You likely know that refined white sugar, Splenda and aspartame are not health promoting sweeteners. But what about all the other “more natural” sweeteners? It seems like there’s a new one every time you turn around.
When asking, “What is the best sweetener to use?”, it can be a tricky question to answer. The answer depends on many variables and your specific health goals.
For example, if you are an endurance athlete who is burning lots of calories training each day and is having trouble keeping weight ON, you may be well suited for a different sweetener than someone who is at a desk all day, and seeking to control blood sugar and shed some extra fat weight.
Factors that determine the best sweetener to use:
- First, it’s important to really get to the root of why you need a sweetener. Are you eating lots of processed food which has perhaps hindered your ability to taste natural sweetness? Do you lack sweetness in your life? Are you addicted to sugar? Are you not sleeping well and thus looking for energy? Perhaps you’d claim it’s just for the taste. Fair. But pineapple is sweet…and you don’t see people pouring pineapple into their coffee or on their cereal so that can’t be the only reason. There’s something more. But what is it? I recommend taking some time to consider the real answer to this. It is rare in nature that you find lots of concentrated sweetness outside of naturally occurring sugars in whole foods like fruit. Of course, there are exceptions such has the honey hive but as a rule, this is a man-made habit. Really examining your reason for wanting sweeteners can help you figure out your best next move. (Hint…in some cases, reducing or eliminating all sweeteners for 30 days can be a helpful re-set).
- How active are you? I am not just asking if you exercise which is an important factor but also, how active are you throughout your day? If you’re seated at a desk all day verses working construction or something more active, you will be using up fewer carbohydrates (and calories) and may not be able to get away with as much sweetener.
- What are your general health goals? Seeking to increase energy before a cross country run? Hoping to lose body fat? Wanting better sleep? Need more sustained energy? All of these things play a role as well.
- What’s the glycemic index of the given sweetener of choice? The glycemic index is a rating of how quickly a given carbohydrate converts to glucose, thus how fast does it spike the blood sugar. The higher the number, the more it will raise the blood sugar. A fast raise in blood sugar is normally followed by an energy crash. It’s important to understand that there are some healthy carbohydrate foods that raise your blood sugar (fruit, sweet potatoes, etc.) so it’s not necessarily automatically a bad thing. Again, it depends on your goals and also what else the food brings to the table. A spike in blood sugar before an important athletic performance can be helpful. In contrast, eating something like a bowl of ice cream right before you go to bed will cause a spike in blood sugar and could be counterproductive.
- What else does the sweetener bring with it? Some of these substances, by their very nature pack some other punches. For some examples, honey, has lots of antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties1…so although it may raise the blood sugar a bit, it may still be a healthy addition to hot tea when you have a sore throat.
Check out this chart for a comparison of sweeteners:
Note some nuances: Please keep in mind that this is a general chart and that foods found in nature are not exact. For example, Canadian Gold Honey, will have a slightly different nutrient profile, glycemic index and taste than honey produced by the bees in Texas. Also, cane juice is different than cane sugar, etc. Also, many sweeteners are sourced from plants which have lots of great health properties. However, the refining process often destroys many of these properties (this is the case with things like agave, for example).
|Sweetener||Glycemic index||Pros (besides taste)||Cons|
|Agave Nectar– sourced from a cactus plant||19||Due to it’s smooth syrupy consistency, it’s often used on pancakes; often used to make tequila as well||Contains more calories than sugar, much more expensive than sugar, the heating process destroys many of the nutrient benefits and makes it similar to high fructose corn syrup in terms of its response in the body due to it’s high fructose level|
|Xylitol– a sugar alcohol||12||Xylitol sweetened chewing gum has been found to reduce plaque on the teeth2||Can cause gut issues (gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea) for some people; sourced from birch bark and corn (the corn is often genetically modified)|
|Erythritol– a sugar alcohol||1||Low glycemic so safe for diabetics3||Can cause gut issues (gas, bloating, cramping and diarrhea) for some people|
|Coconut sugar- made from the sap of coconut trees||54||Contains more minerals and antioxidants than refined sugar4||Similar in glycemic index and calories to sugar, slightly higher % of fructose as sugar so processes very similarly in the body4|
|Maple syrup||54||Contains more nutrients than refined sugar especially antioxidants5||High glycemic- use in moderation|
|Honey- technically an animal product but still consumed by many otherwise vegans||50||antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties1||High glycemic- use in moderation|
|Stevia (green leaf)||0||Low glycemic, actually improves blood sugar6||Most people find it has a slightly bitter after taste|
|Monk fruit (aka- Luo Han Guo)- sourced from a plant grown in China||0||No calories, 300x sweeter than sugar7, like stevia, it also has a blood sugar regulating effect7||More expensive, not as easily accessible|
|White refined sugar– you know what this is…the crystalized granules that look like cocaine |
Organic cane sugar is nutritionally the same- just without pesticides, herbicides, etc.
