People tout the benefits of a sugar-free diet everywhere you go. Sugar is not created equally, and no single approach is best for everyone’s goals or preferences. Here are some facts about sugar, sugar substitutes, and sugar-free foods.
What is sugar?
Carbohydrates include starch, fiber, and sugar. Unlike carbohydrates, sugar is not a macronutrient (a nutrient the body uses in large quantities). Sugar is a term that covers many simple carbohydrates, including white-table sugar. This sweetener is also known as sucrose. It’s the most common sweetener in baked goods and sweet desserts.
Natural sugars include fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy products, and milk. Other natural sugars are:
Sugar is bad for you.
Sugar is not inherently harmful. Sugar is necessary for our bodies to function. Sugar is produced when the body converts carbohydrates into glucose. The cells use glucose to fuel their energy and pull it from the bloodstream. Removing natural carbohydrates and sugar sources from your diet, such as fruits, grains, and dairy products, is unhealthy. You can choose where the sweetness comes from in your food.
Sugar is a source of carbohydrates.
Sugar added to foods is different from sugar that occurs naturally. Sugar is added to many processed foods, including donuts and bread, candies, sodas, fruit juices, sweet teas, and condiments like ketchup or barbeque sauce. Many people consume a lot of sugar added to their diets, which has no nutritional value. Too much-added sugar can cause health problems such as high blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome. It may also lead to dental issues like cavities, increased triglycerides, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and more.
Fruit juices, honey, maple syrup, and molasses contain natural sugar. They also have nutritional benefits. Fruit is rich in antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins. Raw honey and maple syrup contain minerals and antioxidants like zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium.
What are sugar alternatives?
Sugar substitutes taste sweet but don’t contain sugar. Some have zero calories, while others have less calories than sugar. Sugar substitutes are often found in foods labeled as “sugar-free,” “keto,” or “low carb.” They fall into three categories: artificial sugar sweeteners (sugar alcohols), novel sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.
Most artificial sweeteners, or nonnutritive sweeteners, are made in laboratories from chemicals. Some are made of natural substances, such as herbs. Some are 200-700 times sweeter than sugar.
They don’t contain sugar or calories but have no beneficial nutrients such as vitamins, fibers, minerals, or antioxidants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates them as food additives.
In the past, artificial sweeteners were the only choice for those who needed to track their weight or blood glucose level. Experts believe artificial sweeteners can cause health problems, ranging from cancer to weight gain. Research is ongoing, and previous studies that showed health risks were done on animals. These products are generally safe for people if they do not exceed the daily recommended intake.
The FDA has approved several artificial sweeteners
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
Like artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are synthesized (usually from sugars). Sugar alcohols can be found in a variety of processed foods. These sugar alcohols are not as sweet and add a texture and flavor to food like hard candies and chewing gum. Some people may experience gastrointestinal discomfort, such as bloating or gas.
Sugar alcohols are not allowed to be used as sugar substitutes. They must appear on the nutrition label. Examples include:
Novel sweeteners come from natural sources. This relatively new group of sweeteners, also known as “plant-derived sweeteners,” offers many of the same benefits as artificial and natural sweeteners, such as honey or fruit. Novel sweeteners do not contain significant amounts of sugar or calories and don’t cause weight gain or spikes in blood sugar. These sweeteners are less processed than artificial sweeteners and more like their natural counterparts.
- Monk fruit
Both monk fruit and stevia are naturally derived plants. Some people find that they taste very similar to sugar.
According to the FDA, these sweeteners “are generally considered safe,” meaning they can be used for their intended purposes.
What is the best way to reduce sugar in my diet?
You may miss essential nutrients if you remove all sugars from your diet. These include whole grains, fruits, and dairy. The ketogenic diet and other diets that eliminate all sugars and carbohydrates can harm your health.
Our bodies will find other sources of energy if we stop eating sugar. The body uses ketone bodies, substances the liver produces, as fuel. Keto flu is a condition that occurs when you do not consume carbohydrates or sugars. Symptoms include headaches, fatigue, and mental fog.
Dietitians advise cutting back on refined foods, beverages, and sweeteners. However, they do not recommend eliminating all carbohydrates.
What are some healthy sweets?
Here are some tips for those who wish to reduce refined sugars from their diets.
- If you must have a sweetener, try a sugar alternative like stevia. You can also mix sugar with stevia.
- Eat whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
- Avoid sodas, energy drinks, and sweet teas.
- Sweeten with the entire fruit. Add a banana to your oatmeal or blend dates in a smoothie.
Avoid “healthy foods” that contain added sugar, like energy bars or granola.