The Problem with Refined Sweeteners

As I’ve said before, it is not necessarily the sugar itself (yes, white sugar is technically “natural,” albeit highly refined), but it is the quantity in which our society consumes sugar that concerns me. What have things come to if we can’t even have a cracker or a bowl of cereal or a beverage unless it has been sweetened? Come on, sugar is in almost everything these days even when you least expect it.

I get so many questions about sweeteners, especially from those wondering why we’ve chosen honey and maple syrup as our sweeteners of choice. The moral of the story is—and most experts would agree—sugar is sugar, and no matter what form of sugar you choose always consume it in moderation. Whether it is white table sugar, raw sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or maple syrup they are all—for the most part—sugars. We selected honey and maple syrup as our sweeteners of choice because they are two of the least processed “sugars” out there, and they are also difficult to find in highly processed foods. Honey and maple syrup also have slightly more nutrients than highly refined sweeteners like white table sugar, although—once again—all sweeteners are similar in the fact that overall they are high in calories and low in nutrients.

During our 100 Days of Real Food pledge, when we were restricted to honey and maple syrup as well as nothing out of a package with more than 5 ingredients, we ended up having to make all the “sweetened” foods we ate ourselves. I could not find any store-bought “sweet treats” that followed all of our rules—and trust me I looked! Since this sweetener restriction forces you to make sweetened foods from scratch you can see and control how much sweetener is being added. And chances are you will use a lot less sweetener than some factory.

So back to how Americans are consuming sugar in overwhelming amounts these days…I saw an interesting statistic highlighted on the news:

Health experts recommend we eat no more than eight teaspoons of sugar a day. But on average, Americans consume four times that much.

In case you are challenged with simple math (like me) that means we are, on average, consuming 32 teaspoons a day! Also how about this for “food for thought” from New York Times Magazine article “Is Sugar Toxic?”:

Sugar is likely the “dietary cause of several other chronic ailments widely considered to be diseases of Western lifestyles — heart disease, hypertension and many common cancers among them.”

In closing, there are two key takeaways when it comes to sweeteners. Never choose an imitation sweetener (like splenda) over the real thing, and no matter what sweetener you choose always consume it in moderation.

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219 thoughts on “The Problem with Refined Sweeteners”

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  1. Hope Gorrondona


    I have recently discovered your website and am going to try the 10 day challenge. I would like to know what you think of coconut sugar. I’ve seen many “healthy” recipes call for that.


    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Except for a few recipes, Lisa sticks with maple syrup or honey as her sweeteners. While I use very little sweeteners at all, I do use coconut sugar in my coffee and for baking sometimes. Coconut sugar has a slightly higher nutrient content and is said to be lower glycemic. Regardless, we try to keep added sugars to a minimum.

  2. I am curious what you think about heating honey – is it bad for you? You have a lot of baking recipes that use honey instead of sugar – but I’ve read before that not only heated loses all the benefits, it actually becomes “bad” for you.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Marina. We do not think it is bad for you when heated but are aware that the honey loses some of its beneficial enzymes.

    2. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi. We don’t really use them. I you are looking for a stevia, look for one in its purest form. We do understand that some of the sweeteners are necessary for folks with blood sugar challenges.

  3. I just wanted to say I love this blog! I appreciate the effort all of you go through to help us choose our foods wisely. I was searching on here to look for something besides white sugar to sweeten my coffee. I’ve already given up on coffee creamer. Is half and half ok, or would it be better to just use milk? I have never tried honey in my coffee, but I like it in tea, so it would probably work. =)

  4. I am interested in setting up a no refined sugar challenge week for a local elementary school. I think your site has some great information and would love some advice on how to motivate the kids to commit!

  5. Yes! We’ve been doing this for the month of February. Our rules allow for molasses, also. We make one treat every weekend to last us through the week (ok. to last us until Wednesday. morning.) My kids are really enjoying the challenge (so far!)

  6. My husband is pre-diabetic. We purchase Fruit Sweet from Wax Orchards. This doesn’t raise his A1C levels even though it’s a concentrated fruit juice. Have you heard of this sweetener? It’s good for baking, although recipes need to be adjusted. Baked goods are tasty but not overly sweet,

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Sandy. While I am not familiar with that sweetener, it is perfectly fine to adjust the recipes for medical conditions, food allergies/sensitivities etc. Just keep the substitutions as real as possible.

  7. I need some help. I am searching the internet trying to find a chart of some sort. I have a couple of dough recipes i want to try–and i am following the rules for 100 days of real food–my goal this year is to make EVERYTHING from scratch which means a lot of prep work. Well, im making empenadas this week, and i can easily substitute the flour for whole wheat and the shortening for coconut oil, but im finding trouble locating a chart for the sugar. The only “liqued” in the dough is the eggs and oil (2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
    3/4 cup fine cornmeal, or masa harina
    2 teaspoons sugar
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
    2 large egg yolks)

    help please

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Megan. That small amount of honey, 2 tsp, should not wreak havoc on your consistency. I also can’t find a specific chart that is outside of using honey in baked goods.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Cara. For the pledge, the only sweeteners that we use are honey and maple syrup. Outside of the pledge, maple sugar like any sugar should be used in moderation.

