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. I don’t see you mention xylitol anywhere. My roommate (who is pretty hard-line about avoiding sugars – including honey and sytrups – due to problems with fungal infections) uses it like it’s going out of style – in coffee, baked goods, you name it (not to mention xylitol sweetened soda). She thinks it’s not as bad for you as other artificial sweeteners. What’s your opinion?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Katrina. While not technically considered “artificial sweeteners” (at least not by the USDA) and classified most commonly as “natural” (they do show up in nature in some fruits), sugar alcohols like xylitol, are made in labs. Our take is that, for otherwise healthy individuals, it is a better choice to stick with sweeteners that are as unrefined and as close to nature as possible, like honey and maple syrup, and to limit sugar intake, in general. ~Amy

  2. I am trying to incorporate your ideals into my family meal planning. However, 3 of my family members are diabetic. Any suggestions for your no refined sugars rule???

  3. My kids’ pediatrician warned me to make sure I am giving them pasteurized honey. I couldn’t tell from the bottle of local honey I had been buying from the farm stand but I assumed it was not pasteurized. In the store none of the bottles said anything about being pasteurized though I assume they were (as opposed to raw honey). What are your thoughts on using pasteurized honey versus local farm stand honey from a food safety standpoint? My kids are 1 and 3. Thanks! Love your website by the way :).

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Lannon. The Leakes buy raw local honey but would not advise anyone to go against their pediatricians advice. I think you would need to double check with your honey source to see if it meets the criteria you are looking for. ~Amy

  4. I am just getting informed so that I can get my family and I ready for the challenge. The first obstacle I see is our morning coffee. Do you really sweeten it with honey or maple syrup? Please don’t say to just not sweeten it, that won’t go over well here and I really would like to get my husband on board with this.

    Thanks!

  5. Hi! I was wondering if you could tell me your tips on buying honey. A pint of local honey is $9.00 near me is (not sure if that is a fair price?) If I make some of the recipes on your site that honey will go fast! Is it ok to purchase clover honey from the grocery store because it is a little cheaper. Any suggestions will help because I really want to do away with refined sugar! Thank you! Jessica

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Jessica. Local honey can range a lot in price. I generally see it for $7-$13 per pound. You can use 100% maple syrup as well as a sweetener. Also, I do supplement my local honey supply with raw honey from Trader Joe’s at around $4-$5 a pound. ~Amy

  6. What are some affordable brands of pure maple syrup? I’m having a hard time finding a brand that is pure but cost efficient.

  7. Every week I am feeling more and more empowered to eat real food! So here we go week 9……..
    Last week I did not do so well with listening to my inner voice on detecting when I am full, so I’m going to continue to work on that. We are taking this challenge for the entire week; we have two adults and a toddler in our home.

  8. I would like to know what you think of Barley Malt Syrup and if you would consider it as a “real food” sweetener. The ingredients only list sprouted barley and water. I have not tried it in anything yet but was planning to try it in a granola recipe. We are looking at starting the 10 day pledge, just in the planning/testing phases right now :)

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Heather. The only sweeteners that are approved for the 10 day pledge are honey and maple syrup. Outside of the pledge, it is an unrefined sweetener that can be used in moderation. ~Amy

  9. I have been using real maple syrup and or honey for baking but I do use regular sugar once in a while. A friend and I were talking about Sugar, and she mentioned Organic Coconut Sugar. I have never heard of it. I went to Sprouts to see if I could find some. It is an unrefined alternative to cane sugar. Its ideal for baking, coffee and desserts. The ingredients is Organic granulated coconut nectar. I read about it and it says that it has a low glycemic index and it is made from the sap of coconut flowers. So, I am still reading about coconut sugar and don’t know a whole lot about it yet. Was wondering if anyone has an opinion about it.
    Thanks
    Becca

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Becca. Outside of the pledge, organic coconut palm sugar is a good and low glycemic alternative to refined sugar. There is some question about its sustainability so it is good to be conscious of how each brand is sourced. ~Amy

