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Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime — while this popular song from the 1950s is more about love than white granules of sweetness, it perfectly describes the typical American diet. In fact, the average American consumes more than 126 grams of sugar per day (think: three 12-ounce cans of soda), which happens to be more than twice what the World Health Organization recommends for daily intake.
Countless studies reveal the incredibly addictive nature of sugar, which releases chemicals that set off the brain’s pleasure center — much like drugs. Plus, excess sugar negatively impacts weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure, and can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And don’t forget about chemical-laden high-fructose corn syrup, which is found in most packaged snacks and junk foods, and almost makes sugar look innocent.
“The reason high-fructose corn syrup is usually one of the first ingredients on the label of processed foods is because it is cheaper and sweeter than sugar,” says Alexandra Catalano, a holistic nutritionist and creator of the popular lifestyle brand Eat Cute. “High-fructose corn syrup is one of the most toxic foods we can consume. Not only does it contain chemical toxins like mercury, but it can cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease. Simply removing sugar from your diet and using natural sources of sweetness is truly the key to being your most vibrant and healthy self.”
So, how can you enjoy the foods you love without the risk of fatal diseases and poor health? By switching to less addictive and more natural options when it comes to sweet treats.
7 Healthy Sweeteners
1. Monk Fruit Extract
Monk fruit is a small, green gourd that looks like a melon. It’s found in the southern Chinese mountains and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. “Unlike sugar, which has no health benefits, monk fruit’s high antioxidant compounds help fight free radicals in the body,” says Catalano, who uses it as her go-to sweetener for her favorite fudge recipe. “It also hinders the growth of bacteria, especially bacteria responsible for tooth decay, and helps fight inflammation.”
2. Manuka Honey
Produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the native majuka bush, Manuka honey is not your average honey-in-a-bear, thanks to its high enzyme content. Research shows that it may promote beneficial bacteria and gut health. “It’s also incredible at treating acne, eczema, and burns in addition to helping heal your stomach if you have low stomach acid or acid reflux,” says Catalano. “Manuka honey is a great addition to a dessert, especially ones that are raw. I also enjoy using Manuka honey topically in homemade face masks with cinnamon and turmeric or spirulina.”
This spice, used frequently in Ayurvedic medicine to heal and nourish the body, can be a great addition to recipes when you want a touch of added sweetness and a slew of medicinal healing properties. “Ceylon cinnamon stabilizes blood sugar, treats cramps, and has a high concentration of antioxidants,” says Catalano. “I use Ceylon cinnamon in my coffee, baked goods, smoothies, and even topically when mixed with Manuka honey or plain Greek yogurt.”
Dates, the fruit of palm tree, not only add a burst of sweetness to your food, but have wonderful benefits when it comes to digestive health and cleansing. “Dates are rich in soluble fiber, which helps keep you feeling fuller longer, relieves constipation, and releases its glucose into your blood more slowly,” says Catalano. “I love adding dates in my smoothies. Just one date makes my raw cacao smoothie taste like a milkshake. You can also add them to salads or to baked goods instead of sugar.”
5. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, which comes from the sap of maple trees, is rich in zinc and contains less fructose than refined sugar, giving it a lower glycemic index score. “Maple syrup contains antioxidants, such as benzoic acid, and polyphenols that help reduce inflammation,” says Catalano. “Look for pure maple syrup, instead of its many highly processed imposters, and add it to your baked goods, fudges, raw desserts, and to your coffee instead of refined sugar.”
6. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is made from coconuts and is a far better alternative to refined sugar, especially for diabetics, thanks to its vitamins and trace minerals. “Coconut sugar contains a fiber known as inulin, which may help slow the glucose absorption into the body,” says Catalano. “This makes coconut sugar appealing to those with diabetes because it won’t spike your blood sugar as rapidly as refined sugar. I do recommend using it sparingly, as it contains the same amount of calories as sugar.”
“Removing white sugar from your diet is one of the best things you can do for your health,” says Catalano. “Start by making these simple and delicious switches to natural forms of sweeteners. However, this doesn’t mean you can eat as much as you want — despite their health benefits, these sugar substitutes should still be used as special treats and consumed in moderation.”
7. Sweet Potatoes
Unlike refined sugar, sweet potatoes are naturally sweet, are unprocessed, and make your skin glow — plus, they have a multitude of magical benefits over traditional white potatoes. “They help stabilize blood sugar because they are rich in fiber and are nutrient-dense,” says Catalano, who uses them in brownie recipes as a substitute for flour because they help naturally thicken the batter and add sweetness. “They are rich in vitamin A, which promotes healthy vision, and vitamin C to enhance immunity.”