Sweeteners - From Worst To Best
If you struggle with sugar like me (I am a self-proclaimed sugar-o-holic), we are not alone. It’s a cultural problem, with the average American consuming close to 3,550 POUNDS of sugar in their lifetime! You may think you’re in the clear if you don’t have an obvious sweet tooth or a soda addiction, but the truth is that hidden sugars account for much of our consumption. You can find added sugar in everything from granola, “nutrition” bars, prepared smoothies, yogurt, and kombucha, as well as bottled salad dressing, condiments, crackers, and canned soups. A quick scan of the labels in your pantry may give you a sense of just how much sugar you’re consuming without even realizing it.
Because these added sugars can be tough to recognize, here’s a list of the sweeteners to avoid completely, the ones that aren’t great but are okay in moderation, and the ones that are your best options when you want something sweet.
Artificial Sweeteners Artificial sweeteners may be zero calorie, but they score a big fat zero as far as your health is concerned. They include: sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet N’ Low), neotame (a chemical derivative of aspartame), and acesulfame/acesulfame potassium/acesulfame K (commonly found in products like soda, juice, gum, dairy, and ice cream).
These artificial sweeteners have been linked to a host of health issues, as well as health improvements when eliminated from a patient’s diet. For example:
The American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists reported a complete reversal of autoimmune thyroiditis(Hashimoto’s) in a patient by eliminating artificial sweeteners and diet soda only.
The Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology correlated the rise of irritable bowel diseases, such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis, with sucralose and its inhibitory effect on beneficial gut bacteria.
Research from the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Healthalso pointed to sucralose’s ability to weaken the microbiome. It was shown to reduce good bacteria by up to 50 percent, as well as raise gut pH levels, which could trigger autoimmunity.
Ironically, these zero calorie sweeteners have also been linked to weight gain, as they actually change the bacterial makeup of your microbiome. And because they can trigger autoimmunity, they can put you at an increased risk of developing diabetes and other serious metabolic disorders.
High Fructose Corn Syrup Equally bad and equally ubiquitous as artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) finds its way into foods you wouldn’t think had any sugar at all. Worse, it can hide on food labels since it’s not a legal requirement for manufacturers to use its full name; you may see it listed separately as “corn syrup” and “fructose” instead.
HFCS is derived from corn stalks and converted to syrup through an intensive heat and enzymatic process, and can wreak havoc on your blood sugar. It doesn’t need to be processed by the body, so it heads straight for the bloodstream instead. This direct hit leads to insulin spikes that can contribute to hormonal problems like leptin resistance, which in turn leads to weight gain and weight loss resistance.
Agave Nectar Often marketed as the “healthy” alternative for sugar, it is extremely high in fructose which can only be processed by the liver—it can’t be used by your cells for energy. Instead, your liver does all the work converting it into glucose, glycogen, lactate, and fat. Too much stress on the liver can contribute to insulin resistance and fatty liver disease—by no means a healthy outcome. Turbinado Also known as raw cane sugar, this type of sugar is not so “raw” and unrefined as it makes itself out to be. It is still highly processed, which removes not only some of its natural impurities but its nutrients. It may be less processed than refined white sugar, but it’s not much better for you.
Brown Rice Syrup This sweetener is made from brown rice and barley enzymes, the latter of which helps break down the starch making the sugars easier to digest. Because barley enzymes contain gluten, brown rice syrup can wreak havoc on your body if you’re gluten-sensitive. Like turbinado, it’s a highly-processed sweetener and not much better for you than table sugar.
Fruit Juice Although fruit juice contains fructose, it is a better option than many other types of sweeteners, especially if you make the juice yourself! Fruit juice contains all the same antioxidants present in its whole fruit form, but drink it in moderation and only choose ones without any added sugar.
Sugar Alcohols Commonly found in “sugar-free” foods, sugar alcohols include xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and mannitol. They are derived by chemically processing the carbohydrates found in fruits and berries, can contain up to three calories per gram, but don’t affect blood sugar. However, they’re not the best option for everyone; they can have a laxative effect as well as flare up digestive problems like IBS or SIBO. Because your body can’t completely digest sugar alcohols, they ferment in the large intestine, leading to gas and bloating.
Stevia When it comes to stevia, the less processed you can find it, the better. Raw, organic stevia in its green form is the healthiest option. It’s zero-calorie, low-glycemic, and won’t affect your microbiome or blood sugar. However, the bleached, preservative-filled forms up your exposure to chemicals and other toxins. Also, be sure to read your labels and make sure you’re getting pure stevia; some products include other ingredients.
Maple Syrup No, not that bottle of Mrs. Butterworth’s (that isn’t real maple syrup)! Instead, choose 100% pure organic maple syrup—and the darker the better, as it contains up to 24 different antioxidants, including zinc and inflammation-fighting polyphenol antioxidants. Maple syrup comes directly from tree sap, so it goes through minimal processing, too.
Honey With a host of health benefits, honey is nature’s perfect sweetener when consumed in its raw, unpasteurized, and unfiltered form. Unprocessed honey is rich in antioxidants like polyphenols, which can help fight cancer and promote heart health. It’s also a great way to ward off illness because it contains immunity-boosting bee pollen. If you’re able to find it, choose manuka honey from New Zealand. It’s rich in antimicrobial properties as well as the most nutritious type you can buy.
Molasses This sweetener is made by stripping sugar cane of leaves, then extracting the juice and boiling it twice—once to create cane syrup, and again to make molasses. A third boiling creates the most nutrient-dense form: blackstrap molasses. This form contains the least amount of sugar, as well as more iron than any other natural sweetener.
Dates Unsweetened and completely unprocessed dates can be eaten fresh, dried, or pureed into a paste. Since they are very high in fructose, it is still important to keep their intake to a minimum. Dates are very nutrient-dense and fiber-rich and can help those struggling with constipation as well as improve overall digestive health by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut.
Monk Fruit Like stevia and sugar alcohols, monk or luo han guo fruit is another low-carb sweetener option. It’s fermented from the pulp of the fruit, and this fermentation process removes the sugars but leaves behind a sweet flavor. It has a long history of health benefits in the Asian countries where it grows, as the unique antioxidants that make it sweet, called mogrosides, are believed to be anti-inflammatory. Look for it without any additives, and beware that too much can cause some mild stomach issues.
Coconut Sugar/Nectar Coconut sugar and nectar are made from the blossoms of the coconut tree, rather than the fruit itself. These sweeteners are processed but coconut sugar does contain inulin fiber, which has been shown to help improve diabetic health because it helps to slow the absorption of glucose and keep blood-sugar levels balanced.
When it comes to sweet foods, it’s best to eat only those that are naturally sweet, like fruit, in moderation. For optimal health, you should completely eliminate/avoid artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, agave nectar, turbinado sugar, and brown rice syrup. For those with chronic health conditions, it may be best to avoid all sweeteners while you heal. For help navigating your relationship with sugar, contact me!