How To Sort Out Added Sugars And The Best Way To Sweeten Your Food

energy fiber gut health meal planning whole foods Jul 10, 2022

Let’s just get our facts straight and tell you now: 

Sugar By Any Other Name Is Still Sugar

Added sugars often go by many names and it doesn’t matter how “natural” sounding they are. If they aren’t found originally in a food, it was added in, hence the name, added sugar. You will find, surprisingly, that sugar is packed in a lot of foods. Sugars in processed foods offer shelf stability and are a flavor enhancer. Here are some of the many types of added sugars you’ll find on an ingredients list:

Agave, peace or fruit nectar

Barley malt

Brown, beet, raw, invert, white granulated, turbinado  sugar

Cane crystals


Cane sugar/juice

Corn sweetener

Corn, carob, maple, malt, high fructose corn syrup

Crystalline fructose

Date sugar

Anything ending in “-ose” or “-ame” or “-ol”: Dextrose, fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose, galactose, saccharose, sucrose, mannose, advantame, aspartame, xylitol, mannitol, etc.)


Evaporated cane juice

Fruit juice concentrates

Glucose solids


Fiber, tapioca syrup or (Isomalto-oligosaccharides) IMO syrup

Foreign names for sugar (sweet sorghum, treacle, muscovado, panela/raspadora, demerara)


Monkfruit sweetener

Sweet sorghum


Yacon syrup

Anything with syrup


What Effect Does Sugar Have On Our Bodies?

The  main and most efficient source of energy for your body is glucose. Our body needs a constant supply of glucose to function all day long, and this is derived from our food. Glucose is another name for sugar, but in this context, the best form of glucose energy is the breakdown product of complex carbohydrates found in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. The brain in particular is dependent on sugar as its main fuel. It depends on glucose so much that our bodies have an elaborate receptor system at the blood-brain barrier which allows glucose to easily pass through and get to the brain as fast as possible.

Although the brain and body need glucose, too much sugar can be detrimental. When the brain gets too much energy too quickly, it forces the body to work overtime, stressing and overwhelming it at the cellular level. Too much refined sugar can actually make the liver synthesize more “bad” LDL cholesterol. It also lowers your “good” HDL cholesterol and it profoundly raises your triglycerides, while also inhibiting an enzyme that breaks triglycerides down.

Unfortunately, the Western diet is packed with sugar from refined grains and processed foods for high palatability and shelf stability. This excess in sugar can damage arteries leading to the heart and brain as well as various bodily structures. While fruit is high in sugar, it is also high in fiber. Fiber regulates glucose release so the brain and body doesn’t get too much sugar too quickly. Therefore, because of the fiber found in fruit, fruit consumption actually lowers blood sugar, and the risk of death from heart diseases and stroke, cancer and even diabetes. However, sweets devoid of fiber are not able to regulate that glucose release and can therefore ravage the brain and body. 

A treat every once in a while is fine, but repeated surges of too much energy causes systemic inflammation, which is linked to cognitive decline that is associated with Ahlzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. 


How Are Repeated Surges of Glucose Linked to Chronic Diseases?

Repeated surges of sugar increase the formation of harmful lipids that thicken and harden artery walls. Over time this can constrict blood flow to the heart and to the brain which can lead to heart disease and Ahlzheimer’s. Sugar can also  influence cancer because it increases oxidation, which damages cell walls and even DNA. In order to fix the oxidation that too much sugar causes, your body requires more nutrients. When your nutrient storage is depleted, it can make your body unable to help fight off chronic disease in other parts of your body. Sugar also plays a key role in insulin resistance, which can turn into type 2 diabetes. 


How Does Insulin Play A Role?

