so incredibly sweet, a small pinch goes a long way.
Maple syrup is a familiar favorite that contains zinc, manganese, and smaller amounts of other minerals. Many people enjoy the flavor, and it makes a great choice for baked goods. Choose the darker Grade B syrup for more nutrients and flavor. Maple sugar is the dehydrated form of maple syrup with the same properties albeit a higher price tag.
Raw honey contains enzymes to digest carbohydrates as well as vitamins and antioxidants. While these enzymes make it ideal accompaniment to grains, they will be lost along with some other heat-sensitive nutrients if heated above 117° F. Additionally, it can be used to soothe a sore throat, and local varieties can help fight seasonal allergies. Infants should not eat raw honey (or other sweeteners, for that matter).
Sucanat is dehydrated cane sugar juice that is rich in minerals including silica. Since it has a similar texture to white sugar, it makes an easy substitute in baked goods and other sweetened recipes. While sucanat is less processed than refined sugar, large amounts can still have similar negative effects on the body. Moderation is key.
Molasses is a byproduct of cane sugar processing that retains many vitamins and minerals including niacin, thiamin, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and chromium. Chromium and zinc are both important in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. With its strong taste, it is best used in small amounts. I recommend blackstrap molasses over light and dark varieties.
Date sugar, the product of dehydrated dates, is a great topping for oatmeal, but its texture does not lend itself well to baking or dissolving in liquids.
Malted grain syrups, typically made from barley or rice, have most nutrients removed. However, they are a low-fructose option with a relatively low glycemic index.
Coconut sugar is the dehydrated sap from coconut palm flowers that can be substituted for sugar in baking recipes. It is a minimally processed and sustainable option with a low glycemic index, and it contains some vitamins and minerals. Coconut nectar is similar and makes a wonderful low-glycemic substitute for maple syrup.
What about your beloved agave syrup? Agave and other fructose-loaded sweeteners such as fruit juice are linked to liver disease, coronary artery disease, obesity, and insulin resistance among other issues. While agave has a very low glycemic index in relation to other sweeteners, it is highly processed and its high fructose content can wreak havoc on the body in a myriad of other ways. For this reason, I strongly discourage anyone from relying solely on glycemic index when choosing a sweetener. A low glycemic rating only accounts for a food’s effect on blood sugar, neglecting a wide range of other potential effects on the body. However, I have included glycemic index information as one of many considerations for those who do need to monitor their blood sugar.
Other sweeteners posing as healthy alternatives are brown sugar, raw sugar, turbinado, xylitol, and artificial sweeteners. The first three are processed versions of cane sugar with many nutrients removed. Xylitol, while a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, is extracted through heavy processing of potentially genetically modified foods. Finally, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame provide a calorie-free alternative, but they have been linked to migraines, insulin resistance, cancer and a host of other health problems. Natural, minimally refined sweeteners with most of their nutrients still intact are a much better option than any of these.
Extra Brownie Points
Now armed with the best choices for natural sweeteners, how can you further reduce the impact that sweets will have on your body? It is wise to limit consumption to moderate amounts of sugar on special occasions and one to two desserts per week. Slow the rise in blood sugar by eating sweets with fiber from whole fruits, nuts, or grains and fats such as butter, egg yolks, or coconut oil (but never vegetable or canola oil). Spices such as cinnamon and licorice might also help lower blood sugar and they make great additions to desserts! Finally, ensure that your diet meets all of your nutritional needs since sugar consumption can deplete vital nutrients.
If you find that your sweets cravings are unmanageable, there are many holistic solutions to help curb them. Surprisingly, sugar cravings tend to disappear after sugar is eliminated from the diet for several weeks. Flower essences such as cherry plum or oak and aromatherapy formulas with bergamot and spearmint can help break the habit. In addition, Spirit Farmer Medicinals makes both Sweet Tooth and Bitters Herbal Extracts that can support your choice to cut sugar intake. You can find all of these products at HAALo along with the herbs mentioned above.
In my practice, I find that sugar cravings can indicate an imbalance not only physically but also on a deeper emotional level. At its most basic, the desire for sugar is a desire for nourishment. Physically, a lack of protein or other nutrients can lead to cravings and are easy enough to address through real foods and bitter herbs. It is the emotional aspect of these cravings that proves much more difficult to overcome. Nourishment on an emotional level comes through self-care, healthy relationships, and a sense of purpose. Cultivating these aspects in addition to nourishing your body with real foods can prove a powerful combination to defeat sugar cravings. If this struggle is something you would like to address, our many practitioners at HAALo are happy to work with you find a more personalized solution.
Knowing the effects sugar can have on our body, it is best to limit its presence in our lives. However, by choosing better natural sweeteners and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, we can still indulge in sweet treats now and then.
Since experiencing firsthand the profound healing of plants, Stephanie Jo McCann has become passionate about helping others reconnect with nature through many different avenues. Sustainable farming, eating real food, photographing the great outdoors, and healing with plants are a few of her favorite ways to nurture this connection. Stephanie works at HAALo on Saturdays.
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