SWEET: A Primer on Sugars and Sweeteners
I think we’re all aware by this point that the amount of sugar that’s in our food has been having a negative effect on our health. We can pretty easily agree on that. So what do you do about it? The easiest thing to do would be to reduce your intake overall, by replacing sugary foods and drinks with whole foods that have less insulin impact. Fruits, berries, and melons are definitely at the top of this list, and make excellent desserts and snacks, though of course to be eaten only occasionally, as a treat. Ready to give up sodas, and don’t want to switch to diet? You can try unsweetened or lightly sweetened iced tea, or juices that are half juice and half water (Thanks for the idea Dan Millman!) Not only is it a cheaper option than straight juice, but it’s more hydrating and has less of the overpowering sweetness we’re avoiding. Watch for the sugar content in treat beverages too, like milkshakes or your favorite frozen coffee drink, and check ingredients in gum, sauces, protein powders, and any packaged foods. Manufacturers are sneaky, and the advertising on the front might not match the ingredient list on the back.
To kick off this list, I’d like to cover artificial sweeteners. These are compounds that are not natural in any way. They are not derived from natural sources, and they are not nourishing or beneficial to the body in any way. Each has a different list of side effects that are present in varying degrees and differ person to person. Some people seem to have no short term ill effects, so their use is at your discretion, but please weigh them against the risks. When you see packages labeled with Sugar Free, this is usually a warning that it contains one or more of these chemicals, so look carefully. Remember to be skeptical of studies claiming these substances are safe, and investigate on your own. These big manufacturers exist for a profit, and are not interested in your health. For deeper reading, you can go HERE.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – From the name, you can gather that this is derived from corn, but is modified in such a way that the fructose content is greater than the glucose. From Dr. Mark Hyman, “Regular cane sugar (sucrose) is made of two-sugar molecules bound tightly together– glucose and fructose in equal amounts. The enzymes in your digestive tract must break down the sucrose into glucose and fructose, which are then absorbed into the body. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, not in a 50-50 ratio, but a 55-45 fructose to glucose ratio in an unbound form. Fructose is sweeter than glucose.” This way, the product gets a sweeter kick than it would with regular table sugar. The way HFCS is broken down in the body requires a great deal of enzymatic activity and depletes minerals that should be used for maintaining tissue and cellular health. It also leads to a large amount of glucose being dumped into the blood, spiking insulin well beyond safe levels. This can lead to rampant inflammation, and over the course of time can cause things like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dementia, and cancer. HFCS also has the potential to contain mercury, which is toxic at all levels of exposure.
Aspartame (NutraSweet) – This compound has been around since the 1970’s, and in the 80’s it was at the center of the diet craze. It’s largely fallen out of fashion, since more and more people are becoming aware of it’s long list of side effects. The reason it’s so dangerous is that it is bound by methanol, a molecule that is known to cause a great deal of harmful effects. Methanol is released during the digestion of aspartame. From Dr. Janet Hull, an expert on aspartame poisoning, “The structure of aspartame seems simple, but what a complicated structure aspartame really is. Two isolated amino acids in aspartame are fused together by its third component, deadly methanol. In this structure, methanol bonds the two amino acids together, but when released at a mere 86 degrees Fahrenheit, the methanol becomes a poisonous free radical. Methanol breaks down into formic acid and formaldehyde, embalming fluid. Methanol is a dangerous neurotoxin, a known carcinogen, causes retinal damage in the eye, interferes with DNA replication, and causes birth defects.”
Sucralose (Splenda) – This is one of the sweetest substances known to man, at roughly 1000 times sweeter than table sugar, and was originally discovered during an experiment…to find a new pesticide. It was originally regarded as “Safe” by the FDA when it was first approved for consumption, but in 2013 was downgraded to “Caution” due to the overwhelming evidence that this substance harbors such a vast capacity for harm. When metabolized in our bodies, sucralose essentially delivers chlorine directly into our cells. “In test animals Splenda produced swollen livers, as do all chlorocarbon poisons, and also calcified the kidneys of test animals in toxicity studies. The brain and nervous system are highly subject to metabolic toxicities and solvency damages by these chemicals. Their high solvency attacks the human nervous system and many other body systems including genetics and the immune function.” To read a thorough scientific critique of sucralose, THIS is where you should go.
Saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low) – This chemical has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals, as well as unfavorably alter the intestinal biome. There is also evidence that saccharin causes glucose intolerance, which you can read about in detail HERE. Saccharin belongs to a class of compounds known as sulfonamides, which can cause allergic reactions in some individuals.
Acesulfame Potassium – This is a less common chemical additive, and it’s most often used in powdered drink mixes, such as hot chocolate and protein drinks. “Acesulfame potassium works in the body by stimulating the secretion of insulin in a way that may lead to reactive hypoglycemia. While the FDA approved of its use and consumption by American citizens, the Center for Science in the Public Interest believes further research should be conducted to ensure that it is safe to eat. The CSPI thinks that acesulfame potassium may be carcinogenic due to experimentation of the substance on lab rats. Additionally, in lab rodents, acesulfame potassium has produced lung, breast and rare organ tumors, various forms of leukemia, and chronic respiratory diseases. Due to the fact that the substance acesulfame potassium contains methylene chloride, long-term exposure may lead to a number of issues for people consuming it, including headaches, visual disturbances, mental confusion, nausea, depression, effects on the liver and kidneys.”
Next, I’d like to talk about things that can reasonably be called sugar. These are things of clearly natural origin. The source is easy to identify, and they are processed in the body as a sugar. Each has different sources, and some are more ethical or nutritious than others. They will all impact blood glucose and insulin in nearly identical ways.
Table sugar (sucrose) – Sugar is molecularly half glucose and half fructose. Before we go batty over sugar, let me first say that in individuals with normal, healthy metabolisms, small to moderate amounts of sugar consumption, especially timed appropriately with the seasons and the circadian rhythms, is just fine. We digest it and use it for energy, and it can be used in the regulation of hormones. The problem is that many people are not truly healthy, have impaired cellular metabolism leading to impaired blood glucose regulation and poor hormone balance, and by various mechanisms sugar intake can cause inflammation, bacterial overgrowth, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, cancer, premature aging, and the list goes on. If you have a normal, healthy metabolism, feel free to indulge in a sweet treat here and there, once every couple of days, maybe once a day, from whole food sources. A little sugar in your coffee or tea is fine. Two liters of soda? Not so much. One slice of cheesecake? Ok cool. Don’t eat the whole thing for lunch. There are some people who have intolerances to carbohydrates, sugar included. For those people, avoidance of sugar is highly recommended. Speak to your trusted health professional to discuss this.
Honey – Pure, unheated, raw honey is a superfood, and is one of the very few things that doesn’t spoil. There has been honey discovered in the pyramids in Egypt that is perfectly safe for consumption. Honey has even been used to treat wounds for faster healing and to avoid infection. Beware that you are getting real, raw honey though. Much of the honey sold in supermarkets and grocery stores is heated beyond the point where it retains all the great whole nutrients, since these are destroyed by high temperatures. Real honey does not foster bacterial growth in its whole state, but it does behave as sugar when digested, so if you have any conditions or internal infections that feed off of sugar, you should moderate your intake. Manuka Honey is a special case. This is honey from bees that fed off of the Manuka tree, and is so highly antibacterial it’s a part of the standard alternative treatment for H. Pylori, the bacteria that causes stomach ulcers.
Agave nectar – At first glance Agave nectar or syrup seems like an excellent choice as a sweetener, since it’s essentially tree sap. You’d think this means that it contains minerals and nutrients that plain sugar doesn’t contain. Alas, Agave nectar has more in common with HFCS than with nutrient dense honey. By the time agave nectar has finished being processed, all the phytonutrients are either dead or removed, and the fructose concentration is anywhere between 55 and 90%. This ends up being a highly refined carbohydrate that has no place in a nutrient dense food plan. From Ben Greenfield, “If you’re looking for something more similar to maple syrup, then raw sap of agave would be it. In the Central American regions where this is traditionally used in cooking, the extract is called miel de maguey. Almost like maple syrup, the sap is boiled for a stretch and the result is a dark thick liquid. This particular syrup still contains minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium. It has a distinctly strong flavor and is not exactly a sweetener, not in the way the Western diet defines the term.”