Insulin plays several essential roles in the body. It regulates blood glucose levels because it is the key that unlocks the door to let glucose into the cells. However, insulin also promotes fat storage. When you eat refined sugar, void of fiber, your blood glucose levels quickly rise. This causes an immediate spike in insulin so that the insulin can let the sugar into the cells. However, remember that insulin is also the fat storage hormone.  The more refined sugar you eat, the quicker blood sugar levels rise, the more insulin you secrete, and the more fat you build up. When you have more fat, you become more resistant to insulin. Fat can jam up the lock and make it so that insulin struggles to unlock the door to let glucose into the cells. So your body secretes more insulin, which leads to more fat storage, which leads to insulin resistance.  People with insulin resistance may not even be diabetic but may have poor cognitive scores on memory tests, and have a higher risk of stroke, heart attacks, and even cancer. 


What’s The Ideal Added Sugar or Sweetener?

It depends on how you measure it. If you want to know which one has the most antioxidants and nutrients, that would be date sugar, then molasses. If you want to know the sweetener that spikes your blood sugar the least amount, that would be coconut sugar.

Remember that any type of sugar devoid of fiber will rapidly increase your blood glucose levels. This includes even sugars like maple syrup and honey. Again, having a treat on occasion is fun and special, but when we consistently consume foods loaded with added sugars, the repeated surges of blood glucose levels contribute to chronic disease. 

The truth is we are consuming more added sugars than ever. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day for women (which is about 24 grams or 100 calories) and 9 teaspoons for men (which is about 34 grams or 150 calories). But we are eating an average of 22 teaspoons per day (which is about 92 grams or 350 calories)! The average American consumes a staggering 200 pounds of sugar every year. And unfortunately, most of it is in the refined form.

Date sugar, molasses, coconut sugar, maple syrup and honey are delicious alternatives to sugar. While refined sugar and sugar substitutes  bring little to the table in terms of nutrition, these natural sweeteners have a slight edge to them with their antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial to your body. Remember, though, that they are still considered an added sugar and therefore, high in calories and can impact blood sugar levels. Studies have found that they can also increase blood sugar levels — just not as much as refined sugar. It is best to pair even your “healthy” added sweetener with other whole plant foods to reduce sugar surges.

Here is a bit more information on each of the added sugars that have additional benefits to them: 


Honey contains a number of antioxidants, including phenolic

compounds like flavonoids.  Many of these have been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease. Honey may also lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and inflammation while raising “good” HDL cholesterol.

Eating honey may also lead to modest reductions in blood pressure, an important risk factor for heart disease. Several studies show that honey can lower triglyceride levels, especially when used as a sugar substitute.

When applied to the skin, honey can be part of an effective treatment plan for burns, wounds and many other skin conditions. It is particularly effective for diabetic foot ulcers.

For children over one year of age, honey can act as a natural and safe cough suppressant. Some studies show that it is even more effective than cough medicine.

Make sure to choose a high-quality brand, because some lower-quality ones may be mixed with syrup. Raw, unfiltered honey is ideal due to its slightly lower glycemic load. 


Maple Syrup

Yes, pure maple syrup is not only high in antioxidants, but every spoonful offers nutrients like riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium. Maple syrup has a higher concentration of minerals and antioxidants, yet fewer calories than honey.

Maple syrup helps fight inflammatory diseases because it supplies inflammation-reducing polyphenol antioxidants.

Maple syrup may help protect against cancer.  This is due to the presence of antioxidants in maple syrup that can protect cells from DNA damage and mutation. While maple syrup alone won’t likely result in a reduced risk for developing cancer, it’s a much safer option than including high levels of refined sugar or artificial sweeteners in your diet.

Similarly to raw honey, maple syrup can help to lower skin inflammation, redness, blemishes and dryness. Maple syrup applied to the skin can hydrate and reduce bacteria and signs of irritation.

Maple syrup extract may help antibiotics work better. How? Researchers found that the extract increased the permeability of the bacteria, helping the antibiotics into the interior of bacterial cells.