  10. Hi Amy, I just found maple syrup in cane sugar form rather than syrup. Is this OK to use during the pledge?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Colleen. No, Im sorry. Just honey and 100% maple syrup in its purest form are approved for the pledge. Good luck. ~Amy

  11. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

    Hi Amy. While this looks like a good alternative to refined sugars outside of the pledge, the only sweeteners allowed during the pledge are honey and maple syrup. ~Amy

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Chris. Molasses is probably fine outside of the pledge. Just remember that sugar is sugar regardless of form and should be consumed in moderation. ~Amy

  12. Hi I saw a picture of you and Food Babe it looked like in a kitchen with the Krfaft Mac n cheese. I saw a refrigerator in the background and am looking for a new refrigerator for our new home we are building. I really like that refrigerator! I have been looking for one like that. Is that yours and if it is what kind is it?
    I love your blog! I have taken a lot of processed foods out of our diet! I love seeing what you put in your girl’s lunch. It helps me to pack my girl’s lunch!
    Thanks for your help’
    Ann Wensel

  13. What about the liquid form of Stevia? I buy it in the bottle with an eyedropper… the powdery kind has an aftertaste. Is there a difference?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Leslie. The liquid form of stevia you find in grocery and health food stores is usually the processed extract. Real whole leaf stevia would be green in any form. You can find raw stevia powder but it is rather pricey. Hope that helps. ~Amy

  14. I could be on your site all day! I am a student taking holistic nutrition and there is SOOO many things that people don’t take that time to realize that is potentially harming them in just foods that they consume! I will admit that as I go all natural and organic as possible, not easy for a student budget, I have to admit that I DO drink Crystal Light Lemonade. I KNOW I shouldn’t, but, because I have to drink Lemonade for an ulcer, I use the Crystal Light because it isn’t so full of sugar, or at least I hope not. I have tried the Lemon Water, but do not seems to be acquiring a taste for it. With the Crystal Light,it doesn’t have calories, yet isn’t really a nutritious “anything”…but, I guess I feel that for now, it’s the only item that I have in my body that is “processed.” I have come a long way…lol

  15. Can you please give me a little more info on Sucanat? My family has been trying to use only maple syrup and honey as sweeteners, but in some recipes they just don’t work out quite right. I though Sucanat is simply dehydrated, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice? And I have read that it is also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and chromium. If I only use Organic Sucanat (so I know for sure it is NOT genetically modified) is it considered a REAL food? We are not on the pledge, just trying to find another REAL food option for a sweetener (when we actually eat sweets as a treat). Love your site!!!! Thanks!!!!

  16. Can you please give me a little more info on Sucanat? My family has been trying to use only maple syrup and honey as sweeteners, but in some recipes they just don’t work out quite right. I though Sucanat is simply dehydrated, freshly squeezed sugar cane juice? And I have read that it is also a good source of iron, calcium, potassium, B vitamins and chromium. If I only use Organic Sucanat (so I know for sure it is NOT genetically modified) is it considered a REAL food? We are not on the pledge, just trying to find another REAL food option for a sweetener (when we actually eat sweets as a treat). Thanks!!!!

  17. Why is coconut sugar not allowed under the pledge rules? Is it just because Lisa and her family only did honey and maple syrup as sweeteners or is it because there is some processing involved with the coconut sugar? I’ve just discovered this product and I am trying to understand the pros and cons as best I can. I have read the Food Babe article.