|60||Inexpensive, easy to get||More addicting than cocaine8, linked to several diseases including diabetes and heart disease9, liver damage, dental carries and so much more|
Another point to be aware of is marketing. So many of these sweeteners are perceived as “healthy” because of the way they have been promoted. Words like “vegan” and “natural” or “sugar free” can be deceiving. For example, other than honey, all of the sweeteners above are vegan. As far as natural, for many of these highly refined/processed products, that’s like saying Doritos are natural because they were once a piece of corn. Don’t be tricked…read the labels and if you still don’t understand, do your research before you put something in your precious body that could be harmful.
Sweeteners that are comprised of a large percentage of fructose are associated with metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance, obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol).10 This would include sugar, agave, high fructose corn syrup and coconut sugar.
You might be asking then, if fructose is bad, should I avoid fruit? Great question. The good news is that your body is SO SMART! It knows the difference between a processed sweetener that is high in fructose and a piece of fruit, that, in comparison is relatively low in fructose but also contains tons of vitamins, minerals and fiber that alter how you metabolize it.11 Fiber causes a slow incline and decline of the blood sugar rather than a steep spike and then crash.
So, what is the best sweetener? There’s not a perfect answer…It depends on what you’re using it for (and of course your health and activity status).
If I were making oatmeal…for example, a combination of fresh and dried fruit would be great (chopped fresh apple or pear along with some chopped prunes, dates or raisins). The fresh fruit is relatively low glycemic (in part because of the fiber) and a great substitute for refined sugar.11 The dried fruit is higher on the glycemic index but is still loaded with nutrients and fiber and also, it’s truly a natural whole food. I will sometimes use small amounts of sweeteners like maple syrup. I might use a tablespoon per week so it’s not in excess. I am also very active, have good digestion and a balanced blood sugar. If any of those 3 factors were off, I may avoid even small amounts of maple syrup.
I believe it is best to reduce or eliminate the more processed sweeteners. If it’s sourced from a green leaf but is sold as a white powder, that is NOT natural. If it’s from a green leaf (like stevia), it should be in the form of a green powder. I have used the green leaf/powder form of stevia in the past and it works great. Any sweetener that’s in a white crystalized form, regardless of the source, probably didn’t grow that way and should be avoided as a general rule.
To summarize, when you can use fresh fruit or stevia, that’s ideal. Next would be small amounts of dried fruit. Honey and maple syrup can be fine in moderation, but I don’t recommend large quantities. Although I don’t use a lot of sweeteners and thus don’t have much personal experience with it, monk fruit does seem like a good option according to the research thus far.
I hope this was helpful to you. If so, feel free to share it with your friends and family.
If you are having a health challenge and want some help navigating your way through it, please reach out. Call the clinic to learn more about how you can work with me and get on your way to the radiant level of health you were created to have! 269-204-6525
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7. Pandey AK, Chauhan OP. Monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii)-health aspects and food applications Application of vacuum frying technology in fruits and vegetables processing View project. Pantnagar J Res. 2019.
8. Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH. Intense sweetness surpasses cocaine reward. PLoS One. 2007. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698
9. DiNicolantonio JJ, OKeefe JH. Added sugars drive coronary heart disease via insulin resistance and hyperinsulinaemia: a new paradigm. Open Hear. 2017. doi:10.1136/openhrt-2017-000729
10. Basciano H, Federico L, Adeli K. Fructose, insulin resistance, and metabolic dyslipidemia. Nutr Metab. 2005. doi:10.1186/1743-7075-2-5
11. Kumar CS, Ali A, Manickavasagan A. Health Benefits of Substituting Added Sugars with Fruits in Developing Value-Added Food Products: A Review. Int J Nutr Pharmacol Neurol Dis. 2020. doi:10.4103/ijnpnd.ijnpnd_34_20
Nothing said or implied in this post is intended to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any disease. It does not take the place of a qualified health care practitioner and is intended for educational purposes only.