Look to see the label says “pure” maple syrup and be sure what you’ve got is from a single source. Whenever possible, select darker, grade B maple syrups since these contain more beneficial antioxidants than its lighter counterparts.



Dates are on the most versatile fruits in regards to it being a sweetener. There are many varieties of dates from medjool to deglet noor dates, which offer variety in its texture and taste. Dates are a rich source of fiber and offer 6 g fiber in just half a cup, making it a great choice for added fiber benefits of lowering cholesterol and increasing satiety.

Dates are one of the best ways to sweeten up recipes with a whole food as they contain a good amount of glucose and fructose and are high in carbohydrates. They make great pre- and post-workout snacks and can provide a quick burst of energy when you need to increase blood sugars after a fast for example. Dates also contain a good amount of potassium, magnesium and manganese as well as vitamin B6. What makes dates really shine is their fiber content, which makes it associated with slower blood glucose absorption. 

In regards to cooking with dates, it may not dissolve in liquids as easily as other granulated sugars like coconut sugar.

Another fun fact about dates is that they have been shown that consuming dates in the late pregnancy stages can be considered a natural way to help labor and reduce the risk for interventions to induce labor. 


Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar contains potassium, magnesium, and sodium, which are all essential for regulating your body’s water content as well as many heart, nerve, and muscle functions. It has nearly 400 times more potassium than regular sugar.

Coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, and calcium, which can have many health benefits, including stronger bones. It also contains nitrogen, vitamin c, raw antioxidants,  and Inulin. Inulin is a type of dietary fiber that helps keep your gut healthy, prevent colon cancer, and balance your blood sugar.

While standard table sugar is pure sucrose, coconut sugar only contains about 75 percent sucrose. The other 25 percent is composed of nutrients, fiber, and other “good stuff.” 

Are honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar the only healthy sugar options? 

Nope. Have you tried molasses? 

Refined sugar, corn syrup and agave nectar contain minimal antioxidant activity, but maple syrup, dark and blackstrap molasses, brown sugar, and raw honey showed higher antioxidant capacity--with molasses having the highest.


Optimize Your Use Of Added Sugars

Date sugar, molasses, coconut sugar, maple syrup and honey are delicious alternatives to table sugar. While refined sugar and sugar substitutes bring little to the table in terms of nutrition, these natural sweeteners have a slight edge to them with their antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are beneficial to your body. Remember, though, that they are still considered an added sugar and therefore, high in calories and can impact blood sugar levels. Studies have found that they can also increase blood sugar levels — just not as much as refined sugar. It is best to pair even your “healthy” added sweetener with other whole plant foods to reduce sugar surges.

While date sugar is the most nutrient-dense, because it is not as sweet as sugar and the consistency is sometimes difficult to cook with, we usually use coconut sugar, maple syrup or honey in most of our recipes. It is really easy to swap out table sugar for coconut sugar in most recipes. But feel free to experiment on your own with the different types of sugars to see which ones you like best for different recipes. 

And it is totally fine if you want to stick with regular sugar, because the benefits of “healthier” sugars are small. So enjoy your added sugars and use them to enhance the flavor of other whole plant foods with no guilt!


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Gheldof, N., Wang, X. H., & Engeseth, N. J. (2002). Identification and quantification of antioxidant components of honeys from various floral sources. Journal of agricultural and food chemistry, 50(21), 5870–5877.

Abdulrhman, M. M., El-Hefnawy, M. H., Aly, R. H., Shatla, R. H., Mamdouh, R. M., Mahmoud, D. M., & Mohamed, W. S. (2013). Metabolic effects of honey in type 1 diabetes mellitus: a randomized crossover pilot study. Journal of medicinal food, 16(1), 66–72.

Al-Waili N. S. (2004). Natural honey lowers plasma glucose, C-reactive protein, homocysteine, and blood lipids in healthy, diabetic, and hyperlipidemic subjects: comparison with dextrose and sucrose. Journal of medicinal food, 7(1), 100–107.

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