You probably never questioned if the sugar you buy is vegan, but did you know that most sugar that lines grocery store shelves is filtered using bone char? Vegan sugars and naturally occurring sugars work differently inside your body, since they also have nutrients that accompany the sugar, so the key is to avoid all hidden or added sugars found in processed foods (granola bars or cereals are two of the worst offenders) and only choose the healthiest versions when you want a sweet taste.

You may be sabotaging your diet and undermining your healthy-eating intentions, without even realizing it by taking in way more hidden sugar than your realize. Here is your guide to natural sugars, the ones that are made with natural ingredients, such as dates, monk fruit, and beets. Here is a guide to the best 100% vegan alternatives to ultra-processed sugar and how to avoid the stuff that sneaks in where you least expect it (we're looking at you, Kombucha).

First a note about added sugar. Unless it's naturally occurring, stay away

Many people are unaware of how much "hidden sugar" they consume in a day because it's everywhere. Even foods that are marketed as  "healthy" are often full of hidden sugars, the kind that is added to tomato sauce, granola bars, energy drinks, yogurt, salad dressing, and packaged fruits. Naturally occurring sugar such as that in fruit (fructose)  is less of a health worry because it comes in nature's packaging of fiber, antioxidants, and healthy compounds that allow your body to break it down slowly and provide steady fuel. The kind you want to avoid is what's added into your food to make it tastier, preserve it and creates a calorie bomb.

The other day, I ran into a convenience store to grab a kombucha. I normally reach for GT's Living Foods knowing it only contains 2 grams of natural sugar. The store only carried a brand that looked similar and without checking the label, I drank the entire bottle. Then I noticed it had 21 grams of hidden sugar. That's when I vowed not to trust the front of a label that claims health benefits without checking the back of the label first.

When you look at the Nutrition Label on a product underneath Total Carbohydrates you'll find fiber (the higher the better) as well as carbs, which are naturally occurring in the fruit, and Total Sugar, which also lists Added Sugar. You are generally okay if you see the words NO ADDED SUGAR or zero grams of Added Sugar.

The American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 100 calories of sugar a day, and men take in no more than 150 calories of sugar a day–or half of your "discretionary" calories for the day. Thay is just 6 teaspoons 25 grams for women and 9 teaspoons or 36 grams for men. Meaning hardly any. So just cut it out and you'll likely still get some by accident.

It's not the fries that will get you, but the ketchup

Here's how that plays out: If you are someone who enjoys a glass of plant-based chocolate milk in the morning, even if you choose unsweetened almond milk, which contains zero sugar, you are likely consuming 12 grams of added sugar in the first 10 minutes of your day. If you choose sweetened almond milk you can add 15 grams of sugar to that, and rice milk has 10 grams, while cow's milk contains 12 grams of lactose. Ripple has 17 grams of sugar, so again, read the label.

Or, if you enjoy ketchup on your Beyond sausage or love to dip your fries in it, there are 4 grams of sugar hidden in 1 tablespoon of ketchup, and the average American eats 71 pounds of ketchup a year.

On average, Americans consume 17 teaspoons of sugar (71 grams) every day. "That translates into about 57 pounds of added sugar consumed each year, per person," according to a recent study by the Angeles Institute.  Organic or unrefined sugar is less processed. and derived from organic sugar cane, but it is not healthier since it gets broken down as fast as refined sugar, and causes blood sugar levels and insulin to spike. All diets that focus on lowering inflammation in the body cut out sugar and processed foods, which lead to inflammation. But what to do when you need a sweet fix and fruit won't suffice?

If you are going to eat  sugar, make it vegan, minimally processed and fruit based

Minimally processed, or naturally occurring sugars are better for you because they contain more nutrients from the source (dates, fruits, and syrup, for instance) that your body can use to build its immune system and prevent insulin spikes. Even with so-called "natural" sugars, the less you eat, the better, but a small amount of natural sugar can head off cravings and keep you from grabbing that pint of plant-based ice cream in the freezer. So when you do eat sugar or it's time to bake your loved one a birthday cake, choose a healthier one.

1. Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup is also called rice syrup or rice malt syrup. It only has two ingredients: Brown rice and filtered water. The syrup is a natural sweetener extracted from the rice. The brown rice is fermented, which breaks down the starches and reduces the substance until it reaches a thin syrup-like consistency.

