Why Most Unrefined Sweeteners Really Aren’t That Healthy

No matter how clean your diet is, chances are you have a hard time resisting a decadent piece of chocolate or a homemade batch of organic cookies, but not without investigating the ingredients first. You know that refined sugars are a big health no-no and perhaps choose to consume alternatives like agave nectar and coconut sugar to get a guilt-free sweet fix. However, if you’ve ever thought these substances taste a little too good to be true, you’re kinda right. While unrefined sweeteners are much better for you than refined, they still have some drawbacks. Here’s the lowdown.

Unrefined vs. Unprocessed

Just because a sweetener is unrefined does not mean it’s unprocessed. If it is in powder or liquid form, it is not a whole food; it has gone through some sort of process to get to that state and is highly concentrated. The fiber has been stripped away, which is responsible for making you feel full and helps your body slowly absorb sugar. Whole forms of sugar, such as fruit, are ideal because of the fiber content and lower calorie content, which will leave you feeling satisfied a lot faster. If you really want some cane sugar, chew on sugarcane!


Sugar (glucose) is a necessary fuel for our bodies and is found in most foods, namely starches, vegetables and fruits. Natural sweets – such as bananas, oranges and apples – are nutrient dense, so you’re getting a lot more out of them than just a sugar rush. On the other hand, when sweet plants are processed they usually lose their sustenance and can actually inhibit the body’s ability to absorb minerals, vitamins and enzymes. Most sweeteners are over 90% fructose, which researchers have linked to cancer cell development. Too much sugar of any variety can compromise your immune system, prevent weight loss, rot your teeth, cause inflammation, mess with your hormones and lead to diabetes – yikes!

A Happy Medium

It’d be unreasonable to ask you to stop eating sweet things – sometimes you just want something more stimulating than fruit (though the right strawberry can be ecstasy). Since sugar is especially addictive, if you deprive yourself of it you might crack one day and over do it. So, if you feel the need to indulge have some unrefined sweetener in moderation, aiming for 3-4 times a week max. FYI, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 5% of daily calories from processed sweeteners – for the average diet that means about 5 teaspoons (not a lot considering one can of cola contains 10 tsp!). Check out our 10 Tips for Reducing Sugar Intake.

Your Best Bet

If you’re looking for a truly natural, unprocessed option, use dates (deglet variety is low cal) or grow your own stevia and use its leaves (the latter is even suitable for diabetics). Most health experts agree that you can have almost as much of these sweets as you’d like… well, as long as they’re part of a balanced diet. If those sweeteners aren’t an option when you’re out and about, unrefined is the best way to go. Enjoy treats made with organic brown rice syrup, raw agave nectar, maple syrup or date sugar, which each have some nutritional value and are minimally processed.

Image credit: Joana Petrova