By Natalie, Contributing Writer

Are you working to ditch processed foods and put more real food on the table? This month we’re running a series called Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better. Our goal is to answer the questions you might have and make the transition a whole lot easier!

How Sweeteners Affect Your Body

Insulin is the hormone that decides where to store nutrients. It takes glucose, fats, and proteins out of your blood and into your cells so they can be used by your body. When too much insulin is released into your system, it begins to promote the storage of fat. Why?

Insulin’s first priority is to get rid of elevated sugar levels in your blood, so if you are consuming sugars or carbohydrates, that insulin kicks into gear to bring those sugar levels down. First it will transport glucose to the muscle cells, where it can be used up as energy.

But once those muscle cells are saturated, your body has no choice but to haul the excess glucose to the fat cells where it turns into more fat.

Here’s another issue: your body is so efficient, it will clear out all the excess glucose, leaving you with a sugar “low.”  This makes you feel tired, cranky, and achy. You begin to crave more carbs (sugars) to counteract that yucko feeling – and a bad cycle begins.

What are Glycemic Indexes (GI)?

Glycemic indexes measure carbs (0-100) from the perspective of their pure sugar/starch content in order to determine how they affect glycemia (blood sugar levels) after meals. (source

I’m going to put the glycemic index number next to each sweetener, so you can see how each one will affect your body. The higher the GI number is, the higher that item will spike your blood sugar level after you consume it.

Foods with high GIs are suspects in diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.

Sweeteners to Avoid

1. Refined and Semi-Refined Sugars

  • White Sugar (GI 80)
  • Brown Sugar (GI 80)
  • Powdered Sugar (GI 80)
  • Corn Syrup (GI 75)
  • Turbinado Sugar (GI 65)
  • Sucanat (GI 65)
  • “Raw” or “Organic” Sugar (GI 65)

These sugars are either refined or semi-refined, are high on the glycemic index spectrum, and will deplete your body of  important nutrients, contributing to chronic illnesses such as depression, headaches, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

I’m going to add one more to this list of “no-nos” that might surprise you:

  • Agave Nectar (GI 15-30) This sweetener has been very popular in recent years due to its low GI number but is now under attack for the following reasons: It is processed and has no natural nutrient value, it has 16 carbs per tablespoon, and it contains 90% fructose to 10% glucose, which is similar in structure to high fructose corn syrup.

Not good.  These unnatural ratios make it difficult for the body to process it, causing 1. triglycerides to rise, 2. improper copper metabolism, which leads to aging skin issues, and 3. a reduction in the sensitivity of insulin receptors, which can contribute to diabetes.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal, etc.)
  • Saccharine (Sweet’N Low)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

These sweeteners are toxic to your body and have been implicated in neurological and immune disorders.

The Natural Sweetener Scoop

There are several natural sweeteners that are packed with trace nutrients that offer some benefit to your body, but this doesn’t mean you should indulge in them regularly.  Here’s the rundown on the most common natural sweeteners, their glycemic index numbers, and how to use them.

Date Sugar (GI 70)

Made from dehydrated dates, date sugar is not a good choice for baking because it doesn’t “melt” into the ingredients. It does make a nice, natural topping for oatmeal or cinnamon toast. The GI is really high…so it’s probably a better option for children who don’t need to worry about their waistlines.

Rapadura (GI 55)

Rapadura is unrefined and unbleached dehydrated cane sugar juice and contains potassium, calcium and magnesium. It is a good choice for baking, as it has a similar chemical structure to sugar.  You can use it to replace sugar in your recipes in a 1:1 ratio.

Molasses (GI 55)

This is what remains after sugar has been refined. It is full of trace minerals and full of flavor.  You wouldn’t want to use it in baking unless you are going for that strong flavor (molasses cookies, for example). I have a to-die-for marinade that features molasses: 1 T. oil, 1 T. molasses, 1 T. Braggs Liquid Aminos, 1 T. minced garlic, and 1 T. lemon juice.  Marinade steaks, chicken and chops in this…then grill, serve, and listen to the raves.

