Since the release of my recipe books Dessert First and The Gourmet Foodie, I have been receiving a few emails a week about the different types of sweeteners I use. What are they about, where are they from, what makes them healthy, which is the best, how to substitute and so on.
In réponses to these emails, I wanted to put together this post and answer these questions and also give some insight into why I use these particular sweeteners and their surprising medicinal benefits.
The Not so Sweet Side of Sugar
Before we dive into these sweeteners, it’s helpful to know why I do not consume refined sugar, cane sugar, HFCS (high-fructose corn syrup), other varieties of table sugar and especially artificial sweeteners .
The above mentioned choice of sweeteners are not ideal and often considered for a few practical reasons:
- Suppresses immune function – Brown sugar and white sugar, even molasses suppresses immune activity for a few hours when consumed. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose are even worse in their suppressive effects on the immune system. Studies have confirmed that consuming these sweeteners triggers an inflammatory response that shuts down immune function for a couple of hours until the sugar has been processed out of the liver. 1
- Feeds pathogenic microbes – Interestingly enough, glucose and sugar or carbs are non-essential. That is why you’ve never heard the term “essential sugar” or “essential carbohydrate”. There are however, essential fatty acids and amino acids, meaning the body does not create them. The liver does however produce it’s own glucose and typically anything beyond what the liver can create on it’s own is not essential. That doesn’t mean we cannot utilize carbohydrates and natural sugars for let’s say thyroid function or to replenish glucose more quickly after a workout. But keep in mind, what modern science says about how much sugar we need is usually far off. Looking at our micro biome, our probiotic bacteria feed off of healthier, longer chain sugars like polysaccharides and oligosaccharides and cellulose from vegetables. Pathogenic bacteria however feed off of excess undigested food and sugar. It has even been proven that cancer cells feed off of sugar. In a nutshell, sugar is usually more or less fuel for pathogens, viruses, unhealthy bacteria, and cancer cells. 2
- Burdens and damages the liver – Sugar is essentially crystalline acid in the body; its a major toxin to the body in the wrong amounts. While the body can process a small amount of natural sugar, it is not designed to handle anywhere near the amounts people consume today. The liver produces its own glucose, typically too much beyond its natural amounts is almost too much for the body, with perhaps the exception of post-work times for athletes who burn through glycogen stores (still not something to be done frequently). Fructose (fruit sugar) is even worse in high amounts, mimicking the effects of alcohol. When you consume fructose it gets sent to the liver to be transported, which places a heavy burden on the liver, eventually leading to fatty liver disease if the job cannot be carried through. In short, it is excess sugar consumption and carbohydrate intake that causes fatty liver disease, not fat. Healthy fats like grass-fed ghee, coconut oil and raw butter are exception for promoting healthy bile flow and liver function actually. If you are someone who has a history of sugar consumption be it from a Standard American Diet, a fruitarian diet or alcohol consumption, you want to help your liver out – Glutathione is the master antioxidant in the body and can greatly help your liver detoxify and rejuvenate from past damage, toxicity and oxidative stress.
- Disrupts hormone function and causes fat gain – Both refined sugar and any sugar in excess is very harmful to the hormonal system. Consume sugar sends mis-signals to two important hormones, insulin and leptin, which are mostly responsible for telling the body how hungry it is or not. This means a broken mind-body connection to hunger, desensitizing us. Fructose desensitizes the metabolism by turning off the body’s appetite-control system. When the body fails to stimulate sufficient insulin, then ghrelin, “the hunger hormone,” fails to be suppressed, which then causes leptin release to become inhibited. Leptin is the “the satiety hormone”. In the long run, this is what happens on a biological level when we become compulsive overeaters and is a common trait of those with insulin resistance.
- It causes metabolic dysfunction. Eating too much sugar is one of the major causative factors in a broken metabolism – having a lot to do with the above mentioned impact on the hormonal system. Too much sugar can lead to fat gain, obesity (around the belly especially), imbalance in cholesterol (elevated triglycerides), diabetes and high blood pressure.
- It makes your body Acidic. As mentioned, sugar is like pure acid for the body, even fruit sugar. High uric acid levels are a risk factor for heart and kidney disease. In fact, the connection between fructose, metabolic syndrome, and your uric acid is now so clear that your uric acid level can now be used as a marker for fructose toxicity.
These are the side-effects of consuming too much sugar of any type (even some of the good stuff like fruit, dried fruits, dates, honey and maple syrup) and also consuming very concentrated sources of sugar like refined sugar, HFCS and anything that contains them like processed foods, desserts, and other sweets.
The Best of Sweeteners
Despite the many dark sides of the sweet stuff, not all sweetness is created equally. There are many natural sources of sweetness that do not damage the body and also have surprising health benefits of the body. However, these are not to be confused “sugar alternatives” like Aspartame, Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners, which are linked to many health problems like birth defects, autism, neurological disorders, inflammation, allergies, obesity, endocrine disruption and many others. 3 4
On the top of the list for natural sweeteners we have of course fruits and vegetables. When the body is healthy these foods, amongst others, have a natural sweetness to them that satisfies our need for sweet. Keep in mind, I am gauging the health of the body by an ideal balance of probiotic bacteria to pathogenic bacteria in a 80:20 ratio, optimal hormonal function, and digestive and metabolic efficiency. Also, I am not recommending you use fruit and vegetables to sweeten your coffee and chocolate; however, a couple of organic dates, some berries or green apple may make an appropriate sweetener depending on your recipe.
In this article, I am going to talk more about more similar alternatives to white table sugar, mostly for the uses of sweetening smoothies, Bulletproof Coffee, tea, desserts, and chocolates. For that we need more neutral and flexible sweeteners that can serve many functions – a job that berries alone may not be able to fulfill.
