If you’re like me, you sometimes browse for new treat recipes online that are fun to make and not total gut bombs. And if you do, you know that the days of recipes calling for a simple cup of sugar are long gone. Between recipes following paleo, raw, vegan, and gluten-free diets, you’re bound to happen upon recipes calling for agave, stevia, honey, or maple syrup.
Then there’s browsing the packaged treats at the grocery store that contain sweeteners like dextrose, high fructose corn syrup, and cane sugar.
What does it all mean? Does it really make a difference which sweeteners I eat? This is the question we’re answering today.
Short answer: Yes! It is much more healthful to eat natural, unrefined sweeteners like raw honey and maple syrup than refined or artificial sugars.
Here is my stack ranking on sweeteners:
Best: Raw Honey
Great: 3-way tie between Maple Syrup, Molasses, Coconut Sugar
OK: Stevia, Sugar alcohols (xylitol)
Generally avoid: Agave, Table sugar
Definitely avoid: All artificial or lab-made sweeteners (High Fructose Corn Syrup, Splenda, etc)
Long answer: When evaluating which sweeteners to use – whether refined, natural, or artificial – I use 3 criteria.
- History: How long have humans been eating it? If it is a recent addition to the human diet, it is much more likely that we will find currently undiscovered health problems associated with this sweetener down the road. The longer humans have used a sweetener without detriment to health, the safer it is.
- Health benefits: How much does it impact our blood sugar levels? What other nutrients does it provide? All of the natural sweeteners I recommend have a lower blood sugar impact and provide more micronutrients than cane sugar.
- Processing: How refined is the sweetener? We know that there is some nutrient loss in processing any food, so the less refined the better.
Let’s explore each type of sweetener listed above and then I’ll recap why I make the recommendations I do.
We’ll start with sweeteners that I enthusiastically recommend:
Honey has a long history of human consumption – hunter-gatherers prized honey above other foods for its sweetness and caloric density. In many regions of the world, it was only available seasonally, and studies of modern hunter-gatherers reveal that when honey is only available for a short season it can comprise from 20% up to 80% of the diet! 1 Yet none of these people groups suffered from epidemics of heart disease, autoimmune conditions, or cancer, so it is safe to say that raw honey is an acceptable part of the healthy human diet.
Raw honey contains a huge variety of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that have been proven to benefit health by reducing inflammation and relieving throat irritation when sick; treating wounds through antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant activity; boosting energy; reducing allergy symptoms… the list could go on! Honey also has a lower blood sugar impact than table sugar. 2 Raw, unpasteurized honey has the health benefits listed above – and fortunately many grocery stores now carry local honey options, as well as most farmer’s markets.
Honey can be eaten directly out of the honeycomb, but most of us eat it removed from the comb and bottled. Heat damages the vitamins, minerals, and enzyme content of the honey, so it is important to find a source that uses simple extraction and bottling methods that do not involve heat-treating. Here’s a great video detailing honey extraction processes followed by many small operation beekeepers and at-home DIY’ers.
Maple Syrup / Sugar
Use of Maple syrup by the Native Americans dates back possibly to 1577, and definitively to the 17th century. 3 This is certainly more recent than hunter-gatherers, but still at a time when society did not struggle with our modern health epidemics. Maple syrup – like honey – is rich in vitamins and minerals that provide antioxidants, support cardiovascular function, boost the immune system, and more. 4 Maple syrup has a lower blood sugar impact than table sugar. Maple syrup is extracted from maple trees using a process called tapping, and you can visit farms in New England today to observe and participate in tapping. Maple sugar is simply boiled down maple syrup and is great for baking as a table sugar substitute because of its consistency.
Molasses is a byproduct of the sugarcane refining process and – like maple syrup - dates back to the 17th century in Europe. 5 When the juice is extracted from the sugarcane, it is boiled repeatedly until sugar crystals form and are removed to make cane sugar. Molasses is the thick syrup that remains after the boiling, and the darker the molasses the more nutrient dense it is. Blackstrap molasses is the darkest and most nutrient dense, with wonderful vitamin and mineral density, most notably iron and calcium. 6 Molasses has a lower blood sugar impact than table sugar and is a great choice as an added sweetener.
Coconut sugar has been hitting grocery store shelves in the US in recent years, partially due to increasing consumer interest in refined cane sugar alternatives, however, it has been used for centuries in SE Asia. Coconut sugar has similar vitamin and mineral density to our other top ranking natural sweeteners and can boost immune, cardiovascular and respiratory function. 7 Coconut sap is extracted from a coconut tree using similar methods to maple syrup tapping. Then the coconut sap is boiled down into coconut sugar granules that are also an excellent refined cane sugar replacement in baked goods. 8 Coconut sugar has a lower blood sugar impact than table sugar.
Now we transition to the sweeteners that I do not actively recommend:
Stevia is very popular because it is a calorie free, plant derived sweetener. It is extracted from a plant native to South America and has been used there in more natural forms for over 1,500 years. However, the powdered or liquid form we use in commercially produced foods today has only been consumed since the 1970s… so we really are not sure what the long term effects are. 9 Commercially, stevia is extracted from the plant, heated in water, and washed in alcohol, a process that strips it of naturally occurring nutrients. 10 Often many other highly processed substances are added into stevia. 11 I don’t think it is wise to choose stevia, but consuming some is not too problematic. Personally, I don’t buy stevia to use in my baking or coffee at home – but if I am wanting a treat at the store or a restaurant and see stevia in the ingredients, I generally go ahead and eat it.
