Nowadays, sugar is the boogeyman in our cupboards since research shows it may cause a variety of health problems. If foods were criminals and diseases were crimes, sugar is going to fit a lot of descriptions. Despite today’s preoccupation with sugar, the health concerns regarding sugar aren’t entirely new. The connection between sugar and disease may have begun in the 1600s when Thomas Willis, an English physician, noted that a diabetic patient’s urine tasted “sweet like sugar or honey.” He subsequently added ‘mellitus,’ meaning “from honey,” to the term diabetes—coining the condition’s present-day name. I’ve heard health professionals correct patients for saying “sugar diabetes,” but technically the term does mean ‘sugar’ diabetes and Latin went out of style 1000 years ago. Regardless of terminology, I’m just grateful that drinking urine isn’t part of a doctor’s job description anymore. If it were, my site’s name would just be “thekitchen.com.”
Aside from sugar contributing to heart disease, weight gain, diabetes, fatty liver, et cetera; the main issue with sugar is it tasting so good. If sugar tasted like dried nutmeg, I wouldn’t have to write this post. We love sugar, but sugar doesn’t love us—therein lies a problem. Artificial sweeteners aren’t exactly delicious, and they also have negative health implications.
So are there any ‘healthy’ sweeteners?
My patients commonly pose this question (right along with ‘how much sugar should I have per day?‘).
Most people, including physicians, have their assumptions of which sweeteners are healthy or at least healthier than plain white sugar. People assume that honey, brown sugar, and agave are healthier alternatives to refined sugar, but this is not entirely accurate. Well, let’s try to avoid assumptions and look at a few studies.
In 2009, researchers looked at nutrient value and antioxidant content of several different types of sweeteners in an amount equivalent to 1.5 cups of refined sugar in a standard cake recipe (1). I summarized their findings in the infographic below.
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They found that date sugar, was the healthiest since it had the highest antioxidant content. That’s not surprising since date sugar is ground whole dried dates. All of the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants from the date end up in the sugar. Antioxidants are great for decreasing cancer, but decreasing cancer isn’t what we immediately think about when eating sugar. The primary concern with eating sugar is increasing one’s blood sugar. These researchers did not look at how date sugar affects blood sugar/glucose levels, but others did.
In 2009, Israeli researchers fed a group of men 100g of hallawi and medjool dates (3-4 dates or 3.5 ounces) every day for four weeks and checked their weights and labs including blood glucose (sugar), cholesterol, and antioxidant levels. They found that eating this amount of dates did not affect weight or blood sugar. They even discovered that eating dates slightly improved the triglyceride levels of the guys in the study (2).
Based on these studies, I frequently use date sugar in my kitchen. I can’t say I use it all the time because it is sometimes hard to find in stores. You can find it at expensive specialty stores, but my student loans and three kids limit my flexible spending for expensive sugar. Thankfully, making a date paste from scratch is a simple, cheaper alternative since dried dates are easy to find. I typically use a date paste in smoothies, BBQ sauces, oatmeal, or when baking. I don’t recommend trying to put it in your coffee, tea, or juice (it’ll just end up a thick juicy mess).