The Ultimate Guide To Sweeteners

(photo by Sonja Langford)

So I talked about why added sugar should not be a regular part of our diets, but even I refuse to eat my avocado brownies without some sweetness in them. And praise the Lord, not all sugar is created equal. So here's a fairly short list of the most common sweeteners we encounter and whether or not we should give them the time of day!

Sweeteners to avoid:

Pasteurized Honey
Yes, that cute little squeeze bear in your pantry. The average brand of honey you'll find in the grocery store has been pasteurized, heated to at least 161°F. This kills any beneficial enzymes, amino acids, and nutrients found naturally in the honey, and giving it that thick but flowing viscosity. C'mon guys, honey is not naturally "squeezable".

The agave plant has traditionally been fermented to make tequila, but more recently it's been touted as a "healthy" sweetener. But agave syrup is just another highly processed form of fructose that uses chemicals in the manufacturing process. 

Equal, Splenda, Sweet'n Low, and other artificial sweeteners 
Aspartame, sucralose, and all those little colorful packets sitting on the tables of diners. We know the consumption of these can lead to weight gain, and can mess with your gut's microbiome. But since they're still fairly new to the human diet, they jury's still out on whether or not they can cause more serious damage. Still, that's not something you wanna mess around with. I'm not really looking to be a guinea pig. Plus... they just taste gross.

White table sugar
Nutritionally bankrupt and harmful. 'Nuff said. 

Sweeteners to embrace:

Raw Honey
Honey in its raw form is different from the average honey you see in the grocery store. Since this honey hasn't been heated, its full of minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. Bits of the honeycomb, pollen, and propolis (basically bee glue) are still present in the honey. (I've even found a little bee wing in one of my jars) Even the propolis in it of itself has a vast array of health benefits
And consuming local pollen can help with allergy sufferers. Past cultures used to use honey like we use Neosporin. It has anti-bacterial properties, and can be used to treat burns and wounds.
This brand is fantastic, and I use it pretty much anytime I need a sweetener in baking. Also, it tastes amazing. 

Maple Syrup
Made from the sap derived from a variety of maple trees, this stuff has been around for awhile. It's loaded with antioxidants and has high levels of zinc and manganese. Just make sure you're getting the real stuff. Most products are made of high fructose corn syrup, then add maple flavoring...whatever that is. Look for "100% pure maple syrup", and of course, read the ingredients label.
Maple syrup is great because, at the end at the end of the day, ya can't pour raw honey over pancakes. 

Stevia is often bunched in with other artificial sweeteners, but it's not artificial at all. It's an herb that has grown in popularity in more recent years, but it's been used in ancient cultures. It's 100-200 times sweeter than white sugar, so you really only need a little when using in recipes. It also has a low glycemic-index, meaning that it doesn't raise blood sugar levels when consumed. And some studies show it may actually help increase insulin sensitivity.
But since stevia has become popular, it's common to see it in may different forms. So try and stay away from highly processed ones. (ground up stevia leaves don't turn into white powder on their own)

P.S I'm not suggesting that you gorge on spoonfuls of raw honey daily. (although I lowkey imagine that's what heaven is like) But if you are gonna use sugar in some form, stick with the traditional sweeteners that have some sort of nutritional value, and have stood the test of time. I mean, like this is just cool. 


(photo by Jennifer Pallain)


The Problem With Sugar

(photo by Dennis Klein)

If I could give only one tidbit of health advice to everyone, it would be "cut out the sugar".
Actually, no.
It'd probably be "fix your sleep schedule" or "reduce stress". But sugar comes in third. So... close enough.
But that's how detrimentally serious I believe our consumption of sugar is. For the most part, sugar is not widely praised in our society. Most people know that it's "bad for you" on some level. But despite this, we're all eating it. All the time. And in crazy amounts. The nationwide average is about half a pound... a day... per person. And we wonder why obesity is rampant. That's about 180 pounds a year.
Now, I'm not a fan of completely demonizing any food or food group. But refined sugar is not a a macronutrient, (fat, protein, or carbohydrate) nor does it contain any sort of nutritional benefit (it contains no nutrients, minerals, or enzymes). So it's essentially just empty calories. And it only does harm.

Why sugar is so harmful and addicting 
No healthy ancient culture has ever consumed the large amounts of sugar that we do. Sugar has a hand in inflammation, tooth decay, gallstones, heart disease, and even possibly Alzheimer's. And since our bodies metabolize sugar the same way it does alcohol, through the liver, an overconsumption of it puts unnatural stress on the liver, which studies have shown can lead to fatty liver disease.
It's insane the amount of damage this stuff can do to our bodies. So why don't we stop eating it? Why is it so difficult for us to cut out something that's so detrimental?
Well, sugar is addicting. Now, something to note about addiction: it's not the substances that are inherently addictive, but the neurological reward response that happens that can cause certain individuals to become addicted. It's in our brains, not in the cigarette or alcohol. But, sugar, just like any other commonly abused substance, can create addictive responses in the brain. And since it's everywhere in our food, it's hard to escape. But it's put there for a reason. There's no need for that tablespoon of sugar in your salad dressing, but it's put there to illicit that obsessive response.
Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatrician who specializes in childhood obesity, and the author of Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar puts it quite bluntly:
The food industry has made [sugar] into a diet staple because they know when they do you buy more. This is their hook. If some unscrupulous cereal manufacturer went out and laced your breakfast cereal with morphine to get you to buy more, what would you think of that? They do it with sugar instead.

