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. 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.

  1. 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

  2. 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

  3. 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

  4. 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

  5. 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…

  6. 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. :)

  7. 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. :)

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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?

  12. 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

  13. 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’. =)

  14. I just wanted to say that I (who is 46 with no child under 20) is finally getting through to my kids. My son told me yesterday that he was going to stop with all the sugar. He was adding sugar to crystal light. While i know we shouldn’t drink crystal light, going from a case of cherry coke a day to a gallon of McDonald’s sweet tea, I was glad to cut it out until I found out he was “sabotaging” me unknowingly.

    With this being said, do you have any suggestions other than plain water for us to drink? I drink about a gallon a day anyway because of medicine that keeps me thirsty. But for them. I’m planning to buy a juicer so that we can all drink fresh juice. Thanks in advance.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there, Jeri. My family’s go to drink is sparkling water with a splash of 100% fruit juice. Cranberry is their favorite but they also love orange juice and pomegranate. This combo made it easy to ditch soda and full strength juices. :) ~Amy

  15. I have noticed that maple is used as a sweetener quite frequently. I am just not a huge fan of maple. Can you recomend a substitute besides honey? Specifically for flavoring yogurt, coffee, etc.

    Thanks!

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Keagan. Not really. You might give coconut palm sugar a try (be sure it is a brand that is sustainably sourced) but Lisa uses honey or maple syrup in almost all of her baking. ~Amy

  16. When using either maple syrup or honey what is the ratio? cup of sugar = how much of either????
    Or do you just taste test? Thank you.

  17. I’m a big coffee drinker and I have yet to try maple syrup as a sugar substitute…any brands you recommend? Besides that and honey, would you suggest anything else for coffee that isn’t too bad for you?

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hello Christina. Look for a 100% pure maple syrup. If you are doing the pledge, the only other sweetener that is approved is 100% fruit juice concentrate. Outside of the pledge, you might give coconut palm sugar a try. ~Amy

  18. I am interested in unrefined or minimally refined natural sweeteners with lower glycemic indexes than sugar. I started using organic blue agave because of the lower glycemic index, and supposed health benefits, a few years ago. But I recently read that, contrary to all the marketing hype, agave is actually a very highly refined product with no real health benefits. What about unrefined organic coconut palm nectar (for ex, Sweet Tree brand from Whole Foods)which claims to contain 16 amino acids and other healthy nutrients. Also, what about organic unrefined coconut palm sugar (for ex, Aunty Patty’s from Whole Foods)?

  19. This upsets me that you are misinforming the public about Blue Agave. It’s as natural as honey or maple syrup. And obviously you don’t have to worry about making food for a diabetic. You think it’s a challenge to eat REAL food? Try eating as a diabetic…

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi Meghan. Sweetener choices are certainly far more limiting for people with diabetes. Our posts are not meant to be used as advise for anyone with medical conditions. Here is an example of an article that explains why we feel agave is not the best choice as far as sweeteners go for otherwise healthy individuals. It does address the diabetes issue a little, too: http://www.foodrenegade.com/agave-nectar-good-or-bad/. ~Amy

  20. What about Organic Blue Agave? It’s a great low glycemic option. And that is important to me as my husband is diabetic.

  21. Why do you not recommend using Agave as a sweetener ? It is much lower on the glycemic index than honey and maple syrup, and is comparable in calories and carbs. Plus it is plant derived so it meets even the strictest vegan requirements. Please explain. Thank you.

  22. Splenda is the only sweetener I use and will continue to use by approval of my nutritionist doctor. It has been approved for safe use by diabetics also. Thanks for you opinion

  23. Having looked hard at this site, the article on Agave, I have concluded it is mystical, and opinion, not scientific. To strike differences in extracting sugars from different plants (except for introduction of unwanted foreign substance) is ludicrous. The standards of evaluation are not even-handed, but instead prejudiced toward getting a predetermined answer. I am 60, and have looked into these things for a long time. Silly things people believe. Maple surup is just sap condensed. Agave too. Hey, you’d better not eat candy, and chocolates… do you realize how mush inulin is used in the confectionary idustry? LOL

  24. I do not understand your stance on stevia.

    It is a natural plant that undergoes similar processing to maple syrup. It can be found as a single ingredient. It has been consumed by people naturally for over 2000 years, though white man has only about 200 years of documented proof of this. And it is a protein, not a carbohydrate. It has zero calories naturally, and is sweeter than sugar.