Coconut sugar – This sugar has a hint of a brown sugar flavor to it, but in reality, there is not enough of a chemical difference from plain white sugar to go into much detail here. There are no additional health benefits, and the coconut sugar industry is not sustainable, since they have to drain the sap from the tree to get enough liquid to boil down, possibly killing the coconuts, which have far more use and benefit than the sugar from the sap. Save yourself and the tropics: eat the coconut, skip the sugar. There isn’t enough scientific data to back up any claims on the fructose content of coconut sugar, so despite any health claims being made in the headlines, there is no benefit to this type of sugar.
Palm sugar – Made from the date palm, just like maple syrup. And just like coconut sugar, there is no scientific data to back up any health claims. Don’t feel bad about missing this one either, since it’s essentially just sugar as well.
Fructose – We humans can handle small amounts of fructose just fine. The sugar in fruits, for example, are about half fructose and half glucose. The problem comes in when we consume too much of it. We don’t have the capacity to digest and utilize much fructose, so it becomes an inflammatory toxin. Some fruit is just fine, but don’t make your food plan entirely of fruit. PaleoLeap.com did an excellent job with a top ten list of reasons to avoid fructose. The first of them is this: “Fructose can only be metabolized by the liver and can’t be used for energy by your body’s cells. It’s therefore not only completely useless for the body, but is also a toxin in high enough amount because the job of the liver is to get rid of it, mainly by transforming it into fat and sending that fat to our fat cells.”
Glucose – Glucose is the form of sugar that our body uses for energy, and you may be familiar with things like blood glucose testing, which is something diabetics have to do frequently. We have to have roughly a tablespoon or two of glucose circulating in our blood to properly function, and it doesn’t even have to come from glucose that you eat. You can eat some fruit, or some rice (all carbohydrates eventually break down to glucose). You can also get all the glucose you need from protein, through a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis: This is a process by which excess protein in the diet is turned into blood glucose. This is a normal process, and shows that dietary sugars and carbohydrates are not necessary in the diet, and that the body can regulate blood glucose perfectly without it. Glucose can also be listed as Dextrose, which is derived from corn. It is digested quickly, which makes it potentially useful for combining with protein after a hard workout, or in recovery drinks for endurance exercise.
Lactose – This is the type of sugar found in milk and milk products, and is one side of the dairy allergy story. When people have a digestive complaint from consuming dairy, it is the lactose that they are unable to digest: they produce too little lactASE, which is the enzyme that digests this sugar. If you choose to ingest dairy and know you are lactose intolerant, you can supplement with digestive enzymes to help break it down, or you can choose raw dairy. Lactose is sometimes found as an additive, especially in protein powders and other drinks. Lactose does have a noticeable effect on insulin, raising it to varying degrees on a per person basis. Many people ignore lactose as a sugar, since they don’t experience it as particularly sweet, but it is broken down as a sugar and should be counted as such when looking at your food intake.
Finally, here are the natural sugar substitutes. These substances are derived from natural sources, though they have dramatically decreased caloric value, as well as less impact on blood glucose. Additionally, some of these impart health benefits that aren’t found in sugars or artificial sweeteners. Sodas and other drinks and premade desserts made with the natural sugar substitutes are becoming more and more common. Not that you should rely on premade foods, but it’s nice to be able to get an occasional treat without causing yourself harm. Birthday cake, anyone? The cool thing about sugar alcohols is that they occur naturally in many plants that we already eat, and are even found to naturally occur in human tissues.
Xylitol – This sugar alcohol (which is always a fun term, because it is neither a sugar, nor an alcohol), is derived from Birch bark. Some sources derive it from corn, and this is an inferior product, so check your sources. The vast majority of tasters find that this tastes identically to sugar, though about 70% as sweet. Xylitol has a robust list of health benefits, which is why it is my number one choice for sugar alternatives. It is known to improve dental health by killing bacteria and may have a beneficial effect in helping to remineralize damaged tooth enamel. When eaten, xylitol also will help to kill bad bacteria in the gut, leading to a better balance of probiotics, as well as helping to avoid or remove infections in the gut. It is used in nasal washes for the same reason, with excellent results against bacteria, fungi, and mold. Xylitol has fewer calories than sugar, and does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels, which makes it safe for diabetics and those on a ketogenic food plan. Important note!! Xylitol is DEADLY to dogs and cats in even small amounts, so if you have fur babies, make sure to keep it somewhere it is impossible for them to get to.
