We are surrounded it by it every day. Our foods — even the ones that don’t taste sweet — are loaded with it. So it’s no surprise that we are eating way too much of it. Of course, we’re talking about sugar. If you can’t stop craving the sweet stuff, you’re not alone: sugar addiction is a real phemonenon that can have serious implications for your health — and your waistline. If you’ve ever wondered how much natural sugar is okay, which sugar substitute is best, and more, read on to get the hard facts about sugar.
Sugar’s Risks Are Anything But Sweet
Sugar Comes With Unhealthy Friends
Another problem with eating a high-sugar food is that it tends to bring some other bad friends along with it, including refined flour, which lacks fiber and other nutrients. “The problem with a diet high in added sugars is that it usually means that the diet is lacking in a variety of other nutrient-rich foods that would provide more fiber and important vitamins and minerals,” says Alison Massey, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Foods with a lot of added sugars also usually contain a lot of unhealthy saturated and perhaps even trans fats, which are unhealthy for the heart and generally high in calories.”
Fruit Isn’t Always a Go
We know that fruit is good for us, but it does contain fructose, which is a naturally occurring sugar. “Many of our fruits are now much larger in size than they used to be, and they do contain fructose along with glucose, which are both naturally occurring sugars,” she says. “So it’s important to keep in mind that a serving of fruit nowadays may be a half of an apple, orange, or banana, for example.”
Still, if you want something sweet, a fresh piece of fruit is your best bet. After all, the USDA recommends five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day, or roughly half a plate full at each meal.
Honey Isn’t a Perfect Natural Sugar
Another natural sugar that you may be wondering about is honey. Although it does have health benefits beyond those of regular sugar, including the ability to boost immunity, aid digestion, and reduce inflammation, it still has a relatively high glycemic index value, which is a standardized indicator of a food’s carbohydrates, 52 compared to table sugar’s 65. The higher the GI rating, the higher the potential blood-sugar spike. “Natural sugars such as raw honey or unfiltered honey contain high amounts of antioxidants and can be included in small amounts for most people without a problem,” Schoenfeld says. But Schoenfeld cautions that people with diabetes should probably still avoid honey as a sweetener.
Sugar Substitutes Are Even Sweeter Than Sugar
There are many sugar substitutes marketed as healthful alternatives to table sugar, and most are much sweeter than ordinary sugar. The high concentration of sweetness means less is required to flavor food. “Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes and are typically even sweeter than regular table sugar,” Massey says. “In the United States, there are six sugar substitutes that are FDA-approved for use: sucralose, saccharin, stevia, aspartame, neotame, and acesulfame potassium.”
Interestingly, swapping sugar substitutes for table sugar doesn’t necessarily add up to weight loss. For example, diet soda sweetened with aspartame has consistently been linked to obesity and risk for metabolic syndrome.
The Newest Sugar Substitute Might Be the Best
The newst and buzziest sugar substitute, stevia, which is made from leaves of stevia plants, has already garnered quite a following among the diet community because it’s thought to be an all-natural alternative to chemical sweeteners. “Natural stevia can be used to sweeten beverages such as iced tea and lemonade or foods such as homemade fruit sauces, it can be used safely in moderate or small amounts,” Schoenfeld says. “I recommend stevia for carbohydrate-controlled diets and use it myself in a beverage I make from apple cider vinegar and cinnamon.
Applesauce Might Be the Better Substitute
When it comes to baking with gluten-based ingredients like flour, Sally Kravich, MS, a natural health expert and consultant in New York City, recommends trying all-natural applesauce in place of sugar to add sweetness without the high glucose level or artificial sugar substitutes. Similarly, many recipes also recommend using an equal amount of applesauce in place of oil to cut down on calories and fat. Some of the commercial sugar substitutes on the market, such as stevia and sucralose, can also be used for baking, but be sure to follow the instructions on converting the volume of sugar to the recommended volume of the sugar substitute.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup Gets a Bad Rap
High-fructose corn syrup has taken a lot of heat as a serious health risk thanks to its presence is many processed foods, but some experts think it’s no worse than standard table sugar. “Table sugar and HFCS contain similar calorie content and mixtures of glucose and fructose and are metabolized similarly in the body,” Massey explains. “Some scientific experts and respected authoritative bodies agree that table sugar and HFCS are nutritionally equivalent.” Still, this is a hotly debated topic, and some researchers remain unconvinced.
Sugar in Your Bloodstream Puts Your Health in Danger
Glucose, which is the name given to sugar when it’s in your bloodstream, is actually essential to your body and your cells. The health problems occur when you get too much glucose. “Anytime your blood sugar spikes above 120 mg/dL, your pancreas over-releases the hormone insulin,” says Mark Macdonald, a certified personal trainer, nutrition consultant, and author ofBody Confidence, says. “When this happens, your body shifts into fat-storing mode. So, the more blood sugar spikes you have the more fat you store. This can lead to an onslaught of health challenges, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.”