Guide to Sweeteners

We know too much-refined sugar is not good for our health, and for a while, artificial sweeteners like Splenda looked good because they tasted sweet but didn’t spike your blood sugar… until we realized that they may impact our gut microbiome negatively and WORSEN insulin resistance. 

So, are there any sweeteners that are good for us?

Let’s break it down.

There are two types of sweeteners: Nutritive and Non-nutritive. 

Nutritive - contain calories e.g. honey, maple syrup

Non-nutritive - provides no calories e.g. Splenda, Stevia, monk fruit

Let’s take a look at some common non-nutritive ones:

Stevia

Stevia is 200 times sweetener than sugar, and most people are familiar with stevia in the form of an extract, rather than whole leaf. Stevia extracts add no calories, and can be a great choice as a non-nutritive sweetener. The caveat is how it is processed and whether anything has been added to it. The extraction process may involve harmful chemicals, and many stevia sweeteners have been bleached and contain additives like ‘natural flavor’. These ‘extracts’ may also have an impact on our gut microbiome. Ironically, FDA has approved stevia extract Rebaudioside A (Reb A), but not the whole leaf. But personally, if I was to use stevia, I look for whole leaf stevia - which is basically ground up dried stevia leaves which should not contain any chemical residuals from the extraction process and fillers. If you have green thumbs, try growing stevia in your garden! 

Whole leaf stevia may also have added benefits like cholesterol regulation. 

Monk fruit

Monk fruit reminds me of my childhood when my grandma would brew teas using the whole fruit. Again, what we know as ‘monk fruit’ nowadays in the west does not resemble the fruit itself - we usually see it as an extracted form. It is also known as a non-nutritive sweetener, and can deliver that sweet taste without much of an effect on blood sugar. However, many are blended with sugar alcohols like erythritol so if you have GI issues, this may cause bloating. 

Artificial sweeteners

Other non-nutritive sweeteners like sucralose (splenda), aspartame (Equol) are big no no’s in my books. These have been shown to negatively affect our gut microbiome and worsen insulin resistance. Steer clear of these. 

Although non-nutritive sweeteners do not provide calories or increase our blood sugar, they might still trigger our reward system in the brain and lead to more sugar cravings/increased appetite. Non-nutritive sweeteners like Monk fruit and stevia are a lot sweeter than sugar and when we consume them, our sweet taste receptors are activated.  These ‘hyper-palatable foods’ can then trigger our reward system and can lead to overeating or more sugar cravings. More research is needed in this area, but for now, I would use monk fruit and whole leaf stevia in small amounts. 

What about sugar alcohols?

There are two main ones. 

  1. Erythritol - this is almost a non-nutritive sweetener because it only provides 0.24 calories per gram, so the caloric contribution is minimal. Most of erythritol — about 90% — gets absorbed in the gut and so it is less likely than the other sugar alcohols to cause GI upsets like diarrhoea and bloating  The consumption of erythritol has also been shown to stimulate the secretion of Glucagon-like 29 peptide 1 (GLP-1) and cholecystokinin (CCK), two gut peptides released in response to nutrient intake and so even though it might not raise blood sugar, it might still have a metabolic effect in the body, and we also don’t know its consequence on our microbiome. 
  2. Xylitol - absorbed less than erythritol, so can be passed into the the large intestine causing bloating and diarrhoea in some people. It can also cause a small rise in blood sugar and insulin. 

So out of the two, erythritol is a better choice although it may still cause GI upset in some people. 

What do I use? 

My favorite way to sweeten things is to use bananas or a homemade date paste. Simply soak 10 pitted dates in water for 4-5 hours then blend into a smooth liquid/paste. If I want a slighly thicker and sweeter paste I use 1/2 cup water. If I want a more runny consistency, I blend with 1 cup water. 

Otherwise, I prefer to use the more natural nutritive sweeteners like coconut palm sugar, because it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, and contains way less fructose (only about 9%, compared to cane sugar which is 50%). 

Honey, pure maple syrup, blackstrap molasses are also other great options I use - they contain some micronutrients. Obviously, if you are vegan, honey is not for you. In excess, these will still cause a spike in blood sugar and insulin.

In reality, what I often do is to combine whole-leaf stevia or monk fruit with coconut sugar or maple syrup - this allows me to add a sweet taste while using smaller amounts of both. 

The nutritive sweeteners I try to avoid are: table sugar, cane sugar, agave syrup (because it can be up to 70-80% fructose, vs maple which is usually around 35%). Excessive fructose in extracted form like syrups can place a burden on our liver and increase the propensity towards metabolic syndrome and fatty liver. (Fructose that is present in whole fruits, bound to sugar, is totally different and whole fruits are good for you). 

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