    Thanks!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Ellen. Yes, it’s only because that’s what Lisa and her family chose to use. I agree though, beyond the pledge, coconut palm sugar is a great option. Jill

  18. I think you need to take a closer look at stevia. It’s a natural plant extract that was actually sold as a diet supplement here in the States because of its health benefits (with a long history of medicinal use in Paraguay and Brazil, where I’m from). It should definitely NOT be placed in the same category as sucrose, aspartame, etc!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Deb. Yes, it is a natural plant extract. The problem is, that the form in which it is sold to consumers (white powder) is far from the natural plant extract and processed. In it’s natural state, yes, I would agree, it is not processed. Jill

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Anne. While stevia is from the stevia plant, the form in which it sold in the stores is very processed. Unprocessed stevia should be green, not the white powder that you see. Jill

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Kelsey. It is natural, the problem is that the form in which it is sold to consumers is highly processed to get it to the white powdery form (it should be green if unprocessed). Jill

  19. I have not had any sugar or sweeteners since May of 2012. I don’t drink soda pop of any kind. I have lost 55 pounds and I feel great! I cannot agree with you more about all of the hidden sugar in processed foods! The end result of this decision of mine has been that I eat ‘real food’ and whole food that I can prepare myself. I know some still probably sneaks in, but being aware makes a big difference!
    I love to follow your blog, and I appreciate you!

  20. Lisa,
    Love this website! It has inspired me to try and limit processed foods. My children love syrup on breakfast items. I was surprised how easily they switched to pure maple syrup!

  21. What are your thoughts on coconut sugar. It claims to be unrefined. I have had 18 friends join me on the weekly pledges as part of our New Year’s Resolution. We are there to support one another and share stories/information. Thank you so much for sharing everything that you did to change your “diet.” I, like you, was finding myself lying awake at night sick to my stomach thinking of the junk that is put into our foods and food supply. I have been making little changes for almost a year, and have decided to complete this path and only eat real foods! Thank you so much for sharing!

  22. I’ve looked at every comment, other posts and I can’t find a denite answer about RAW agave. I’ve done a quick google search and come accros articles saying raw blue agave is ok because it’s not processed, it’s well, raw. Please let me know what you think of raw blue agave sweetener–I find it at Trader Joe’s. Thanks!

  23. I don’t understand how one minute you’re saying how bad sugar is but then you’re listing recipes like “whole wheat sugar cookies”. You contrdict yourself here.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Dave. Yes, during the strict 100 day pledge, Lisa and her family did not have any refined sugar. But, beyond that they do allow themselves a treat every once in a while. The recipe you refer to is just that, a “treat”. Everything in moderation is the key. Jill

  24. Hi Lisa, I was shopping today, and found something I hadn’t seen before. Organic Whole Cane Sugar. It is made by a company called Rapunzel, and it is unrefined and unbleached. I bought a bag, because it has been ridiculously hard for us to cut out sugar! Our holiday treats did not taste the same. It’s the one thing that has been hardest to cut back on. Did you struggle with any one thing in particular?

      1. So if its organic, unrefined and unbleached, is it considered a real food? I understand about using it in moderation, but in moderation, is it an okay sugar?

      2. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

        Hi Crystal. If you are talking about doing the the 10 or 100 day pledge, then it does not fall with in the rules: https://www.100daysofrealfood.com/real-food-defined-a-k-a-the-rules/. We stick with honey, maple syrup, and condensed fruit juices. Coconut palm sugar might be a good option if you are talking about a sweetener to use outside of the pledge. This information comes directly from the Food Babe’s blog: “Organic Coconut Palm Sugar – This type of sugar is a perfect 1 to 1 substitute for any recipe that calls for regular old sugar. One of the big pluses of coconut palm sugar – it’s completely unrefined and not bleached like typical refined white sugar, helping to preserve all of its teeming vitamins and minerals. It is naturally high in amino acids – has 10,000 times more potassium, 20 times more magnesium and 20 times more iron than conventional sugar. Converting to this type of sugar could also, lower your risk of developing diabetes because it’s glycemic index is half of that compared to sugar.” Regardless of form, remember sugar is sugar. Hope this is helpful. ~Amy

  25. Starting the pledge. First week, no added sugar, (will be eating what we already have in our kitchen, but not add any sugar)
    This is one “New Year’s Resolution” I don’t want to quit!
    I think small changes are better for the long haul and so far my family (2 adults and a picky 10 yr old) is not really onboard.

