Sugar Substitutes | Pacific Integrative Pediatric Health

Sugar is one of the most overused food ingredients, with the least amount of nutritional value. It may be included in food as a wide range of sweeteners from plain white cane sugar to high fructose corn syrup.  There are many types of sugar that are found in most processed foods you buy at the store, even the foods and snacks labeled “Healthy”.  The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for children and women and 9 teaspoons for men, but the average American consumes 94 grams, or about 23 teaspoons, every day.  Added sugar is easy to miss on ingredient labels because there are at least 74 different names for added sugar (see links below). Luckily food labels now show you the amounts of sugar, both occurring naturally and added to foods. Sugar is used in foods to make them taste better but has very little nutritional or health value. In fact, we know that excess sugar leads to elevated blood fats and weight gain. It also contributes to the diseases associated with children being overweight, such as high blood pressure, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and Type 2 Diabetes.

So what are better sugar substitutes that you should consider using?:

  1. Whole Fruits, mashed or pureed:  Fruit is a natural sweetener option and is good for you and your children. It retains all its nutritious properties like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. In fact, whole fruit is the best sweetener for children.  Satisfy a sweet craving with frozen grapes or berries, bananas, mangos, or mandarin oranges!  They are great in a smoothie or added to the morning oatmeal bowl, like raisins, as a natural sweetener. Whole fruits (fresh, dried, or frozen) add fiber to the diet, calm a sweet tooth, and can sweeten cakes, cookies, and other baked goods, using  applesauce or mashed bananas.
  1. Pure Maple syrup (not corn syrup imitations like Log Cabin or Aunt Jemima):  Real maple syrup contains 20 antioxidants and some good nutrients including zinc, manganese, calcium, and potassium.  Unfortunately, it is still very high in sugar as it supplies 50 grams or 12 tsp of sugar in ¼ cup.  Luckily, a little goes a long way and it is an excellent sweetener in almost everything. Pure maple syrup can be expensive but look for large containers at big box stores like Costco.
  1. Date Sugar: Date sugar is a whole food sweetener made from dates by grinding the fruit into a powder.  Dates are naturally nutritious, rich in fiber, protein, B vitamins, and minerals. Date trees are also eco-friendly, living up to 150 years. There are drawbacks – this is a more expensive form of sweetener.  Also, it doesn’t melt well so you may have limitations in cooking unless you are using date paste.  Date paste can easily be made at home in a food processor or blender using whole dates.  Date paste works great as a sweetener in baked goods like cookies and cakes or even in a smoothie.
  1. Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar is made from the dried flower sap of the coconut palm. It looks similar to brown sugar though it feels a little bit drier and has smaller granules.  It contains minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short-chain fatty acids like polyphenols and antioxidants. It also contains a healthy fiber called inulin, but is around 70-80% sucrose, meaning it is also high in sugar. This has a brown color and mixes well in gluten-free sandwich bread, coffee, and tea.  A little bit goes a long way.
  1. Honey:  Honey contains flavonoid antioxidants, vitamin C, B vitamins, amino acids, and minerals. It is still high in sugar and children under one year should not eat raw honey. If you are following an Ayurveda diet, honey should never be heated or cooked. 
  1.  Stevia: Stevia is a natural sweetener that comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana bush, and is native to South America.  It contains NO calories and is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It comes in powder or drop forms. A 2017 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food suggests that it could prevent metabolic syndrome and related conditions in adults and children and may lower blood pressure.  It is an excellent sugar substitute but you do not need very much of it to get a very sweet taste.  Some children and adults find it has an aftertaste that they may or may not like.
  1. Monk Fruit: This is a fruit-derived natural sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years.  Monk fruit is also called Swingle fruit or luo han guo. It comes from southern China and is a small green melon that was cultivated for centuries by Buddhist luóhàn monks. Made from the juice, it is 150 to 200 times sweeter than table sugar.  It has zero calories and comes in a variety of forms which makes it easy to cook with including powder, granules, and liquid.  It is generally considered safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women and children. It has antioxidant effects and one study suggests it might have anti-inflammatory properties.  It is more expensive to buy and some people find it has a different aftertaste.  It is best ordered online at sites like Lakanto or Amazon.
  1. Sugar Alcohols like Xylitol:  Xylitol has no calories and does not seem to cause the same digestive problems as other sugar alcohols like sorbitol or mannitol. It also does not lead to tooth decay, might be a preferred substitute for people with diabetes, and has been found to act as a strong antioxidant. Sugar alcohols pull water into your intestine and, when consumed in excess, can cause diarrhea, bloating, and gas. Also, some xylitol comes from corn, which could be genetically modified. To be safe, look for a non-GMO claim or xylitol made from birch.  Important: Xylitol is toxic to dogs, with potentially serious, even life-threatening, results. Dogs that ingest even small amounts of xylitol (often from  gum, candy, and toothpaste) are at risk of developing hypoglycemia and acute liver failure. If you think your dog has eaten xylitol, take him to your vet or an emergency animal hospital immediately.

Added sugar is a primary source of non-nutritious calories and is harming the health of billions around the world.  It is highly addictive and leads to more sugar craving.  The best way to curb the cravings and nourish your body is to use healthier, natural  forms of sugar in modest amounts to put a smile on everyone’s face!

Here is a link to information on 56 different names for sugar that you need to watch for when you are reading food labels:  https://www.virtahealth.com/blog/names-for-sugar

And here is a list of 65 others that don’t even fully overlap:  https://thehealthsciencesacademy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/The-Health-Sciences-Academy_65-Names-Of-Sugar.pdf

(The information in this blog has been adapted and revised from the Food Revolution Network Published March 8, 2019, and written by Ocean Robbins)

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