Sugar, like gnats in the summer
When I say sugar is everywhere, It's not hyperbole. Sugar is in everything. I'm not kidding. Ketchup, relish, sandwich meat, salad dressing, peanut butter, granola, bread, there's even added sugar in already sweet fruit juices. Just go to your pantry, read some ingredient lists, and you might be surprised. (this is a pretty cool site that stacks sugar cubes next to common food products, just to give you a clear visual of how much sugar is in our food)
But to make it even worse, manufacturers have learned to list sugar as dozens of different names, just to throw you off. But don't be mistaken, all of these are highly processed forms of sugar, and they'll all do the same thing in your body. But take a look at this list, and try to keep an eye out the next time you're scanning a nutrition label.

(photo from bariatriccookery.com)

Insulin resistance
One of the more serious things sugar can do to our body is make it insulin resistant. It's a term that you probably hear a lot, but let's actually break it down and talk about what happens when we become insulin resistant.
When we consume sugar (or carbohydrates that will break down into sugar) our bodies begin to produce insulin. Now, insulin is often portrayed in a negative light, but don't think of it that way. It's not the insulin itself that causes problems, but the chronic production of it. Insulin is just a hormone, a necessary one at that, doing its job. And its job is to pull that glucose (sugar, that Snickers bar you just ate) from the blood and transport it into other cells to be used for energy. And this process keeps your blood sugar in a healthy range. The problem arises when we intake too much sugar.
Think of it this way: Putting sugar into the body is sort of like setting off an alarm. Now, it's not a bad thing, but it's a signal to the pancreas to start producing and dumping insulin into the bloodstream. Now, when we're constantly consuming sugar in large high amounts (as most Americans do) our bodies start to become immune to that alarm going off. The alarm is constantly going off, and our bodies just used to it. And over time, the body stops responding to insulin as efficiently. And as a result of that, our poor, amazing bodies, crafted to maintain balance as well as it can, overproduce insulin in order to keep our blood sugar in balance. And that's how we become insulin resistant, which we know is one of the first steps to type 2 diabetes.

Cutting out sugar 
So we know that sugar is probably not the greatest thing for us, but cutting sugar out of your diet completely may seem like the ultimate task. But I can promise you from personal experience, it's not. It's hard, I'm not gonna lie. But it's worth it. It's not easy, but it's possible. It's amazing how your palate changes once you drastically reduce your sugar intake. Most candy, chocolate, or desserts just taste overwhelmingly sweet to me now. Which is so funny to me, since I have a real sweet tooth. But it's amazing how your body can change and adapt. Biting into a ripe peach tastes like candy to me now, and it's great.
But you don't have to go cold turkey. Taking small steps to improving your health is better than not taking any at all. So here's some practical ways to cutdown on your sugar intake:

  • Check the labels. Read the ingredient list. Be aware of what you're putting into your body before you take a bite. I've developed a natural instinct to instantly set a product back down if my eyes see the words "cane sugar". I ain't about that life. 
  • Quit drinking juice. We tend to think of juice as a "healthy alternative" to drinks such as soda. And yes, a glass of OJ is a far better choice than a Coke, but fruit juice is essentially sugar water. Separated from the natural fibers in fruit, it's practically pure fructose. 
  • Eat real food. The natural sugars found in fruit, vegetables, milk, etc. won't wreak havoc on your body's insulin response. And what kinds of sugar you're consuming is just as important as how much. (there's typically twice the grams of sugar in a ripe mango than a glazed donut, but I don't think we'd say the latter is the more health-contentious choice) When in doubt, eat real, whole foods instead of products. 
  • Avoid processed food. Obvious culprits like boxed cookies and sweets, but be leery of any other sort of processed products. It's most likely that there's some form of sugar in it. I mean, take a look at the ingredients in this popular "health cereal" and play a little game I like to call How Many Forms of Sugar Can I Count?

I hope this is helpful to anyone who's constantly hearing about the evils of sugar. Later this week I'll be going into more extensively about healthy alternatives to refined sugar (including artificial sweeteners) and how they interact with our bodies. So keep your eyes peeled!

Stay sweet,

(photo by Sylvanus Urban)


I Didn't Eat Beef For 7 Years (And I Regret It)

(photo by Lukas Budimaier

Alright. First of all, it wasn't just beef that I gave up for seven years, but any kind of land animal. Beef, chicken, pork, none of it. I was a pescatarian. (basically vegetarian, but with the exception of eating seafood) 
But since most people aren't familiar what that word, and I didn't feel like having ridiculously long post title, I decided to just go with beef. More clickbait-y. Now. Moving on...

