Spotlight on Sweeteners | Wholesome Child

Spotlight on Sweeteners

We can blame our sweet tooth on our primate ancestors. Millions of years ago, apes survived on sugar-rich fruit. These animals evolved to like riper fruit because it has a higher sugar content than unripe fruit and therefore supplied more energy.

“Sugar is a deep, deep ancient craving,” according to Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. And sugar offers more than just energy — it helps us store fat, too, which was a benefit in times of food abundance and then food scarcity.

Furthermore, sugar stimulates the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. This euphoric response makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, since our hunter-gatherer ancestors predisposed to “get hooked” on sugar probably had a better chance of survival. But, even though our lives have changed our sweet tooth remains, and managing sweet temptations is important when trying to raise healthy kids.


Wholesome Child philosophy 

Refined sugar regularly receives bad press, but I believe there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of sweetness in your child’s diet. With a few simple tweaks to some of your favourite recipes, your family can still enjoy these types of foods in moderation. I am a mother and a realist and know regular, refined sweet foods are part of growing up, and when enjoyed sometimes, are not going to cause any long-term damage.


So, what’s the problem with sugar?


Sugar has been demonised because our food supply has changed, and we’ve unknowingly begun to consume too much sugar that is often hidden in processed, savoury foods once considered healthy. Things like vegetable soups, pasta sauce, yoghurt, bagels or muesli all have significant quantities of hidden refined sugar. 


5 Ingredients that contain sugar to avoid on nutrition labels: 

  • Corn syrup / high fructose corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Sorbitol
  • Glucose

For a more comprehensive list, see Step 2 in the Wholesome Child book.


Reading nutrition labels

  • The overall sugar amount will include natural and added sugars. Naturally occurring sugars include fructose in fruit and lactose in milk, for example.
  • If a product contains fruit (this does not include fruit concentrate or fructose), this can increase the overall sugar content to around 15g-20g of sugar per 100g.

For more information on reading nutrition labels, visit my Wholesome Shopping course in My Wholesome Child - it’s complimentary.


Refined sugar 101

Refined sugar (sucrose) is extracted from sugar cane and sugar beets. Stripped of almost all of its fibre, vitamins and minerals, refined sugar offers calories with very limited nutritional value.


Healthy sweeteners: The Lowdown

Healthy sweeteners offer that sweet flavour with added nutritional benefits such as antioxidants, minerals, antimicrobial qualities and are usually lower in glycaemic index than refined sugars.


These are the Wholesome Child replacements of choice in recipes, where you will commonly see dates, pure maple syrup, raw or manuka honey or coconut sugar used instead of refined sugars.


Wholesome Child’s Favourite Natural Sweeteners (can offer from 1+ years) 

  • Pure maple syrup
    Low GI and low in fructose. Contains more antioxidants and minerals such as zinc and manganese than many other natural sweeteners.
  • Honey
    Raw and manuka honey is packed with vitamins and has antimicrobial properties. Only offer honey to your child from 1 year onwards.
  • Coconut sugar
    Low GI, unrefined, contains vitamins and minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium, plus inulin, antioxidants and amino acids.
  • Stevia
    300 times sweeter than sugar, with no carbs or calories and low GI. Use stevia with another natural sweetener like coconut sugar to help mask its slightly bitter after taste. Only offer stevia to your child from 1 year onwards.
  • Cinnamon
    Increases the natural sweetness of foods and acts as a blood sugar stabilizer.
  • Mashed banana
    Bananas are a healthy source of fiber, potassium, vitamin B6, vitamin C, and various antioxidants and phytonutrients.They are the main sweetener for babies under one and can be used to sweeten muffins, biscuits or offered as finger foods or purees. They can also be used by anyone wanting to avoid other sweeteners. Use to replace sugar in baking. 
  • Apple sauce

Apple sauce is a natural sweetener and high in antioxidants. Opt for homemade or store bought (make sure it does not contain added sweeteners).Use to replace sugar in baking, just swap 1 for 1. Apple sauce is safe to use for babies under 1.

  • Dates
    Full of antioxidants and low GI. Substitute two-thirds cup of mashed dates for 1 cup of regular sugar. Dates can be used to sweeten muffins for babies under 1. 
  • Monk Fruit

Monk fruit sweetener is made from an extract derived from dried fruit. The extract is 15-250 times sweeter than table sugar. Monk fruit gets its sweetness from natural compounds called mogrosides. It’s generally safe for those with diabetes because it doesn’t increase blood sugars. Offer from 12+ months.


Remember, any added sweetener (natural or otherwise) will encourage desire for sweetness. Moderation is always key when it comes to sweet foods, so although homemade versions of cakes, brownies, raw treats and nice cream are more nutritionally dense, I still don’t advise feeding children too much of them as they can displace other types of food in the diet.


Manage sweet temptations

  • Up to 18 months - there’s no need to introduce refined sugar to babies or young toddlers. A muffin sweetened with pumpkin and banana will be enough to satisfy their sweet tooth 
  • 18 months+ - I recommend using nutrient dense sweeteners in homemade sweet foods where possible, and controlling portions by offering mini muffins and smaller biscuits or cookies, and offering these ‘sometimes’ 
  • 3+ - You can begin to explain to your child the difference between everyday foods and sometimes foods. Try avoid always offering sweet snacks after child care and create structure around when to expect these foods - such as on play dates, at parties or dessert after a meal out


Sugar and Fussy Eating

One of the leading nutritional causes of fussy eating is the introduction of sugary foods too early on. Children who haven’t been exposed to refined sugars will find vegetables like carrots sweet (yep, that’s right!). 


If your child is addicted to sweet foods already, it isn’t too late, you can slowly start to reduce the amount of sugar in their diets by finding healthier sugar substitutes and using transitional foods such as homemade sauces or mixing plain yoghurt with the sweetened ones that they may be used to. For more guidance, check out my Fussy Eating Strategies & Solutions Course.


Boost to protect blood sugar spikes while you’re transitioning 


Wholesome Child Protein+ Vanilla and Choc work well to boost the protein content of your baked goods, smoothies and other snacks. Packed with complete proteins from sprouted & fermented pea and rice proteins, probiotics, prebiotics, healthy fats and fibre, they provide complete nutrition support which effectively balances the effect of other sugars on blood sugar levels. They’re an excellent addition to homemade snacks & baked goods while working with a preference for sweet foods in children.


Wholesome Child Veggies+ can help you boost sweeter foods such as black bean brownies with 15 veggie varieties and supercharged greens, while you’re working on getting your child to eat more veggies in their natural state. 

For recipe inspiration that uses healthy sweeteners, check out The Wholesome Kitchen. Here you’ll also find practical suggestions for boosting your staples and other foods with Wholesome Child boosters to get more nutrition into your kids no matter how sweet their tooth is right now!

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