Sweetener Swap and Sugar Rules: Can We De-Sugar Our Holidays?

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By Tasneem Bhatia, M.D.

It is our sweetest season and most exciting time of the year. Halloween ushers in the parties, treats, desserts and of course sugar. We all enjoy the festivities of the season, but watching and counting the sugar grams prevents excess holiday pounds and helps fight off winter colds. Knowing our new-found fear of sugar, many sugar substitutes and “natural” sugars are crowding the market place leaving us all a bit confused. Before you swap your sweeteners, here is what you need to know this holiday season.

Rule 1: Create a sugar budget

As the holidays approach, plan a sugar “budget” for yourself or your kids. Try to stay under six teaspoons of sugar per day, the amount of sugar in a glass of juice or half a can of coke. Consider limiting sugar to one day per week, a “treat” day to resist temptation. With children, it is fun to make this a game. Give them seven sugar “dollars” per week, allowing them to decide when and how to spend. When they are out of them, no more sugar for the week!

Rule 2: Avoid all sugar syrups

High fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, and cane syrup are all sugar syrups in different guises. The most notorious, high fructose corn syrup, has been implicated in the obesity crisis and has been shown in research to change appetite, behavior and cravings for additional fatty and high sugar foods. (1) High fructose corn syrup or HFCS has gotten a lot of appropriately-deserved bad press.

Its cousins, however, rice syrup and brown rice syrup, are not much better. These sugar syrups have a high glycemic index, very low antioxidant concentration and still have to be manufactured and processed so are hardly “natural.”

Rule 3: Avoid all synthetic sugar substitutes

Once we get rid of the sugar syrups, the next sugar villains are the well-known synthetic sugar substitutes. Aspartame, saccharine, and sucralose may not be sugar but concerns still linger over their long-term health effects. It may be better to skip sugar altogether or use less refined white sugar, rather than use a synthetic sugar substitute.

Rule 4: Lower the agave and stevia

This one caught me off guard and may surprise you as well. Both agave and stevia are heavily processed, so although they have a lower glycemic index, the extensive processing and modification leaves them with a lower antioxidant count than what is found in their natural form and a nutritional picture not that different from the sugar syrups. (4)

Rule 5: Find your friendly sugars

After all the don’ts, there are sugars that are better than others. Consider using these sugars in your holiday baking and treats.

1. Date Sugar

With the highest antioxidant count, date sugar may be one of the healthiest sugars, substituting beautifully in baked goods, drinks and homemade candies. Use about 2/3 the amount of date sugar in a recipe compared to regular sugar.

2. Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar may be even better than date sugar since it does have a lower glycemic index. It is a newer sugar to the market so may not work well in baked goods but better in mixed drinks, cocktails or smoothies.

3. Blackstrap Molasses

A healthy sweetener, black strap molasses is high in antioxidants and iron! The taste may be a bit stronger than the other sugars. (3)

4. Honey

Honey is a medical food with an antioxidant concentration higher than refined sugar. Use about 3/4 the amount of honey in a recipe calling for sugar. (2,3)

5. Sugar

The easiest solution may be to just use sugar. Dark brown sugar is the best when evaluating antioxidants, followed by light brown, cane and turbinado. Refined white sugar ranks last on the sugar list but still ahead of sugar syrups and synthetic substitutes.

Rule 6: Take every recipe and cut the sugar content in half

Compare any American dessert to one in Europe or Asia and you instantly know we consume too much sugar. I use this rule the most — I take any holiday recipe and cut the sugar amount in half. It is an instant recipe makeover, saving us hundreds of calories.

Use my sugar rules to de-sugar your holidays and swap your sweeteners. Play with different types of sugars to find a low glycemic, healthier option to carry you through the holidays.


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25111121
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19103324
3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21310307
4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25238836

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