Brown rice syrup is used like any other liquid sweetener. Add it to your coffee or tea instead of packaged sugar. Drizzle it on pancakes, waffles, or oatmeal if you need a hit of sweetness. The most common brand of brown rice syrup is Lundberg Family Farms. There are 150 calories per 2 tablespoon servings and 22 grams of natural sugar.

Brown Rice Syrup

2.  Maple Syrup

Real or pure Maple Syrup is made by tapping the sweet sap of a sugar maple tree, then heating it to evaporate the water and leave behind a smooth, thicker brown syrup that tastes like mother nature cooked it up. For a full account of how they collect and create it, check out the Maple Source. Real maple has more calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper, and manganese than other sugars.

People often choose between maple syrup and honey, and it turns out syrup wins in all categories: It has a higher concentration of minerals and antioxidants, yet fewer calories than honey, according to Helen Thomas of the New York State Maple Association, and of course vegans don't eat honey since extracting it destroys the hive. Maple syrup is a better option than cane sugar because it has a lower glycemic index.

One tablespoon of maple syrup has 52 calories and 14 grams of natural sugar, or slightly more sugar than brown rice syrup.

When you are selecting a maple syrup at the grocery store, choose a local or micro manufacturer since most of the national name brands add sugar to the bottle. Choose a natural,100% maple ingredient syrup that normally comes in a glass bottle (It should only have one ingredient, which is maple syrup), then add it to your oatmeal, pancakes, or waffles, or use it in recipes such as cinnamon buns.

3. Yacon Root Syrup

Just like it sounds, yacon syrup is extracted from the roots of the yacon plant. This plant originated in Colombia, South America that's used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years in South America. It has a similar consistency to molasses and can be used as a substitute if a bottle of molasses isn't handy. Yacon syrup is low in calories and high in prebiotics, such as insulin. A bottle of this syrup has 13 calories per teaspoon and 3 grams of sugar. Stir the syrup in your coffee, use it as a baking substitute for sugar, and if you're following a keto diet, this sugar is low in carbs so it's considered keto-friendly. 

5. Blackstrap Molasses

Blackstrap molasses is a byproduct of the refining process of cane sugar. To create cane syrup the raw sugarcane is boiled once and then again a second time. When this syrup has been boiled a third time, a dark viscous liquid emerges known to Americans as blackstrap molasses, according to Healthline.

This black sticky syrup contains both calcium and magnesium which are great for your bones and heart function, and magnesium improves sleep and lowers anxiety. One tablespoon provides 3 percent of your daily value for calcium and 12 percent for magnesium, plus 5 percent for iron. One tablespoon of molasses has 15 grams of natural sugar and 58 calories.

Many people take molasses as a natural supplement or a dietary supplement and mix it into a warm cup of water every morning. Use molasses for baking, or making energy bites, or add it to baked beans in place of brown sugar. Buy a bottle here.

6. Date Syrup

Date syrup is my personal favorite vegan sweetener. Date syrup is a low glycemic sweetener made from organic California dates. The only ingredient is Medjool dates, fruit that's naturally sweet and often dried. One tablespoon of Just Date Syrup has 60 calories and 13 grams of sugar. The syrup is extremely sweet so you only need two small drops into oatmeal or coffee. Dates have a significant amount of vitamins and minerals including iron, potassium, magnesium, vitamin D, and iron. Click here to purchase your own!

7. Monkfruit Sweetener

Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from the monk fruit which is also known as "Buddha fruit," found in Southeast Asia. Monk fruit is a popular sweetener amongst keto dieters because it's low in carbs and a sugar alternative for baking. "It’s natural, contains zero calories and is 100–250 times sweeter than sugar. It is also thought to have antioxidant properties," according to Healthline. The sweetener comes in a package that looks similar to granulated white sugar which is one reason it's commonly used for baking. There are 4 grams of alcohol sugar (a naturally occurring sugar in the monk fruit)  in one teaspoon and 0 calories in the entire package. The most popular brand is Lakanto which is sold in almost any grocery store in the organic section. Click here to buy a package online.

Do you have a recipe that calls for any of the sugar substitutes above? Share them on our Facebook Group Page.

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