Erythritol – This is one of my favorite sweeteners. It’s two biggest perks are that it tastes identical to sugar, and there is no laxative effect and any measured dose. It is heat stable, so it maintains it’s flavor when used in baking, and it’s the easiest to digest. It won’t raise blood sugar, nor will it cause an insulin response. Erythritol is perfect for diabetics and those following a ketogenic food plan, or any other plan that requires the removal of sugar. An interesting note, Erythritol has been proven particularly helpful for those who have been diagnosed with diabetes. You can read the full article HERE.
Monk fruit/Lo Han Guo extract – This fruit has been used in China as a sweetener for hundreds of years, and is about 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. It is anti-inflammatory and contains beneficial antioxidants, and is reported as an aid for longevity. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat expensive to process, so many of the varieties sold are combined with xylitol or erythritol to keep the price lower. There appear to be no risks with this sweetener, and digestive distress is not something associated with it’s use. This is another one of the sweeteners that is safe for diabetics and ketogenic eaters, since it does not impact blood glucose or insulin. It does have a rich history in China, and there are several products you can learn more about HERE.
Stevia – Stevia is usually the first go-to when someone wants a non-sugar and non-artificial sweetener, and it’s gained a lot of traction over the last few years. I’ve tried a lot of brands myself, with varying levels of success. Stevia leaf does have health benefits like lowering blood pressure, regulating cholesterol, and even helping to reduce wrinkles. Many people, though, complain of the weird flavor and aftertaste they get when they add stevia to their foods. This is largely because of the manufacturing process – about 40 steps – to get from the stevia leaf to the stevia powder. Some people avoid this by using liquid stevia, and others use more pure sources, like dried and powdered leaves, which would be green instead of the white powder we most often see. If you manage to get one of the very pure white powder versions, it is good to note that it’s over 100 times sweeter than sugar, so you only need a tiny amount. As far as the leaf powder goes, it’s a little less sweet than sugar, so you can use a pinch more, though it will begin to add a hint of a minty/herbal flavor. When choosing stevia, it’s important to look at the ingredients on the label. Many have other ingredients, like dextrose or starch, that are used as bulking agents, so it can be measured in the same amounts as sugar. Pure stevia and stevia leaf will not raise blood sugar or insulin, and I have not heard reports that there are any negative effects from its use, even at higher dosages, though always listen to your body.
Sorbitol – Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol, like xylitol, but is tolerated less well by many people. It does taste very close to sugar, and will not raise blood glucose or insulin, but there is a greater chance it will have a laxative effect. Other forms of intestinal distress have also been commonly reported, such as bloating and abdominal pain. Rarely to people choose to purchase sorbitol to add to their foods and drink, but it is commonly seen in things like chewing gum and sugar free candies. There is a small amount of sorbitol that naturally occurs in some foods and even in the human body, but consumption of it as an added ingredient is not recommended.
Mannitol – The widest use of mannitol is to reduce blood pressure inside the skull and within the eye, and this is done intravenously. In this capacity, it is wildly successful, though it does tend to cause some excess urination and some other side effects. As a food additive, it behaves almost exactly like sorbitol. It does taste like sugar and does not raise insulin or glucose, however it is extremely common to see many forms of intestinal distress.
Maltitol – This sugar alcohol also appears to be a cautionary good choice, similar to xylitol. There is a level of intestinal side effects to be aware of, like the potential for cramps and loose bowels, so like xylitol, start slow and listen to your body. It also tastes like sugar, and like the rest of the sugar alcohols, won’t significantly raise blood sugar or insulin. I found this useful gem on superhumancoach.com, which is run by a guy I have a lot of respect for, Ben Greenfield: “One of the great things about this sweetener is that it works quite similar to ordinary sugar. It can be caramelized and dissolved in warm water and it is also available in the same forms. You can purchase refined or crystalline maltitol powder and maltitol syrup in health food and grocery stores. That means we can basically use it in any baking or beverage preparation that calls for ordinary sugar.”
Below are some resources that you may find interesting.
Bulletproof Ice Cream (No sugar or dairy):
Dr. Mark Hyman:
Dr. David Perlmutter
Dr. Jack Kruse
I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Leave them below and we can discuss.