My story 
I first gave up meat for a school project/experiment my sister was doing. I was around nine or ten at the time, and we both went vegetarian for a short period to see how it affected our health. But after the project was over, we both decided to keep with it, only slightly changing it to allow fish in our diet as well. So, did I decide to follow this diet simply because my cool, older sister was doing it and I wanted to be just like her? Maybe. Partially. But there was a large part of me that just felt like it was the right thing to do. I mean, after watching all those horrible factory farming videos, how can you not feel guilty about eating a hamburger? That was the real kicker. I didn't want to put anything in my body that had been practically tortured just so I could have my dinner. Plus, we all know that plant-based diets are the healthiest, right?
So I stuck with it. And the first few months were hard, of course. I had the typical cravings (and givings in to those cravings). But after a bit I got the hang of it, and continued to abstain from eating meat happily.
Now, I have to give kudos to my mom (shoutout to you, mom. I know you're reading this and I love you and also what's for dinner).  She never forced me to eat meat or tried to convert me back. She wasn't on board with the whole idea, but she let me experiment and make my own decision about my health nonetheless. 
But to be honest, I didn't have the most healthy diet, before or after turning pescatarian. I still ate like the average American, just without the meat. Didn't eat a whole lot of vegetables. Ate lots of pasta, bread, and the standard, processed "food". But like most people who remove meat from their diet, I started replacing it with something else. 

The dangers of soy
So when one removes meat from their diet, the conventional way of replacing it is with soy. I'm sure you've seen all the frozen meat replacements walking down the frozen food aisle at the grocery store. I swear they mold that stuff into looking like every cut of meat you can imagine. Burgers, hot dogs, ribs, bacon, etc. And the most popular brands use soy as their main ingredient. And of course these aren't healthy; they're highly processed products. But in my opinion, the worst thing about them is that they contain large amounts of soy products.
Now, I could write an entire blog post about why soy is not the health food people think it is, (and I plan to, eventually) so I'll try and keep it short here. But among soy's many downfalls, one of them is that it's very high in phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are a type of plant-derived "hormone" that can cause endocrine disruption and mimics estrogen in the body. And in the female body specifically, high levels of this can cause estrogen dominance, which can then lead to infertility, menstrual issues, weight gain, and more.
And I went pescatarian I ate a lot of this stuff. The fake chicken strips and ground beef and even soy-based corndogs. Yeah. So it's kind of terrifying to me looking back, thinking about a ten year old girl whose body is just beginning to develop, consuming large amounts of severely processed soy products.
I don't know if or how eating all those phytoestrogens affected my body. But for as long as I've had my period, it's been irregular and difficult to track. Does that mean I can directly correlate the two? Probably not, but it's something I think about often.
Irregular menstrual cycles are largely caused by hormone disruption, something that was likely happening in my body at the time. So while the correlation is something that I have no solid evidence for, I can't help but wonder about what eating all that soy was doing to my body. To think that I was consuming phytoestrogens in such large quantities before and while I got my period is alarming. And honestly, I'm grateful that it hasn't seemed to affect my health in any other way.
But it's still scary to think that there are so many young girls who are switching to plant-based diets just when their bodies are just starting to develop from girl's to a woman's. It feels like every time I turn my head, there's another preteen girl deciding to go vegetarian. And while it's fantastic that they feel so strongly enough about something that they want to change, it makes my heart sad to think about what kinda of effect it might be having on their bodies, in both the short and long term.

Ethical meat eating
Now, here's the thing. This isn't a story about me regretting the seven years I abstained from meat eating because I missed it. Those years weren't a time of deep deprivation. I wasn't dreaming about bacon every night. I'd become perfectly content with the diet I'd chosen for myself, and I didn't miss meat anymore. I didn't crave it.
I could've probably stayed a pescatarian forever and lived an entirely happy, meatless life. But I'd gotten to the point where the reasons that made me give up meat in the first place didn't convince me anymore. My own reasoning didn't make sense to me. I remember trying to answer the question I'd gotten often when I told people about my dietary restrictions: "So why don't you eat meat?". But my answer didn't even convince myself. It just wasn't good enough anymore.
And at that point, (I was around sixteen years old) I'd come to realize that it was possible to consume animals and be ethical about it. And I probably should've gone back to eating meat sooner, but I'd just gotten too comfortable with where I was that change didn't seem appealing. And after so many years, it had become a part of my identity. Melanie, quiet, long hair, doesn't eat meat. I didn't really want to give up that part of me. And, in all honesty, there was a small part of me that felt a little bit superior because I'd been able to give up meat for so long. The classic "I'm better than you because I ___". And giving up after seven years felt almost like defeat.
But I knew it was the right thing to do. Still, during a month-long process of deciding whether or not to denounce my pescatarian ways, I knew one thing. I knew that if I were to go back, I wanted to do it ethically. I wouldn't be eating CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) meat. I didn't want to eat a burger if the cow had to be tortured to make it or a chicken wing if the hen had been stuffed with antibiotics. And for the most part, I've kept to that.
So I eat meat now. But I am a bit picky about it. And that's okay.

P.S. I have plans to write more in-depth about veganism and plant-based diets in the near future, but since those subjects get me pretty riled up I might need to take some NyQuil before I write them. 

Eat your veggies kids,

(photo by Jakub Kapusnak)

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