Just a spoonful of sugar helps the…muscles and body experience a boost of energy, and then likely crash shortly afterward. You know it, we know it, we’ve all experienced a sugar crash once in our lives. Today we’re diving into the sweet stuff to figure out if we really need to be so concerned with sugar, how much we should be including in our diets, and some great sources of natural sugar and natural sugar substitutes.
First off, what is sugar?
When you hear the word “sugar” you probably envision the refined white sugar crystals we all know and love. That would be correct, but more specifically that sugar is called sucrose, and it is also a type of carbohydrate. There are many different types of carbohydrates/sugars, Including Sucrose (refined table sugar), Lactose (found in milk and dairy), Fructose (found in fruit), and Glucose the simplest form of sugar. When you consume ANY carbohydrate, your body breaks it down into glucose, which then enters the bloodstream and provides energy to every cell in your body. Without glucose, your body’s primary functions can’t do their job, and this can quickly lead to life-threatening complications.
So needless to say, sugar is an important part of a functioning diet. That being said, not all forms of sugar are created equal.
As we mentioned, glucose is the simplest form of sugar your body can process. Your body doesn’t have to expend any extra energy to get it into the bloodstream. But the more complex the sugars and carbohydrates get, the more energy it takes to break them down into the basic building block of glucose. This is why you hear so many nutritionists vouch for “Complex Carbs”. These carbs are long complicated chains of molecules that take energy and time to break down. Complex carbs are found naturally in most whole plant foods we consume, such as beans, grains, vegetables, and fruits. So although we don’t usually think of grains, or vegetables as being “sugary” or “sweet”, they actually contain sugars, and you can meet your daily glucose requirements by eating these whole foods. the length of time it takes to break the foods down into glucose also helps mitigate the sugar crash. Rather than your body accessing a bunch of glucose (energy) all at once, that same amount of glucose is slowly released into the bloodstream over a longer stretch of time, providing a stable and consistent flow of energy to the body.
Why is sugar sweet?
So we’ve determined what sugar is, and how important sugar is to a healthy and happy body. And we can see that we don’t need refined simple sugar to meet our body’s needs. But our attachment to sugar goes beyond just our desire to fuel our bodies. There’s something about simple sugars specifically that our taste buds tend to get really attached to. So what makes refined sugar “sweet”?
The sweetness of refined sugar is the result of a chemical interaction between the sugar molecules and the taste receptor cells in our mouths. That specific chemical reaction creates a signal in our nervous system that tells our brain we are experiencing something “sweet”. Studies have shown that our brains are wired to release certain chemicals, such as Serotonin when we consume something sweet. Some theorize this is because it was a high-value food that was beneficial to seek out as humans were evolving before it became such a huge and easily accessible commodity. Either way, there are a number of reasons your body can crave sweet things, including:
- Mineral deficiencies
- Blood sugar imbalance
- Nostalgia and triggered memories
- Cultural norms and routines
Although we are huge supporters of listening to your body, giving into these cravings too often can be detrimental to your health. Sugar is necessary, but too much of anything is rarely a good idea. If you feel that you are craving sugar more often than normal, it would probably help to talk to a doctor or nutritionist about it, and dig a little deeper in case there is an underlying reason for it.
The good news is that there are some great sugar substitutes available that we can use in place of table sugar when we’re craving something sweet. Some of our favorites that we use in our recipes are:
- Xylitol – A natural sugar alcohol found in many fruits and vegetables and contains about 1/2 or 1/4 fewer calories than table sugar. Although this is still technically refined sugar, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels so it doesn’t count towards ‘Net Carbs’ from a nutrition standpoint. Xylitol also reduces levels of decay-causing bacteria in [saliva](http://www.webmd.com/oral-health/what-is-saliva), so it doesn’t cause the same tooth decay that table sugar does.
- Monk fruit – Another natural sugar extracted from a small round fruit native to Southern China. The extract can be 150-200 times sweeter than table sugar, so less is needed when you are using this as a replacement in a recipe. Monk fruit sweeteners are made of compounds called mogrosides, which aren’t digested in the upper gastrointestinal tract, so it has no caloric value.
- Agave – Agave is often sold as a thick syrup or nectar, and comes from the Agave plant native to Latin America. Agave is primarily fructose, and although it provides a wonderful sweet flavor, fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. It is important to note that your liver can get overloaded if you consume too much fructose, so as with everything it’s still important to moderate how much agave you consume.
- Honey – Likely the most well-known sweetener on this list, honey is produced naturally by bees and has many health benefits that make it a good substitute for table sugar. Although honey is primarily Sucrose, it also contains trace amounts of other minerals and antioxidants Honey also has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, while at the same promoting the health of good bacteria in the digestive tract.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, you need some form of sugar to function, but it’s best to limit refined table sugar, and hidden simple sugars in heavily processed foods. We love each of our listed sugar substitutes for different reasons, and they all have a specific purpose in our recipes. It is important to pay attention to what you eat, but it’s also important to enjoy it. Life should be sweet! and we hope this deep dive into sugar has inspired to you appreciate what sugar and carbs provide for our bodies, and we hope we’ve inspired you to explore some sugar substitutes for your own sweet recipes.