Xylitol and Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are plant-based sugars that are identified by the “-ol” ending: xylitol, sorbitol, glycerol, etc. Since they are plant derived they have been in use throughout human history in much less refined forms, but the production methods used today were introduced in the 1970s. These are lower calorie sweeteners because they can only be partially digested by humans, and for this reason, they can cause diarrhea or cramping in some individuals, especially those with sensitivity to FODMAPs. Due to the digestive distress that they can cause, as well as the fact that most sugar alcohols produced commercially today are derived from GMO corn (which many people are sensitive to), I generally recommend avoiding them. 12 Xylitol is found in most natural chewing gum and typically has the least digestive impact, so consuming Xylitol minimal amounts should not present problems for most people. There may be minimal health benefits associated with sugar alcohols (ie – Xylitol may improve dental health) but these potential benefits are not significant enough to outweigh the risk of consuming such a highly processed and new form of sweetener. NOTE: Xylitol is toxic to dogs, so if you have a dog, make sure they do not find any sources of xylitol!
Agave is a sweetener from the agave plant native to Southern Mexico – the same plant that produces tequila. Agave was consumed by ancient cultures such as the Aztecs, dating back to the 12th century. However, the agave we consume today is not the same as that of the ancient societies (are you noticing a theme here?). Similar production methods are used for High Fructose Corn Syrup (see below) as agave, introducing chemicals and enzymatic conversions with lots of industrial equipment. This method was developed in the 1970s for High Fructose Corn Syrup and then applied to agave production. 13 Agave is very high in fructose, which can cause some digestive issues and has no significant health benefits, so it is firmly on my list of sweeteners to avoid.
Also known as cane sugar, sugar in the raw, white sugar or brown sugar. The process of refining sugarcane into the table sugar that we know today was not widely available until the 18th century, relatively recent in comparison to the natural sweeteners I recommend. The modern commercial extraction process is quite long (watch this video for a 2-minute overview), and produces two byproducts: table sugar and molasses. Molasses keeps the vitamins and minerals (especially iron and calcium) and table sugar keeps virtually no nutrients. This is problematic because when we eat table sugar, our bodies require these vitamins - especially B vitamins – to digest the sugar and use it for energy or storage. So if we eat sweeteners like table sugar that have these nutrients stripped away, the body has to pull those B vitamins away from other functions they may be needed for, like inflammation management or hormone regulation. One problem with refined sugar is that it depletes us of vitamins we need… natural, unrefined sweeteners don’t. There are no health benefits to eating refined sugar, so it is also firmly on my list of sweeteners to avoid.
Lastly, let’s review sweeteners that I recommend avoiding as much as possible:
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is one of the most common lab-made sweeteners, found in soda, candy, and a host of other packaged foods. While commercial production of HFCS dates back to the late 1800s, it was not scalable or approved for safe use in the US until the 1980s, making it an incredibly recent addition to the human diet. Manufacturers do not release much information about the process of creating this corn-extracted sweetener, but we do know that it is much sweeter than cane sugar – it has a higher fructose to glucose ratio, which can contribute to damage to the liver and intestinal walls. It also has been found to have contaminants such as mercury. 14 There are no health benefits to HFCS and due to its level of processing and its recent introduction to the human diet, it is possible that many more health risks could be discovered down the road.
Artificial sweeteners include saccharin (Sweet’n Low), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet and Canderel), and sucralose (Splenda). The artificial sweetener industry nets around $2 Billion annually and continues to grow in popularity in the weight loss industry because artificial sweeteners are calorie-free. Artificial sweeteners as we know them today were first produced in the 1950s, so only very recently are studies being made available that truly evaluate the health impacts. Many researchers that study these health topics extensively have changed their official stance on artificial sweeteners within the last few years due to new data availability. We do know that there are proven links between artificial sweetener use and glucose intolerance as well as gut flora imbalances (we’ll talk more about gut flora in a future post). 15
As researched Chris Kresser puts it, “Artificial sweeteners are extremely new to the human diet, and for modern, industrial foods, the operating principle should always be “guilty until proven innocent.” 16
Wrapping it all up
If we think back on our 3 criteria for evaluating a sweetener – history of consumption, nutritional benefit, and degree of processing – it is clear why raw honey, maple syrup, molasses, and coconut sugar are the best choices. Humans have been consuming them for centuries without health detriment and we use the same extraction techniques today that they used then. These all have lower blood sugar impacts than table sugar and provide the micronutrients our bodies need to process and use them. How much of these sweeteners is healthful to eat? Check out this post.
While I don’t recommend stevia, sugar alcohols, agave, or table sugar as sweeteners to actively include in the diet, I don’t balk at them when I see them on an occasional treat. Depending on an individual’s overall health, these may be best to completely avoid too. I recommend avoiding artificial and lab-made sweeteners as much as possible. Are there times when I’m at a friend’s house for dinner or at a restaurant I did not get to choose when I inadvertently consume some? Yes, from time to time.
And it is most important to remember that relaxing when we eat, being thankful for the food before us, and enjoying it thoroughly is always of first importance, even in situations where we are not having an ideal meal. More on that later.
In the meantime, if you are feeling like sugar has control of you more than you have control of sugar in your life and want a hand in regaining control, consider my RESTART Program classes – check out the next one here.