What's the deal with natural sweeteners?

2020 – what an interesting time in the world of food and nutrition. Social media is flooded with trendy food blogs, endless recipes and beautiful images of food, giving us the "permission" to indulge in the latest "healthy dessert" that happens to be gluten-free, carb-free, fat-free, sugar-free or whatever the latest "enemy du jour"-free is catching the headlines.

It's great to know that we can eat beautiful and yummy things, in the reassurance that they are good for us, and now, good for the planet too! Many of these healthy-dessert offerings tout that they are sugar-free and only have natural sweeteners, like honey, molasses, date sugar, coconut sugar or maple syrup. So what's the deal? Is it any different than eating the plain, old white stuff?

Well, yes and no. Unlike refined cane sugar, naturally occurring sugar / sweeteners actually may have some nutritional value. Honey and maple syrup contain trace minerals and antibacterial enzymes. Blackstrap molasses contains a lot of iron, more than any other natural sweetener. However, chemically speaking, they are still sugar. Meaning that they still di-saccharides, in that they are made up of a molecule of glucose + a molecule of fructose, joined together an oxygen atom - just like table sugar. So these sweeteners behave like sugar in the body. The components are still split apart and the glucose enters the blood stream (spiking insulin) and the fructose is metabolized in the liver, like alcohol, minus the head buzz. And because it tastes sweet, it will still ignite those pleasure-seeking dopamine receptors in the brain. I like to say that if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck...it's a duck. So by all means indulge in those beautiful desserts every now and again - and treat it as you would any other sugary indulgence.

If you are looking to balance a sweet taste with a more truly natural and healthy approach, then look for sugar in its true form, as nature created it. Because while date sugar that is added comes from dates, that's not how it grew on the tree. 

Here are a few ideas for inspiration:

Apple & Nut Butter

We are unlikely to eat 4 apples in one sitting and that’s because fruit, in its whole form, is packed with fiber which keeps us feeling satiated for longer. Apples are also packed with healthy minerals and antioxidants, and a tablespoon of your favorite (unsweetened) nut butter will provide your mouth with a creaminess feel and added satiety from the protein.

Grown up ants on a log

Slice celery into 4-6 inch sticks and top with your favorite nut butter. Add a few raisins and some unsweetened coconut flakes. Why? The raisins and coconut add natural sweetness to this childhood classic. Go easy on the dried fruit as it can be deceptive, When fruit is dehydrated the natural sugar is more concentrated and it is easy to overeat.

Still craving more?

Everyone has a unique relationship with sugar. For some the calling is stronger, for others it's more of a take it and leave it. If you fall into the former camp and are looking to curtail your sugar intake once and for all, here is the Plantable Protocol:

1. Replace and reward - just not with something sweet

The science of habit change is to recognize the trigger and then give yourself a "reward" - just change the reward. If you just deny the reward, then that addictive might keep getting louder and louder - until you break. Instead, figure out another reward that is pleasurable but doesn't involve sugar. Take the apple with the nut butter for example. Do it 5 days in a row. Get up and walk around each time you have done it. Text a friend. Be proud! Soon, this will become your new craving and a reward to be proud of. 

2. Believe in yourself! 💪

It is hard. But each day it gets easier. After 5 days the calling will be fainter and fainter. You can do it. Soon you won't miss it so much. It won't be deprivation. It will be the new normal. I promise. And you will feel so amazing that ultimately it will become one of the best long-term health decisions in your life.