Complete Guide to Natural Sweeteners
Guide to Natural Sweeteners
One question Craig and I answer just about daily is about natural sweeteners. It is usually asked in the form of “Why do you use ‘artificial’ sweeteners? and can I use coconut sugar or sugar-in-the-raw instead? That’s why I decided to post “Guide to Natural sweeteners”.
First off everything we recommend is not ‘artificial.’ Just as you can find sugar cane fields and honey in nature you can also find the stevia herb and grow it in your own home if you wanted. These are as natural as honey or maple syrup without the blood sugar and inflammatory effects.
I listened to a great radio program on NPR discussing how our grandparents often had a dessert after dinner, a pie or something special homemade by the mother of the family. The nutritionist on the show talked about how that was the role that the woman of the home often felt and so she fulfilled that by cooking and baking tasty meals. So what is the issue with having sugar now and why do we have such a rise in Metabolic Syndrome not only in adults but kids too?
We no longer just have a small piece of pie after dinner. It starts with breakfast. I too grew up on cereal and skim milk. Did you know that there is more sugar in a cup of skim milk than there is in 4 Starbursts?
Then for a snack it is often a granola bar that has the same sugar as a candy bar!
Lunch always includes sugar… pudding, jello, granola bar, Gatorade, Juice… things that we didn’t fill our cells with in the past. Sugar was a treat but now it is a staple in our diet.
Here is an interesting fact… Welch’s 100% grape juice (NO SUGAR ADDED…just grape juice) has more sugar/fructose in 8 ounces than a 12 ounce can of Mountain Dew!
What I’m really concerned about it fructose which is present primarily in sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, agave and fruit.
One of the big contributors to the aging process and development and perpetuation of degenerative diseases is Advanced Glycation End Product (AGEs) glycation. Glycation is where a chemical reaction occurs between proteins and either sugars, lipid peroxidation products (free radicals from oxidative damage), or the breakdown products of sugar. So sugar plays a big role in glycation as does oxidative damage (think PUFA oils and sugar inflammation). Glycation is the forming of sort of a crust around our cells. Many different studies have shown that this crust contributes to a wide range of diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, asthma, stroke, cataracts, glaucoma, PCOS, autoimmune disease and much more.
So what role does fructose play here? Studies have shown that fructose enables glycation reactions ten times more rapidly than glucose!
The average American in 1960 consumed 2 tsp of sugar/day. In recent years it increased to over 65 tsp every day! Fructose consumption accounts for approximately 10.2% of total calories, EMPTY calories I might add.
Americans most frequently ingest fructose from sucrose (table sugar), which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose bonded together, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is about 55% fructose, honey is also 55% fructose. Agave, while ‘natural’ 90% fructose…NOT a health food!
SWEETENERS I DO NOT RECOMMEND
Honey may be less refined and more natural than white sugar, but honey is still high in calories and fructose. It contains sugar and calories just like any other sweetener. One teaspoon of natural honey contains 22 calories. Honey actually contains more calories than sugar, as one teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories. The biggest problem with honey is that it is roughly 50% fructose.
Sure, honey does provide some nutritional benefits that are lacking in white sugar. Honey contains niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and vitamin B6, though it contains only traces of these minerals. Additionally, honey doesn’t even get close to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily standards. Although these trace vitamins might make honey a slightly better choice than white sugar, it’s still not a healthy food. Despite the fact that several websites claim honey to be some kind of miracle food, most of these statements are mythical and unproven. If you still think honey is worth using in your baked goods because of the vitamins, let me put it another way: only 2% of honey contains vitamins! And in most cases, store bought honey doesn’t even contain the pollen that is claimed to have health benefits.
Honey without pollen is a watered down, synthetic scam. The majority of honey on supermarket shelves is made from an ultra-filtering process that heats honey to high temperatures, using high levels of pressure to force it through exceptionally small filters to eliminate pollen. Why are they doing this? It is so manufacturers can hide where they are getting the honey from. And why would they want to conceal the honey’s source? Well, because most of the honey comes from Chinese markets that are responsible for allowing dangerous antibiotics and ample amounts of heavy metals to enter imported honey products. Makes you want to throw away those athletic “Honey Gel Packs” doesn’t it!
You might be thinking, “OK Maria, then I will only buy honey from my friends who make their own.” In that case, remember that by weight, a homemade batch of honey is 82% sugar. Half of that sugar (40% of the total weight) is fructose, and the honey still contains only trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Your body doesn’t care whether you ingest honey or table sugar; once they enter your bloodstream, you produce an abundance of insulin. To your body, sugar is sugar. All types of sugar should be consumed cautiously, even if it is honey.