    It meets all the criteria you set out. While I respect the idea of the pledge, the grouping of stevia with the chemical sweeteners is, in my opinion, in poor taste.

    Additionally, many of the sugar alcohols have been consumed for hundreds of years. I agree they are more ‘refined’ than maple syrup or stevia, but they are available with no additives, they have 1/10th the calories, are fine for glycemic diets, and for most people have few side effects.

    Perhaps you did not mean to place all of these other sweetenrs in the same bucket. If you have a reason other than just liking maple syrup and honey better, I would like to know what that reason is.

  25. I am on day 3 of the pledge and doing well! Just found something called Date Sugar. The only ingredient is granulated dehydrated dates. I was wondering if this was considered ok to use during pledge. Some of your recipes use dates as a sweetner, but my ninja isn’t always able to break the dates up.

    Also wondering if nutritional yeast is acceptable on pledge.

    1. Assistant to 100 Days (Amy)

      Hi there. The only sweeteners approved for the pledge are honey, maple syrup and concentrated 100% fruit juice. And, as for the nutritional yeast, I think it is fine. ~Amy

  26. katrina – is there any noticable improvement in the fungal activity when not using the sugar?

    amanda – all these sweeteners are condensed or crytalized from plants as you know, and to one degree or another, the chemicals, pesticides, impuities, and contamination in growing and processing, in my mind, should be of greater concern.

    Sugar is sugar. Naturally occuring or external introduced toxins or contaminants notwithstanding.

  27. Both Maple syrup, and honey are refined sugar… maple is refined by cooking it down, and honey is sugar refined by the bees. These could offer trace elements other refined sugars do not, but make no mistake, these are refined. If not, then add molasses to the list of ‘OK’ stuff, Agave Syrup, and others too. I am type II diabetic, mildly thank God, and sugar is as sugar does, for sure. Some do assimilate and spike blood sugar more and faster than others. I use “sugar”, eat chocolate with sugar in it, and bake with it, all in true moderation. I use Truvia most often, which is: (from their FAQ)

    What is erythritol and why does Truvía® contain erythritol?

    Erythritol is the largest ingredient in Truvía® natural sweetener by weight, and is used as an ingredient to provide bulk and the sugar-like crystalline appearance and texture for Truvía® natural sweetener. The erythritol used in Truvía® natural sweetener is produced through a natural fermentation process. Fermentation is the process by which an organism metabolizes or “digests” one or more food sources to produce a desired product. Fermentation occurs naturally in a variety of different foods given the right conditions and is used to produce wine, beer and yogurt. In the case of erythritol, a natural yeast, Moniliella pollinis, digests a simple sugar called dextrose and other nutrients and produces erythritol. After fermentation, the erythritol is filtered and dried into crystals. Erythritol is found naturally in a variety of fruits, such as grapes and pears, as well as in mushrooms, and certain fermented foods such as soy sauce and wine.

    What is stevia?

    Stevia is a member of the chrysanthemum family native to northeastern Paraguay. The plant has been used to sweeten foods and beverages for hundreds of years.

    What makes Truvía® sweetener better than other stevia-based sweeteners?

    Most stevia-based sweeteners are a mixture of many components of the plant. Truvía® sweetener uses Truvía® stevia leaf extract, which is made from the best tasting part of the stevia leaf.

    I have no connection to Truvia, except that I spend at least $15/month on it for 2 people… Sometimes it’s best to pay for the best.

  28. Why not organic Agave? I thought it was as pure as honey? Please advise as I am giving this in small quantities to my 15 month old. (I use as sweetener in cooking.)

    1. amanda – all these sweeteners are condensed or crytalized from plants as you know, and to one degree or another, the chemicals, pesticides, impuities, and contamination in growing and processing, in my mind, should be of greater concern.

      Sugar is sugar. Naturally occuring or external introduced toxins or contaminants notwithstanding.

  29. What about Agave? Pure organic Agave is from Cactus. How much more natural except for real all natural Maple syrup and Honey can you get? Agave has a very low glycemic Index. I have read although I do know there can be issues with Agave too.