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Sure, too much sugar can rot your teeth, make you a little hyperactive and cause your waistline to expand. But is it fair to call it “the most dangerous drug” of our time? Yes, very much so, says public health official Paul Van der Velpen of the Nertherlands. In fact, he claims says that sugar is the most dangerous and addictive substance of modern times. “Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. This may seem exaggerated and far fetched, but sugar is the most dangerous drug of the time and can still be easily acquired everywhere. The use of sugar should be discouraged. And users should be made aware of the dangers, ” he writes on the Dutch government’s health agency website. I couldn’t agree more. As a matter of fact, we have been spreading the anti-sugar gospel for years. For many people, it’s hard to believe that something they consume daily is dangerous. Lately though, numerous research studies are confirming what some of us have long believed: sugar is addictive and regular consumption can lead to severe heath problems…So what is a healthy person with an occasional sweet tooth supposed to do?
The unfortunate truth is that there is no healthy sugar. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t use sugar at all and avoid its addictive pitfalls. But life is imperfect and once in a while, most of us would like to be able to enjoy a sweet treat so here are the top 5 least dangerous sugars including their Glycemic Index (GI) levels as well as the reasons to choose them (or not).
Coconut Sugar (GI 35)
Coconut sugar is mainly sucrose, which the body digests more slowly than fructose. Because this delicious, unrefined sweetener doesn’t cause insulin spikes and blood-sugar crashes, you won’t experience the post-sugar blues, or hard-to-control cravings. This means the change of weight gain is lower than with other sugary foods or white sugar. Coconut sugar has also been shown to be a much better choice than refined sugar because it doesn’t put stress on your blood sugar levels the same way that white sugar does. Coconut sugar is also regularly advertised as containing a plethora of minerals and vitamins, but the reality is that on a per serving basis (which should be small), the amounts are not significant. While it would be misleading to call any sweetener healthy, making the change to coconut sugar in your household could make a real difference in your family’s health, especially since from a taste and ratio point of view (1:1), it compares pretty perfectly to cane sugar.
Palmyra Jaggery (GI 40)
Palmyra jaggery is the world’s only natural plant-based source of vitamin B12, other than kelp seaweed. B12 is vital for the normal functioning of the brain, the nervous system, and the formation of blood platelets. Palmyra also has one of the highest concentrations of natural iron across all foods, the latter being important in helping to ensure healthy joints and bones, as well as being a rich source of vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, sodium and phosphorus. Further, palmyra has a 100% absorption rate, is very alkalizing on the body and has double the sweetness of table sugar- meaning you can use use 50% less for the same effect at a lower calorie intake.
Palmyra jaggery may also help to break down the opiate-like chain of chemical dependency in the brain, meaning that people who are constantly lusting after sugar (candy, sodas etc) will find their cravings substantially diminished. In Ayurvedic medicine, palmyra jaggery is prescribed for respiratory, digestive and blood sugar conditions, its makeup thought to be cleansing on the the liver, and great for reducing bloating and water retention. Indeed, palmyra jaggery is not a bad choice when it comes to sugar replacements.
Raw Honey (GI 55)
Nature’s liquid gold is loved the world over for its exceptional nutritional value and its amylase, an enzyme concentrated in flower pollen that helps the body to pre-digest starchy foods (think simple carbs). Raw honey also boasts anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties, all of which are great for strengthening the immune system. But none of these benefits apply if your honey isn’t raw, meaning it has not been heated, pasteurized or processed in any way. The differences between raw and pasteurized honey are substantial- on top of amylase, raw honey is an alkaline food containing natural vitamins, powerful antioxidants and other important nutrients- all of which are destroyed when it exposed to heat/during the pasteurization process. In fact, pasteurized honey is equivalent to, and just as unhealthy as, eating refined sugar.
And one more thing: you may want to use wooden or silver utensils when measuring out raw honey, as metal also damages some of the honey’s health benefits. Oh, and just like the above-mentioned sweeteners, too much of it is not healthy!
Stevia (GI 0)
The raw leaves of the stevia plant are approximately 40 times sweeter than sugar, and the extracted sweetener derived from them is up to 200-300 times sweeter. This means that just a tiny bit of stevia will suffice for most of your sugar-free recipes. It has zero calories, and yes, charts zero on the Glycemic Index. Stevia is known to have many benefits: it can suppress sugar cravings, is good for your teeth, lowers blood pressure, aids digestion, enhances glucose tolerance, lowers blood sugar levels, inhibits fat absorption, controls obesity, and aids in weight loss. Sound too good to be true? It just might be. To some people, stevia has an extremely unpleasant bitter and metallic aftertaste that is too repellent to overcome. We are also suspicious of the way stevia a pleasurable response in our brains- just like sugar or any other drug. Nevertheless, it’s pretty harmless as far as natural sweeteners go, so if you can stand the taste, then go ahead and use it every now and then.
Yacon Syrup (GI 1-5)
Yacon syrup’s low glycemic index is due to fructo-oligosaccharides (also known as FOS), which do not convert to energy/calories. Rather, they act as a probiotic that supports healthy intestinal flora. FOS does not raise blood glucose levels either, making yacon useful for those with Type II Diabetes, for people with sugar cravings, and for the many amongst us who trying to lose weight. Overall, the powdered syrup (or root powder) has many potential benefits: improving gut health, lowering glucose levels, reducing insulin sensitivity, supporting the immune system, and sometimes helping to reduce bad cholesterol levels. Yacon can also have a positive effect on testosterone metabolism. However, since it is made up of 35% fructose, we still consider it a sugar and as such, consumption should be minimal.
In conclusion: all of the above mentioned sweeteners can enjoyed as part of a balanced diet in moderation but always remember that they all still sugars and they affect our brain similarly to how white sugar does. Health-wise, we are better off without sweeteners- but if you must use something, stock them all in your pantry, rotate them, and don’t use too much at a time.
This article was written by Mikko Revonniemi, founder of Qualitarian, Hong Kong’s largest online healthy grocery store.
Photo credits: Big Tree Farms & Berrytime.