Do you think that substituting granulated sugar with a sticky goo called Agave is a better choice since it is expensive and sold in the health food isle?
NO, it isn’t! Sugar is about 50% fructose where Agave is up to 90% fructose. Many diabetics believe that fructose is a better choice since it doesn’t increase blood sugar as much when they consume it. But the problem runs deeper.
All sugars can be made into triglycerides, a form of body fat; however, once you start the process of fat synthesis from fructose, it’s hard to stop it.
Our liver is like a ‘traffic cop’ that coordinates what we eat including sugars. It turns sugars into energy (if you are active), triglycerides, and cholesterol. Triglycerides are mainly formed in the liver. It is the liver’s job, when it encounters glucose, to decide whether the body needs to store the glucose as glycogen, burn it for energy or turn the glucose into triglycerides. Even if you are an athlete, burning sugar for energy is an inefficient and limiting source of energy. This is why marathon runners “Hit the Wall.” Your liver can only store 60-90 grams of carbs at a time.
Fructose, on the other hand, enters this metabolic pathway downstream, bypassing the ‘traffic cop’ and flooding the metabolic pathway. It basically sneaks into the rock concert without a ticket. This ‘dumping of fructose’ contributes to lots of triglyceride synthesis. So, in the end fructose gets made into fat VERY easily! This also causes ‘fatty liver disease.’
I am seeing fatty liver disease in small children now, not because they are drinking alcohol…they are drinking massive amounts of juice!
If you imagine our traditional culture, fruit is a seasonal summer food when we were most active. We didn’t have semi trucks shipping in oranges from other countries to a factory squeezing all the fructose out to form a sweet drink. Eating an orange is fine, but drinking 6 of them in a 8 ounce glass is too hard on our children’s liver. Different types of fruit have different levels of fructose too. Rhubarb is very low in fructose, where tropical fruits like bananas are very high (see the charts on fruits in all of my books).
Fructose also has no effect on our hormone Leptin, which tells us to stop eating AND interferes with Ghrelin, which is our hunger hormone. To read more go to HORMONE charts in Secrets to a Healthy Metabolism.
Antioxidants are natural defenses against oxidative stress and may reverse or protect against advanced liver damage. To read more on what are the best antioxidant supplements, check the Supplement Chapter in Secrets to a Healthy Metabolism , which discusses when and how much to take.
3. COCONUT SUGAR
I recently went to the beach with some girlfriends and one asked, “Maria, what are your thoughts on coconut sugar? I see so many claims that it is healthy.”
Coconut sugar is a sweetener that has become very popular in the past few years. Man, I get a million questions about this sweetener. This sugar is derived from the coconut palm tree and is hyped as being more nutritious and lower on the glycemic index than sugar. Coconut sugar is made in a two-step process:
1. A cut is made on the flower of the coconut palm, and the liquid sap is collected into containers.
2. The sap is placed under heat until most of the water in it has evaporated.
Coconut sugar does maintain some of the nutrients found in the coconut palm. It is difficult to find exact data on this, but according to the Philippine Department of Agriculture, coconut sugar contains several nutrients. Most notable of these are the minerals iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, along with some polyphenols and antioxidants that may also provide some health benefits. The reason it is lower on the glycemic index is because it also contains a fiber called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption.
Even though coconut sugar does contain some nutrients, you’d have to eat a ridiculous amount of it to really get any benefits from these nutrients. You would get a lot more from non-sweet foods. Coconut sugar has the same amount of empty calories as table sugar.
So again, you may be thinking, “OK Maria, if I want to sweeten something a little, I will use coconut sugar since it seems less harmless than honey.” No! Let me surprise you with a tidbit: even though I see claims all over the web that coconut sugar is commendably fructose-free, 70 to 80% of it is made of sucrose, which is half fructose (and half glucose)! This essentially means that coconut sugar supplies the same amount of fructose as regular sugar, gram for gram.
Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver; glucose on the other hand can be metabolized by every cell in the body. Fructose raises triglycerides (blood fats) like no other food. Fructose bypasses the enzyme phosphofructokinase, which is the rate-limiting enzyme for glucose metabolism. Fructose is shunted past the sugar-regulating pathways and into the fat-formation pathway. The liver converts this fructose to fat, which, unfortunately, remains in the liver = FATTY LIVER DISEASE. Consuming fructose is essentially consuming fat! This is why I see so many children with fatty liver disease…they are not drinking alcohol, they are drinking sodas, juices and consuming too much fructose!
Do you think a “Calorie is a Calorie?” In THIS study, they were surprised at how quickly the liver was affected and how extensive the damage was with the fructose. Both diets had the same amount of fat, carbohydrate and protein, but the sources were different. “In the high-fructose group, the team found that the type of intestinal bacteria hadn’t changed, but that they were migrating to the liver more rapidly and causing damage there. It appears that something about the high fructose levels was causing the intestines to be less protective than normal, and consequently allowing the bacteria to leak out at a 30 percent higher rate.”