Maple Syrup (GI 54)

Maple syrup is a natural source of manganese and zinc as well as other trace nutrients. While maple syrup IS higher on the GI scale, it’s far better for you than Mrs. Butterworth’s fake maple syrup, and it’s delicious, too. This makes it a wiser choice for topping pancakes and french toast.

Coconut Sugar (GI 35)

This is the new kid on the block, has a low GI, with sucrose being the main component and fructose and glucose being extremely low.  You can bake with this in a 1:1 ratio, but it is slightly less sweet than white sugar.

Raw Honey (GI 30)

Jam packed with trace nutrients, amino acids, antioxidants, and enzymes that digest carbohydrates, raw (unfiltered and unheated) honey is a great choice to drizzle on your morning oatmeal or a thick slice of homemade bread.  A little goes a long way, and the enzymes from the honey help your body digest the grains. Raw honey is also anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and antiseptic.

Raw honey can have a similar effect on your body that white sugar has, so adults wanting to lose weight should use it sparingly, but no need to worry about feeding it to your children, unless they are under one year old. Babies do not have enough stomach acid to destroy the bacteria spores.

I personally choose not to bake with honey because when it is heated, it loses some of its nutrients. It also has a tendency to overpower other flavors, in my opinion. If you do decide to use honey for baking, 1/2-3/4 cup of honey can be substituted for a cup of sugar. You will also want to reduce the liquid in your recipe by 1/8-1/4 cup AND lower your oven temp by 25 degrees.

Stevia Powder (GI 0)

I’m in the midst of exploring this option. I mean, hello. A GI of ZERO??  I tried a brand of Stevia a while back and hated the aftertaste.  However, I’ve recently tried a brand that comes highly recommended in Serene Allison and Pearl Barrett’s book, Trim Healthy Mama.  It is NuNaturals Pure White Stevia Extract Powder (not NuStevia White Stevia Powder which comes with maltodextrine.)

This product comes in a small, one ounce shaker for about eight bucks. I’ve been using it for a few days now and am pretty impressed. I dash a bit in my morning coffee for perfect sweetness. It does a bang-up job in smoothies. Just a few dashes in my Vitamix (I make smoothies for 8), and we’re good to go.

Stevia helps stabilize blood sugar, makes a great digestive aid, inhibits bacterial growth in your mouth, lowers hypertension, heals skin problems, and is economical. Did we die and go to heaven?

I havn’t tried this yet for baking (a future post in the works here?), but because it is heat stable, the authors use it exclusively. The amounts used are minute. For example, in one of their cake recipes they use 1/8-1/4 teaspoon of the stuff to sweeten the whole thing.

Erythritol (GI 0) and Xylitol (GI 7)

These are both sugar alcohols (note those GI numbers). While not so sweet on their own, they are perfect when mixed with stevia.  There is a brand you can get at the grocery store, Truvia, that mixes erythritol with stevia in proportions that taste great. It is more expensive than just using stevia because you need to use more to get the same results.

Other posts in the series:

Real Food Made Simple: A Beginner’s Guide to Eating Better

First Steps to Real Food

What Is Real Food?

Cutting Your Kitchen Prep Time in Half — Or More!

Confessions of a Formerly Picky Eater

How to Read Food Labels

The Grain Controversy: Should We Eat Them or Not?

Second Steps Towards Eating Real Foods: Switching Your Food Sources

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Pantry Staples

5 Strategies to Help Your Husband and Kids Transition to Real Food 

7 Foods to Avoid

Finding Real Food in the Grocery Store

20 Easy Real Food Switches and Substitutions {with Free Printable Chart}

First Steps to Eating for Fertility

Keeping Costs Down in a Real Food Kitchen

Raising Kids on Real Food

5 Ways to Get More Fruits & Veggies into your Diet

Food Is Not Cheap: 4 Steps to Budgeting in Real Food

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Baked Goods

Simple Roast Chicken (And Fabulous Side Dish Recipes!)

17 Homemade Spice Mixes {with Recipes & Why You Should Use Them!}

5 Ways Green Living and Real Food are Connected

Simple Steps to Begin Cooking Homemade: Soups, Sauces, and Simple Dinners

Now it’s your turn:

What are your favorite natural sweeteners, and how do you enjoy using them in your food preparation?

*Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link.