Children love sweet foods, and we like to delight our kids with special treats. But too much sugar depresses the immune system, making your child more susceptible to getting sick. Sugar causes spikes in blood sugar levels, which can create imbalances leading to chronic health problems. It can also affect behaviour, attention, and learning.
What about all the “natural sweeteners” on the market? Are there healthy sugar alternatives for kids?
There are many sweeteners on the market that could be considered natural. But it’s still sugar, and most natural sweeteners effect blood sugar levels, while adding minimal or no nutrition to your child’s diet.
You may want to skip the processed candy, cookies and sweet drinks and provide wholesome homemade baked goods your kids will love – using natural, unrefined or raw organic sugars. Moderation is the key. When you give your children sweets, it’s a good idea to provide high quality fats and protein along with it to slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when considering what to use for a healthy sugar alternative for your kids. There’s the glycaemic index, which is the potential to lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar. High glycaemic foods and sugars quickly spike glucose and insulin. This can lead to blood sugar imbalances, inflammation and weight gain, so the lower the glycaemic index the better.
It’s also important to look at the fructose content. Whole fruits and vegetables contain fructose. When eaten in these whole foods, fructose is combined with the right amount of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that mitigate any negative effects. But when eaten in large amounts without these nutrients, it can wreak havoc on the body. Regular consumption of fructose causes the liver to work harder and can lead to weight gain and obesity, chronic elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance – resulting in chronic disease.
Fructose is added to thousands of processed drinks and foods since it’s a cheap sweetener. The worst form is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
The following is a list of different types of sweeteners, beginning with those you should definitely avoid and moving into the healthier sugar alternatives for kids.
These chemical sweeteners can cause numerous health problems, including cancer. Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects from artificial sweeteners.
The following should be completely avoided:
Acesulfame-K (aka Sunette or Sweet One)
Aspartame (found in Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin)
Saccharin (found in the pink packets as Sweet and Low) and also found in some infant formulas
Sucralose (aka Splenda)
It was recently found that artificial sweeteners can alter the composition of gut bacteria and contribute to metabolic conditions and a range of health issues, including diabetes and weight gain. Check the ingredients list of so-called sugar-free, diet foods and drinks, chewing gum and toothpaste – and avoid those that contain these sweeteners.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) or Crystalline Fructose
You can find HFCS in most processed foods and drinks. Crystalline fructose is another super-potent form of fructose that is also going into a lot of processed drinks. Both have negative effects on the body and should be avoided.
HFCS is free, unbound fructose. This means that the fructose is not bound to glucose, and it’s not part of a complex that includes fibre, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. It’s more rapidly absorbed into the blood stream. Then it goes directly into the liver and is converted into triglycerides, which is associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease. It also causes weight gain.
Most corn syrup is made from genetically modified corn, which definitely should be avoided. Unsafe mercury levels and other contaminants have been found in HFCS, and crystalline fructose may contain lead and arsenic.
White Table Sugar
Common white table sugar comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets and is highly processed and refined, so it’s best to avoid. If not organic, sugar beets are genetically modified (GMO). Common white sugar is around 50% fructose. It’s a high calorie substance with no nutritional value. If you use white sugar at all, make sure it’s organic and GMO-free.
To make typical brown sugar, small amounts of molasses are added back in after the sugar has been refined and processed. This is what gives the sugar a brown color. Brown sugar is simply regular sugar, although it may contain tiny amounts of minerals. But this mineral content is so small that it doesn’t make it nutritious and it still has the same negative effects as regular sugar.
Agave Nectar or Syrup
Even though agave is touted as a healthy sweetener, it’s usually highly processed and can contain chemicals from manufacturing. Agave has very high fructose levels (around 90%) making it worse than white table sugar and HFCS. It’s best to avoid agave, unless you know the source and you use it very sparingly.
Juicing removes the fiber, and unless the juice is freshly squeezed and consumed immediately, most of the nutrients are lost. Without the fruit’s fiber, juice sends a rapid burst of fructose into the blood stream and causes an increase in insulin levels.
Commercial canned or bottled juices are mostly sugar (even if you buy unsweetened, pure juice) and could contain a lot of pesticides. Commercial orange juice is frequently contaminated with mold from damaged, processed oranges. Drinking a lot of commercial fruit juice can lead to chronic nasal congestion, blood sugar problems, intestinal issues, yeast infections, and throat or ear infections.
Raw or Organic Cane Sugar
Organic sugar is free of GMOs and residues from pesticides and herbicides, and that’s a good thing. Buying organic helps reduce the chemical load on our environment and in our bodies. Raw sugar retains more nutrients from the original plant, but cane sugar doesn’t have much in the way of nutrients to begin with, so you’re not gaining much nutrition from raw sugar. It’s still sugar, whether organic or raw, and will have the same negative effects as regular table sugar.