Jimmy Moore’s book Cholesterol Clarity: “One way to remember that eating carbohydrates leads to an increase in blood and liver fat is to compare it to the French delicacy foie gras, a “fatty liver,” created by force-feeding carbohydrate (corn or, in Roman times, figs) to a goose. The same thing happens in humans.”
As long as you understand just how detrimental fructose is not only to your waist line, but also to the overall health of your cells and liver, you see that coconut sugar, honey and agave should be avoided.
Sucralose, also known as Splenda is a popular artificial sweetener. It is most well known for its claim to be made from sugar (which it got in trouble for and no longer claims). It is 600 times sweeter than table sugar.
The product Splenda is also not actually calorie-free. Sucralose does have calories, but because it is 600 times sweeter than sugar, very small amounts are needed to achieve the desired sweetness; but this is only when you use the true form (liquid sucralose). Splenda, however, is bulked-up so it can be used in place of sugar. The first two ingredients in Splenda are dextrose and maltodextrin, which are carbohydrates that are not free of calories. One cup of Splenda contains 96 calories and 32 grams of carbohydrates, which is substantial especially for those with diabetes but overlooked due to the label claiming that it’s a no calorie sweetener.
Sucralose has also been found to inhibit zinc and iodine from being absorbed, which are essential for proper thyroid function. It is also linked to decreasing good gut-bacteria, which will increase Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
5. Inulin Sweeteners
Inulin based sweeteners are another we have learned aren’t the best options. Through lots of testing, we find they can raise blood sugar in too many people. So we avoid inulin sweeteners.
6. BochaSweet Sweetener
Bochasweet is another new sweetener on the market that claims to have little to no impact on blood glucose. While that may be true for some people, we did some research and it is metabolized in the liver much like fructose is. You see, fructose doesn’t raise blood sugar much either as it gets metabolized in the liver and mostly turned into fat and stored. But it is still a sugar. So we don’t recommend Bochasweet.
7. Artificial Sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame potassium, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose, Advantame)
Artificial sweeteners will cause stress on your metabolism, liver (detoxing) and effect overall health. They also can cause changed in our gut flora which is essential for good health and immune function (source). Stay away from all of these artificial sweeteners.
8. Other High Sugar Sweeteners
Be a detective and read those labels! Sugar is hidden in most products. Watch out for these sugars in your ingredients:
Brown sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, maple syup, brown rice syrup, malt syrup, agave nectar, beet sugar, cane crystals, corn sweetener, dehydrated cane juice, dextrin, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maltose (anything ending in “ose” is a sugar!), palm sugar, saccharose, sorghum or sorghum syrup, sryup, treacle, turbinado sugar, xylose.
9. “Bad” Sugar Alcohols
Also stay away for the “Bad” sugar alcohols like Malitol and Sorbitol as they can cause GI issues. They also are not ketogenic and will cause blood sugar to increase.
NATURAL SWEETENERS I DO RECOMMEND
Something to Watch For: Since it is so concentrated many companies such as “Stevia In the Raw” add ‘bulking’ agents to make it useful for baking with such as maltodexterin. STAY AWAY from those products. Sugar has a glycemic index of 52 where maltodexterin has a glycemic index of 110!
When I first started writing recipes years ago I used products that contained maltodexterin and probably had a dessert every day that contained it. When I realized how bad it was I lost 7 pounds in a week!
Look for products with just stevia as the ingredient or with stevia combine with another natural sweetener listed below (erythritol, etc.).
Another great option that I use in my recipes is stevia glycerite. It is a less bitter alternative and can give a more balance sweetness.
Glycemic Index of Sweeteners
Stevia Glycerite = 0
Swerve = 0
Erythritol = 0
Allulose = 1
Yacon = 1
Xylitol = 7
Maple Syrup = 54
Honey = 62
Table Sugar = 68
Splenda = 80
HFCS = 87
One thing I find interesting is some people’s reluctance to try alternative sweeteners like Erythritol and Xylitol. Many times they think they are artificial sweeteners due to their chemical sounding names.
While this is typically a good instinct when looking at ingredient labels, in this case it is not warranted. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol or polyol. It is found naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. From the Wikipedia page it is “almost noncaloric, does not affect blood sugar, does not cause tooth decay, and is partially absorbed by the body, excreted in urine and feces. It is less likely to cause gastric side effects than other sugar alcohols due to its unique digestion pathway.” The typical manufacturing process involves using yeast to ferment glucose (typically from vegetables).