  8. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

    Hi Julianne. We don’t use xylitol. It seems to be a decent substitute for those with blood sugar issues. ~Amy

  9. What are the rules regarding sugar that occurs naturally like in fruit. I know fruit is allowed but I have problems keeping weight on and looking for healthy high calorie options. One thing that is recommended is drinking fruit nectar. I found an organic brand that only has organic fruit juices and purée. No added sugars BUT there are about 28g sugar per serving. As I mentioned I am trying to gain weight but still eat as clean as possible plus I am allergic to dairy and gluten. Any guidance is greatly appreciated!

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Caitlin. You may need to adjust the rules to fit your own needs. We avoid juices because of their naturally high sugar content and lack of fiber to help slow their absorption into the blood stream. Sounds like what you are considering has at least part of the whole fruit in there which is better than a straight up juice. You might consider nutrient, fat, and calorie dense foods such as nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, etc. as good options for your needs. Be sure you are consulting with your physician on these issues as well. ~Amy

  10. I have been wanting to stop using sugars for a while. I’m curious to hear from anyone, when you started did you wait till you ate what you had in the house or throw it out and start? I have a lot of allergies, gluten being one of them and my husband and I just found a bunch of new GF items. So with him being the loving husband that he is, he thinks he has to buy one of everything for me to try. Now I have all this food.

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hi Tracy. Some people gut their pantry and fridge immediately while others ease into it. Do what makes you comfortable. I get the hesitation to waste a lot of food. Maybe just ditch the worst of it for starters and then jump in with both feet? For me, it tends to be all or nothing. :) ~Amy

  11. Hi!
    You ladies are so helpful in answering my questions. The start of my pledge is coming up and I’m wondering about organic cane sugar. Is this considered processed?

    1. Amy Taylor (comment moderator)

      Hello Evelyn. It is considered refined sugar. The only sweeteners permitted during this mini pledge are honey and maple syrup. ~Amy

  12. Ok, so I have your cookbook, and I started reading it this morning–LOVE IT! But please help me–how can I sweeten my coffee without the Truvia I’ve been using? I am willing to cut it out but I’m not totally convinced that honey or maple syrup will serve as sufficient sweeteners in coffee…

  13. My family and I really need to do this! We will start tomorrow…thank you for your excellent information and support! There are six of us: my husband and myself, and our four kids, ages 4, 6, 8 and 12. :)

  14. Our Co-Op makes sweet breads that contain only raw honey or maple syrup, they use organic spelt four and organic eggs (locally raised). Once in a while the breads will list coconut sugar. This maybe an option some of you look at if you are dying to have a slice of bread rather than a loaf!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Laura. We stick to honey and maple syrup during the pledge. Outside of the pledge coconut sugar is my coffee sweetener. :)

  15. Two adults & three kids. Well probably one and a half adults, getting my husband to stop eating Snickers may be impossible. I have been worried for a while about all the crud that is added to store bought food and have made a real effort to try and make food fresh at home. Until I started I had not even realized how bad sugar was or HOW MUCH it was in. While it will take a while for us to be able to switch completely, I am trying to find ways and substitutes to make the change forever. Not just a number of days. My husband and I have even discussed becoming bee keepers. We will see!

  16. This may be a silly question… but I’m wondering if any type of ice creams exist that do not have sugar or sugar substitutes added? I have recently gotten braces and this was a recommended thing to eat to keep my weight up as I am not able to eat very many things yet. Ice cream without sugar seems like an oxymoron but I thought it was worth asking!

  17. I seriously try to steer clear of refined sugars, but raw sugar I usually include in my baking (already a little complicated because I’m vegan)but I have pretty bad self control when it comes to sweets so this will be interesting.

    I am pledging to go as long as possible with no refined sugars,1 day or the rest of my life! It’ll just be me, my mom is crazy sugar addicted and my dad is more health conscious, but not too much, however when my boyfriend and I get married, I’m sure he’ll be on board as well!

    It’s time to get my research on and hit the market- local farmer’s market that is ;)

    Thank you 100daysofrealfood for opening the public’s eye and changing people’s lives!

  18. I haven’t seen anywhere that you use “raw” honey. I’ve been purchasing raw honey as regular honey is refined and has most of it’s nutrients stripped away. So then it’s not much different than white sugar? What have you found the case to be for raw honey vs. just honey?

  19. I am ready to cut out sugar! Question as I transition: Does Maple Sugar count as an approved sweetener? My understanding is that it is dehydrated maple syrup.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Rebecca. Just honey and pure maple syrup are approved for the pledge as well as 100% fruit concentrate (in a pinch). ~Amy

  20. Our family of 7 cut out processed foods January 1st. I also took it one step further and cut out refined sugar. I didn’t think I could do it. I have a HUGE sweet tooth. But all of us have been amazed at how much maple sugar and honey can sweeten things up and you only have to add a little bit(and I didn’t like maple sugar or honey and neither did the rest of my family)! Now, on the rare occasion when I eat a cookie or something with refined sugar in it, I get light headed right away because I am not use to all that sugar. I use to be able to eat 6 cookies at one sitting and not flinch!! Another interesting thing for taste buds is that I use to only be able to eat a grilled cheese with LOTS of potato chips. After a few weeks of not eating processed junk I made myself a grilled cheese and decided to break the rules and have chips with it. I put one in my mouth and literally spat it out! It tasted like running my tongue over a salt lick to me!! Amazing how your taste buds change once they are ‘cleaned’. =)