Turbinado, Sucanat, and Rapadura
These are all made from sugar cane juice and less refined and processed than white sugar. They can be used in recipes to replace sugar 1:1. Rapadura is the least refined and processed and adds a molasses flavor and a dark color. Turbinado and sucanat can be substituted for white sugar in equal amounts in baking and have a sort of molasses-like flavor. But they are nowhere near molasses in terms of nutrition. The small amount of nutrients you may get with this type of sugar is insignificant.
Sugar alcohols include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, glucitol, , glycerol, and lactitol. They have fewer calories and are not as sweet as sugar. Eating a lot of foods with these sweeteners can lead to gas and diarrhea, since they are not completely absorbed into the body
Xylitol is known for preventing tooth decay and it does not affect blood sugar so, in moderation, it may be a better choice than refined sugar and high fructose sweeteners. It seems reasonable safe, although there needs to be more long-term studies. It’s known to be toxic to dogs, though, so keep it out of reach, if you have a dog.
Maple syrup is very flavorful and tastes wonderful in oatmeal or on pancakes. It contains some minerals – calcium, zinc, potassium, iron, and trace minerals. Maple syrup comes from boiling the sap of maple trees. If it’s not labeled “Pure”, maple syrup is probably mixed with cane or corn sugar and preservatives. Be sure to choose organic maple syrup since the processes for harvesting the sap may include unsafe chemicals if not organic. It’s best to refrigerate it after opening. In baked treats: 1 cup white sugar = 3/4 cup maple syrup, plus reduce recipe liquid by a few tablespoons. It can also be purchased as granulated maple crystals for recipes and baking.
Coconut Sugar or Nectar
Coconut sugar is extracted from the sap of the coconut palm. It has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar and also has a small amount of nutrients so there is slower absorption into the bloodstream. Make sure the label says it’s 100% coconut palm or sap. The nectar is a thick syrup. It doesn’t taste like coconut and can be used in place of brown sugar for baking, raw deserts, sauces, and drinks.
Raw honey contains nutrients, including antioxidants. In its raw form, honey has many health benefits when used in moderation, including probiotic, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal qualities. Moderation is key since honey is high in fructose and will have the same negative effects of other high fructose sugars in larger amounts. Most honey that you find in the store is highly processed and should be avoided. Find local, raw honey that is unprocessed. Shipping it requires heating, which removes the health benefits, so buy local.
Stevia is an herb that is extremely sweet, and it’s safe in its natural form. It has no calories and a very low glycemic index so does not create a spike in blood sugar. With herbs, the synergistic effect of all ingredients in the entire plant is what provides the health effects and protection against potential harm. Therefore, use the green powder, which is simply ground up stevia leaves. The clear liquid and white powder extracted stevia products may be extracted with chemicals.
Because of its texture, you can’t use stevia in baking, but you can add it to cereal, yogurt, drinks, and smoothies. Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste and it’s important to use it sparingly.
Truvia is a new stevia product that uses only certain active ingredients and not the entire stevia plant. Although stevia has been used in food and medicine for decades, the safety of Truvia has not been established.
Lo Han Guo (Monk Fruit)
Lo Han Guo is a powder made from sweet Chinese monk fruit, and has been used in China for centuries as a sweetener and a medicine for treating colds, sore throats and minor stomach problems with no known adverse effects. It has no calories and has no effect on blood sugar. Lo Han Guo (also spelled Luo Han Kuo) is similar to stevia, but more expensive and harder to find.
Date sugar is simply dried dates ground into a powder. Date sugar is very sweet and not a low-glycemic sugar, so it’s best to use two-thirds the amount of date sugar in place of brown or white sugar called for in your recipe. It can be used on oatmeal and in yogurt but doesn’t dissolve in hot tea or coffee. It can clump so needs to be well blended. You can usually substitute it in recipes that call for brown sugar.
Molasses is a thick syrup produced in sugar cane processing. It has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, meaning it metabolizes more slowly so doesn’t lead to blood sugar spikes like sugar. Blackstrap is the most nutritious type of molasses – high in iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and selenium, copper, and vitamin B6.
It has a strong, bittersweet taste, but it’s worth trying to see if your kids will like it since it’s a good alternative sweetener. It can be used in baking. Gingerbread and gingersnap cookies are made with molasses, and it’s also added baked beans to provide sweetness. You can add a little molasses to oatmeal and use it on pancakes instead of syrup. It’s best to buy it organic and unsulfured.