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8 Natural Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

Health + Wellness
8 Natural Ways to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

By Kayla McDonell

Added sugar is probably the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.

It has been associated with many serious diseases, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

What's more, most people consume way too much sugar and often have no idea.

Fortunately, there are many ways to sweeten foods without adding sugar. This article explores eight healthy alternatives you can use instead.

Why Sugar is Bad for You

For starters, there is simply nothing good about sugar. It contains no protein, essential fats, vitamins or minerals. There really is no need for it in the diet.

In fact, there is a long list of reasons why you should avoid it.

Sugar interferes with hormones in your body that regulate hunger and satiety. This can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain (1, 2).

It also harms your metabolism, which can lead to increased insulin and fat storage. In fact, many studies have found a strong link between sugar and obesity (3, 4).

Simply put, people who consume the most sugar are far more likely to become overweight or obese than those who consume the least.

High sugar intake is also associated with some of the world's most deadly diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer (5, 6, 7).

What's more, sugar is addictive. It causes dopamine to be released in the reward center of the brain, which is the same response activated by addictive drugs. This leads to cravings and can drive overeating (8).

In short, sugar is incredibly unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, consider the following eight alternatives.

1. Stevia

Stevia is a natural sweetener that's extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub known scientifically as Stevia rebaudiana.

It contains zero calories and has no known links to weight gain.

In fact, human studies have shown that Stevia is not associated with any adverse health effects (9, 10).

Not only is Stevia considered safe, it's also linked to some health benefits.

Several studies show that Stevioside, which is one of the sweet compounds in Stevia, can lower high blood pressure by 6–14 percent (11, 12, 13).

It has also been shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, which may help fight diabetes (14, 15).

It's worth noting that the two different sweet compounds extracted from the stevia plant—Stevioside and Rebaudioside A—have slightly different tastes.

Typically available in powder or liquid form, products labeled "stevia" may contain either or both of these compounds in varying amounts.

That's why some varieties taste better than others and it may take some experimenting to find the right one for you.

All things considered, if you need to sweeten something, Stevia is probably the healthiest choice.

Summary: Stevia is 100 percent natural, contains zero calories and has no known adverse health effects. It has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels.

2. Xylitol

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar. It's extracted from corn or birch wood and found in many fruits and vegetables.

Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, which is 40 percent fewer calories than sugar.

Also, it does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels (16).

Most of the harmful effects associated with regular sugar are due to its high fructose content. However, xylitol contains zero fructose and thus has none of the harmful effects associated with sugar.

On the contrary, xylitol is associated with multiple health benefits.

Several studies show that it can improve dental health by reducing the risk of cavities and tooth decay (17, 18, 19, 20).

Moreover, xylitol increases your body's absorption of calcium. This is not only good for your teeth but also your bone density, which can help protect against osteoporosis (21, 22, 23, 24).

Xylitol is generally well tolerated, but eating too much of it can cause digestive side effects like gas, bloating and diarrhea.

It's also important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. If you own a dog, you may want to keep xylitol out of reach or avoid having it in the house altogether.

Summary: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that contains 40 percent fewer calories than sugar. Eating it may offer dental benefits and protect against osteoporosis.

3. Erythritol

Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but it contains even fewer calories.

At only 0.24 calories per gram, erythritol contains 6 percent of the calories of regular sugar.

It also tastes almost exactly like sugar, making it an easy switch.

Your body does not have the enzymes to break down erythritol, so most of it is absorbed directly into your bloodstream and excreted in your urine unchanged (25).

Therefore, it does not seem to have the harmful effects that regular sugar does.

Moreover, erythritol does not raise blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol or triglyceride levels (26).

It's considered safe for human consumption and is very well tolerated (27, 28, 29).

Human studies show no side effects of erythritol when consumed daily at one gram per pound (.45 kg) of body weight, though higher doses may lead to minor digestive issues in some people.

Summary: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that tastes almost exactly like sugar, but it contains only 6 percent of the calories. It is an excellent sugar alternative, especially for people who are overweight or have diabetes.

4. Yacon Syrup

Yacon syrup is extracted from the yacón plant, which is native to South America and known scientifically as Smallanthus sonchifolius.

It tastes sweet, is dark in color and has a thick consistency similar to molasses.

It has recently gained popularity as a weight loss supplement after being featured on The Dr. Oz Show, a TV show hosted by a famous American doctor.

While one small study found that yacon syrup caused significant weight loss in overweight women, more research is needed to validate this claim (30).

Yacon syrup contains 40–50 percent fructooligosaccharides, which are a special type of sugar molecule that the human body cannot digest.

Because these sugar molecules are not digested, yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar or about 1.3 calories per gram.

What's more, studies show that fructooligosaccharides can decrease the hunger hormone ghrelin, which may reduce appetite and help you eat less (31, 32).

They also feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, which are incredibly important for your overall health.

Having healthy gut bacteria has been linked to a decreased risk of diabetes and obesity, improved immunity and better brain function (33, 34, 35, 36, 37).

Yacon syrup is generally considered safe, but eating large amounts of it may lead to excess gas, diarrhea or general digestive discomfort.

Another downside to yacon syrup is that you cannot cook or bake with it, as high temperatures break down the structure of the fructooligosaccharides (38).

Instead, you can use yacon syrup to sweeten your coffee or tea, add it to salad dressings or stir it into oatmeal.

Summary: Yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar. It is also very high in fructooligosaccharides, which feed the good bacteria in the gut and may help with weight loss.

5–8. "Less Bad" Sugars

There are several natural sweeteners that health-conscious people often use in place of sugar. These include coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses.

While these natural sweeteners may contain a few more nutrients than regular sugar, your body still metabolizes them the same way.

That being said, the natural sweeteners listed below are slightly "less bad" than regular sugar. Nonetheless, they are still forms of sugar.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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