  26. Hello,
    My sister just told me about your web site. We do NOT eat what we need to be eating. Lots of refined and processed junk. I found the bread store you recommended 1 hour away from us, so I plan to go there. I know you recommended honey and maple syrup. If used in small amounts, can you eat raw sugar and do grocery stores carry that or do you have to go to a specialty store ? I need all the help I can get! Thanks !!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Brenda. No, the raw sugar is not allowed on the 100 day pledge. Beyond that, you will need to decide what is right for you and your family. I might suggest the coconut palm sugar, though, if you are going to use it beyond the pledge. Here is some info on it from The Food Babe’s blog (www.foodbabe.org)…”Organic Coconut Palm Sugar…is…completely unrefined and not bleached like typical refined white sugar, helping to preserve all of its teeming vitamins and minerals. It is naturally high in amino acids – has 10,000 times more potassium, 20 times more magnesium and 20 times more iron than conventional sugar. Converting to this type of sugar could also, lower your risk of developing diabetes because it’s glycemic index is half of that compared to sugar.” Good luck. Jill

      1. Thank you for this, I didn’t know what to use in place of my Truvia. I just ordered Organic Coconut Palm Sugar and cant wait to try it.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Tracy. I’m not really that familiar with it, but, according to a quick internet search, it says that it is produced by gathering the sap from the top of the coconut tree and, once extracted, boiling it down to turn it into a thick syrup. Again, I just don’t know enough about this product, but, it doesn’t sound to be all that different from how maple syrup is made. Sorry I couldn’t give you a more definitive answer. Jill

  27. What is wrong with Stevia? I know a nutritionist who says it is much more healthy for you than Pure Maple syrup or honey. I use it in my coffee and it has gotten me off the processed Coffee Mate creamers.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Kristen. Stevia has been around a long time, but, it is still banned in some countries and was only recently approved in the U.S. We choose to avoid it. Jill

  28. Great post – I recently found a great four-ingredient raisin bran cereal from Erewhon, but upon reading those ingredients again I see that “organic barley malt” is #4. (organic wheat kernels, organic raisins, sea salt, organic barley malt). I’ve seen Barley Malt listed a few times above, but never as acceptable or unacceptable. Is barley malt considered a refined sugar? I’m eating this every day so want to be sure. The same company has a corn flake that’s just organic milled corn and sea salt, but seems like the raisin bran may be healthier. Thoughts?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Kris. Barley malt is processed from sprouted barley and I would consider it a refined sugar. Jill

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Nicole. My understanding on honey is that babies should not consume raw honey, so, I believe baking with it would be fine. But, like always, you should check with your doctor. Jill

  29. Bummed about the info on agave nectar; just bought a two pack at
    costco and thought I was being “real-foody.” Oh, well :) What about organic cane sugar? I know it’s not the best for “everyday use,” (as in breads, etc.), but we are big fans of the occasional chocolate chip cookie in our house and maple sugar/coconut palm sugar just don’t taste the same. We have been using maple syrup and honey in everything else, and I LOVE the recipes posted; they help so much with the transition from the Western diet to real food. In fact, there’s zucchini bread in the oven right now :)

  30. I tried to read through all the comments but I may have missed it – was there any mention for a substitute for brown sugar? There are a few recipes that call for brown sugar that I would love to “convert” but they require a dry sugar and honey and maple syrup doesn’t taste the same as brown sugar. Thanks!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Catherine. I use muscovado sugar in place of brown sugar. It is minimally refined, and, as such, retains many of the vitamins and minerals from the sugarcane plant. If you can’t find it in your local store, I have had luck online. Jill

  31. So happy I found your site! My son had a digestive disorder recently that made him very ill and has left his body unable to process sugars (disaccharides more specifically) among other things. He can only have honey and fruit as a sweetener. The good news is he is recovering well AND I have taken a hard look at what we were eating as a family and made big changes. (We all feel better now!) Your recipes will give us some more options! Thank you!!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Jill)

      Hi Dena. You could always use honey instead of maple syrup. I guess it depends on exactly what you are using it for (i.e. baking or direct consumption).