When using good non-GMO vegetables, this process is no less natural than distilling maple syrup. I think that this is somewhat similar to calling salt “sodium chloride”. Salt is mainly sodium chloride but if we said “put some sodium chloride on my eggs” instead of “put some salt on my eggs”, the perception is very different. Or like calling Maple Syrup what it really is, Concentrated Xylem Sap.
3. Monk Fruit (Lo Han Go)
Monk fruit is native to China and has a sweetness that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, similar to stevia. But unlike stevia, it doesn’t have the bitter aftertaste.
Again, be a detective and watch the ingredients. Since it is 300 times sweeter than sugar, it is typically bulked up with another sweetener so watch out for maltodexterin, etc.
4. Swerve (and other blended sweeteners)
Swerve is a great tasting, natural sweetener that measures cup-for-cup just like sugar. Made from a unique combination of non-GMO ingredients derived from fruits and vegetables, Swerve contains no artificial ingredients, preservatives or flavors. Swerve is non-glycemic and safe for those living with diabetes. Human clinical trials have shown that Swerve does not affect blood glucose or insulin levels.
The secret to the zero calorie sweetness is a combination of erythritol and oligosaccharides that provide excellent baking and cooking functionality. And with the ability to brown and caramelize, Swerve is a great all purpose sub for sugar.
Other blended sweeteners can have great flavor and results in baking. Blending multiple natural sweeteners gives the product a better overall flavor and sweetness. Some great examples are Sukrin, Pyure (Erythritol and Stevia), Norbu (Erythritol and Monk Fruit), Natvia (Erythritol and Stevia), Lankato (Erythritol and Monk Fruit) and Zsweet (Erythritol and Stevia).
CLICK HERE to get some swerve.
5. Yacon Syrup
What is Yacon Syrup you ask? It is a very thick syrup that is fresh pressed from the Yacon root (Smallanthus sonchifolius) and has been consumed for centuries in Peru.
You wouldn’t want to use Yacon on it’s own, mainly because it is very expensive but also because it does have some fructose in it and the carbs can add up. We bought a small jar and it has lasted us for months. I basically use a tablespoon here and there to make smooth sauces such as my sweet-n-sour sauce, ketchup and BBQ sauce to create a perfect mouth-feel in my Sweet-n-Sour sauce or that molasses flavor profile in BBQ sauce. This keeps sugar to 1g or so per serving.
Click HERE to find Yacon.
Xylitol is a naturally occurring low-calorie sweetener found in fruits, vegetables and certain hardwoods. Our bodies can produce up to 15 grams of xylitol per day from the foods we consume. Xylitol produces a lower glycemic response than sucrose or glucose so it has minimal side effects on blood sugar and insulin. It is not as low as erythritol (Swerve), but sadly erythritol doesn’t work recipes such as low-carb hard candies like my Suckers or Jolly Ranchers because it will not melt down properly (it crystallizes as it cools, allulose is another option for this). Also some people prefer the taste of xylitol as compared to erythritol. I wouldn’t use it as a general sweetener as there are carbs and they can add up. So just use in specialty recipes like candies. Note: xylitol can be toxic to dogs.
Allulose is new sweetener that is a rare sugar that doesn’t get digested. It only has 10 calories per serving (similar to xylitol) but has zero impact on blood sugars or ketones. We even had a friend test on his type 1 diabetic son and there was zero change in blood sugar. About 2/3 of allulose goes out through the urine. Then rest goes out through the large bowel.
It has many great property as it cooks just like sugar and taste very much like sugar. It also keeps ice cream soft in the freezer. But is can cause some GI stress with too much consumption (gas, etc) so make sure to use moderately. We typically use it in ice cream recipes or things like caramel where you want it to caramelize.
When choosing a natural sweetener, here is a helpful chart from my book Keto Restaurant Favorites!
Sweeteners and Insulin:
Some people say that sweeteners will spike insulin, even zero calories sweeteners. We have never seen this in our clients in almost 20 years of helping clients with keto diets. Here is a recent study that confirms this is not true. The sweeteners we recommend will not spike your insulin.
Read more on glycation, natural sweeteners, coconut sugar and much much more in “Keto-Adapted”.
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Click HERE to get a your copy of Keto-Adapted.
Thank you all for your love and support!
TESTIMONY OF THE DAY
Keto Cleanse Testimony on MIGRAINES: “Hi Maria, I have suffered from chronic migraines with auras for the past three years. I was at the point where I had felt like I had tried everything, every pill that doctors pushed to subdue the pain, acupuncture, botox, steroid injections, chiropractor.
I found out about your services and tried the 7 day cleanse (why not, I had tried everything else) and I was amazed. Now, I don’t miss out on life because of the pain. Thank you.” – Kara