Starting with my favorite sweeteners and the ones I have discovered to have the most health benefits I bring you:
- Stevia – This unique sweeter is one of the only sweeteners that is used in its original state, with a bit of drying and grinding that is. Where as many other sweeteners go through a deal of processing, stevia is the leaf of the stevia plant that is typically just dried and ground then added to tea. It has been regularly used by the people of Brazil for over 1,500 years and is nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar. It is rather bitter in its raw form but comes with a super sweet aftertaste. In this form, it may take some getting used to but is hands down better than any artificial sweetener and is perhaps the most medical of all plant-based sweeteners. In study, an extract of stevia was found to provide an incredible ability for fighting Lyme disease, a tick-borne multisystemic disease that occurs when the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium is exposed to a weak immune system. Best of all, stevia was found to be even more effect against destroying B. burgdorferi spirochetes, persisters, and their biofilm than drugs like doxycycline and daptomycin, which has negative side effects, like weakening the immune system and killing off probiotic bacteria. Additionally, stevia is found to be anti-cancerous, anti-diabetic (balances blood sugar), balances hormones, regulates blood pressure, and of course helps with fat loss. Stevia is typically one of the top sweetener choices for anyone with cancer, diabetes, autoimmunity, viral infections, candida, and those interested in anti-aging. The best is organic, raw green leaf stevia; however, it can be bitter, so a water-extracted stevia from the organic whole leaf is my favorite. My two favorites are BodyEcology Stevia and Omica Stevia. A final tip, I find that liquid stevia is best in coffee, tea, smoothies and other liquids – for baked goods and chocolate, keep reading.
- Birch Xylitol – If you’re interested in the healthiest alternative to white sugar, birch xylitol is probably it. I have an entire blog post about it HERE. However, in short, it is a sugar alcohol that is derived from the birch tree; the same tree that is home to Chaga mushroom. It tastes very similar to table sugar and is similar in texture, making it really great for baked goods and chocolate. It has no glycemic index and best of all, it can prevent and even reverse bacterial infections of the gums because of its unique 5 carbon molecule chain. The only consideration I have for birch xylitol is that because it is a sugar alcohol, it may not be tolerated well by those with IBS and digestive issues. If this is the case for you, stick with small amounts of raw honey or maple and raw green stevia. Otherwise, birch xylitol could be a life saving for those struggling with sugar addiction and diabetes.
- Monk Fruit – Here is another plant-based sugar alternative that is good for your health; however, Monk Fruit is not so popular. Its true name is Luo Han Guo, but is currently going under the name of Lakanato, which is a blend of Luo Han Guo and Erythritol, which is also a sugar alcohol like xylitol and is about 60 – 80% as sweet as sugar. It exists naturally in human tissues and body fluids. Erythritol is not your average sugar alcohol though; it is fermented, 90% easier to digest than other sugar alcohols, and is actually an antioxidant. Monk fruit on the other hand comes from a small round fruit that grows in Southeast Asia. In addition to being a zero calorie sweetener, it has been used in Chinese Medicine as tonic herb for raising immunity and as a digestive aid. You can get a blend of both Monk Fruit and Erythritol HERE.
- Lucuma – Similar to monk fruit, lucuma also comes from a small, sweet fruit. Lucuma fruit grows in Peru; however, is typically sold in the form of a dried whole fruit powder. Unlike xylitol and stevia, lucuma does have a glycemic index and some calories. However, it has many health benefits worth noting; it supports healthy skin, and digestion. Lucuma also has a history of use as a cardiovascular tonic, for balancing blood sugar, and regulating blood pressure issues. It is ideal for desserts, chocolate and smoothies – I wouldn’t recommend putting it in coffee or tea; however, Adriana and I use it often for tonics in Dessert First.
- Maple Syrup – While sugar is still sugar, and maple syrup does contain sucrose that may not be beneficial for those with low immunity, yeast/fungal infections, or diabetes – for a person in good health, this old fashioned sweetener is actually surprisingly beneficial for our health. Unlike most other sweeteners, maple contains minerals that make it alkalizing to the blood and aid in the healthy metabolization of it. Additionally, it contains 24 different phenolic antioxidants that fight inflammation and inhibit oxidative stress. With these abilities, it can help protect us from cancer, a variety of inflammatory disease and even promote healthier skin. When choosing maple syrup, always go with local, organic and darker, grade B maple syrup, which contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
- Raw Honey – Perhaps the mecca of healthy sweeteners, raw honey has been around for thousands of years and is a praised health food. While I’ve referred to it as ‘caramel sunshine’ it is so much more than a sweet treat; it is a natural anti-bacterial, immune boosting, superfood. In its raw and untreated state, it contains living enzymes, bacteria, propolis, pollen and antioxidants that promote a healthier immune system allergic response, ideal weight, better sleep and can even be used topically to heal wounds and infections. It is low on the glycemic index and can be safely consumed by most people and when mixed with good quality cinnamon can actually help regulate blood sugar levels. My favorite is Manuka Honey – as it is the only raw honey that has been shown clinically to be effective against any type of pathogen, and work even where antibiotics fail. However, the best is to consume local honey to get in the local allergens from the environment to build immunity.
While I do not promote junk-food eating and sugar binges, I definitely support real food sweetness and a healthy relationship with food. The more you resist something, the more you want it and the more important you make it. While a low sugar diet is ideal for good health, it does not mean you can never have sugar again. I say the less fuss over food the better and by focusing on quality, you won’t ever need to be deprived again.
I hope this information helps you make wiser decisions when picking what sweetener is best for you! And remember, everybody needs a little sweetness in its life, don’t take life so seriously, enjoy a little bit of sweet now and then.