You may have seen a headline about coconut sugar being the new ‘healthy’ sweetener. Or perhaps you saw that honey is a ‘superfood.’ It’s important to remember that sugar is sugar, but there are some minor differences between sugar alternatives and things to look out for when considering a substitute to plain white table sugar.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains the ins and outs of alternative sugars—and offers a few tips about what to look for on labels when choosing sugars or other processed foods.
We’ll use a green/yellow/red light system to explore different sugars below, but in general, keep in mind that sugar is all about moderation. While athletes do need sugar to fuel for sport performance, there is no one ‘super healthy’ sugar and Ziesmer’s top recommendation is to be mindful of the amount of sugar overall in your athlete’s diet. “Don’t worry about things like a squirt of ketchup that has two grams of sugar or force a young athlete to go low-carb overall,” she says. “But be aware of how much added sugar is in things like cereals or granola bars.”
GREEN LIGHT: Natural non-sugar ‘sweeteners’
The best option is the non-sugar option, says Ziesmer. This starts with using spices and nut butters that add the illusion of sweetness without any actual sugars. “Cinnamon and nutmeg are great options for making something seem sweeter, as is natural peanut butter,” she says. “Instead of adding a ton of syrup to pancakes, can you top them with cinnamon, nutmeg, cashew butter, and berries? That’s a much healthier alternative. Similarly, dried fruit and regular fruit are both easy sweet options to add to oatmeal or granola rather than sugar.”
YELLOW LIGHT: Maple Syrup
“Maple syrup and honey are my preferred sugar sources,” says Ziesmer. “I like maple syrup because it contains antioxidants, which makes it a much better alternative to table sugar.” It’s also high in zinc and manganese, two important minerals. However, when shopping for maple syrup, it’s important to clarify that maple syrup needs to say, “100 percent maple syrup” and have only “maple syrup” listed under ingredients. Many cheaper syrups on the market are high fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring and color added. And again, even with pure maple syrup, moderation is key: Pay attention to serving size and consider measuring it out versus pouring straight from the bottle.
YELLOW LIGHT: Honey
Similar to maple syrup, honey is a great whole food alternative to ultra-processed table sugar and it contains antioxidants. However, honey is even trickier than maple syrup when it comes to picking the most natural brand, says Ziesmer. “Honey is often mixed with a cheaper glucose syrup so a company can cut costs,” she says. “Look for certified honey and check the ingredient label. Pure honey will also be very thick so it should not easily pour out of a jar. If it does, that means it’s likely been cut with a cheap syrup.”
YELLOW LIGHT: Raw cane sugar and coconut sugar
Both raw cane sugar and coconut sugar have been touted as trendier, healthier alternatives to table sugar, but as Ziesmer says, both are essentially the same as table sugar in terms of calories and sugar grams. However, there are slightly higher levels of minerals and vitamins in these raw forms of sugar, making them marginally better picks than plain white table sugar. “Coconut sugar, for example, does contain some iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium,” she says. “But not in large quantities. Its glycemic index is also slightly lower than table sugar, but not by so much that it makes a major difference in how your athlete processes it.” Ziesmer is quick to add that both of these sugars are more expensive than standard table sugar, and the price tag doesn’t necessarily match the minor benefits.
YELLOW LIGHT: Table sugar
“I would not say you need to avoid table sugar at all costs, but I don’t think it should be your first choice or used in standard quantities,” says Ziesmer. “For example, when I make muffins according to a recipe, I generally just use regular white table sugar. But I reduce the amount that I use. So, if the recipe calls for a cup, I’ll just put in three quarters of a cup, and it typically turns out fine.”
RED LIGHT: Agave syrup and high fructose corn syrup
Agave syrup had a trendy moment several years ago, but Ziesmer warns that parents should not be fooled by the marketing hype. “It’s actually very similar in its make-up to high fructose corn syrup, which should also be avoided as an added sugar when possible,” she says. While fructose is healthy when consumed in whole fruit form, it’s not healthy when consumed in large, concentrated doses. Because both are high in fructose, they have the potential to cause fatty liver disease or increase unhealthy fat stores in the body.
RED LIGHT: Artificial sweeteners
Whether you’re wondering about more ‘natural’ artificial sweeteners like Stevia or more chemical artificial sweeteners like sorbitol, the answer is simple: Skip all artificial sweeteners when possible. In addition to potential dangers of digestive issues caused by sugar alcohols like xylitol and aspartame, there are potential links to longer term health issues that are still being researched.
However, a big reason to avoid artificial sweeteners is because they are incredibly sweet, or more specifically, up to several hundred times as sweet as regular sugar. That means regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may actually boost your athlete’s sweet tooth, causing them to indulge in more sweet, high-sugar foods. “Artificial sweeteners can make your athlete actually crave more sugar, not less,” Ziesmer warns.
RED LIGHT: Ultra-processed treats and foods with sugar pre-added
The biggest source of sugar isn’t typically from sugar that you spoon into drinks or add into baked goods that you’re making yourself at home, says Ziesmer. Rather, it’s from ultra-processed foods. Sweet treats like candy and donuts are obvious examples, but even things like ketchup and pasta sauces contain a lot of added sugars. And a can of soda will have around nine to ten teaspoons of added sugar!
“If an athlete is having sugary cereal for breakfast, a sugar-filled granola bar as a snack, ketchup and a soda with lunch, and a sugar-filled pasta sauce on dinner before having ice cream for dessert, that all adds up to a very high-sugar diet with low-quality sugars,” she adds.
Whenever possible, opt for unsweetened versions and add your own sweetener, spice, and other ingredients. For example, “Instead of flavored oatmeal packets, it’s much better to start with plain oats, then add cinnamon, dry or fresh fruit, peanut butter, and honey or maple syrup,” says Ziesmer. “That’s significantly healthier and more satisfying than those small packages.”
Typically, adding maple syrup or honey to taste will not only result in a reduction in sugars, but it will also allow you to use a better quality sweetener.
Rather than stressing out over which alternative sugars are best, focus on reducing all sugars, especially those from ultra-processed foods. When you do add sugar, prioritize maple syrup or honey since these will provide sweetness and flavor along with essential vitamins and minerals.
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