Weight : Naturally Sweet

Natural or artificial? Sugar or an alternative? When it comes to sweeteners, there are lots of options -- and lots of questions. Whether your goal is to avoid refined white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, reduce calories in your diet, control your blood sugar, or simply opt for a naturally derived or minimally processed sweetener, there are plenty of choices.

Where to start? First and foremost, research suggests that it may be wise to skip the artificial sweeteners. Although they are free of calories, artificial sweeteners like saccharin, aspartame, and splenda have been linked to issues that range from headaches and abdominal discomfort to cancer in animal studies.

Evidence is also mounting that overconsumption of refined white sugar is a primary factor causing not only obesity but also chronic disease. And studies suggest that, like table sugar, the high-fructose corn syrup in many overly processed foods may cause you to overeat. This is because it causes the body to not fully release the hormones that tell you you're full.

Your local natural market offers a variety of natural sweeteners for use in cooking or your morning coffee. Here are just a few to look for.

Date sugar is 100 percent dehydrated dates pulverized into a powder. It's high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and can be substituted for granulated sugar or brown sugar in recipes -- just remember that it doesn't dissolve in liquids, so you don't want to put it in your tea or coffee.

Coconut sugar contains traces of iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc. It also has a minimal effect on blood sugar, making it a good option for people with diabetes. It can be used as a white sugar substitute in baking, but may not be sweet enough for coffee or tea.

Raw honey is not only delicious but also beneficial to health. It's a natural antibacterial and antiviral, high in antioxidants and enzymes, and may even support healthy immunity and digestion. Stir some raw honey into your tea, drizzle it on your Greek yogurt, and use it to sweeten any vinaigrette or dressing recipe. Or just enjoy it by the spoonful!

Pure maple syrup is high in manganese and zinc. It's also loaded with polyphenols, plant-based compounds that work as antioxidants to help ward off disease. Pour it on your pancakes, and use in place of white sugar in baking -- replace 1 cup of white sugar with 3/4 cup maple syrup and reduce the other liquid content in the recipe by 3 tablespoons for every cup of maple syrup used. Just be sure to read the label -- pure maple syrup should be the only ingredient.

Agave nectar is a honey-like sap that comes from the leaves of the blue agave plant. Agave has a thin, light consistency and can be a tasty topping for pancakes or fruit salad. Be aware that it's about one and a half times sweeter than sugar, so you'll need less to sweeten foods and your coffee. Agave can be substituted for white sugar in baked goods, but you'll find lots of different recommendations for reducing both the liquid content and baking temperature in the recipe. If you're new to cooking with agave, play it safe and stick with a recipe that uses agave.

Monk fruit extract is a zero-calorie sweetener derived from the monk fruit, which contains a unique antioxidant called mogroside that provides sweetness hundreds of times greater than table sugar, so a little goes a long way. Since monk fruit extract is a no-calorie sweetener, it will not affect blood sugar levels and is an excellent option for people with diabetes.

Stevia extract is derived from the stevia plant. It's calorie-free and up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so like monk fruit extract, use it sparingly. Since stevia contains no calories or carbohydrates, it will not raise your blood sugar. Different stevia products will have different concentrations and degrees of sweetness, so substituting stevia for sugar can be tricky and will require some trial and error. For starters, substitute 1 teaspoon of stevia liquid concentrate for 1 cup of sugar or 6 to 9 drops of stevia for 1 tablespoon of sugar.

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