It is becoming well known that sugar is damaging to our health. And, the danger of fructose is also now on people’s radar, which is great news for our health and wellbeing. Fructose in itself is not unhealthy (it is naturally occurring in fruits). The fructose overload in our western diets is the problem.
We all naturally seek out sweet food, and there is still a lot of confusion about which alternatives are healthiest. And, there is also a lot of misinformation, which I would like to clear up to make it easier.
I find the easiest way to achieve vibrant health and wellbeing is to emulate our hunter-gatherer ancestors. If a food can be grown, and was naturally accessed (albeit irregularly in the case of sweets), then I consider it a healthy alternative. But, here is some specific information to help navigate the maze of choice.
I sometimes see stevia listed with artificial sweeteners, but it is actually very natural. It is a small green herb, and its leaves are 1,000 times sweeter than sugar. If you can find a plant (try an organic nursery), you can grow it in the back yard, and grind the leaves in a mortar and pestle. It doesn’t spike blood sugar and has no fructose, so it is my favourite sweetener. However, you do need to be careful to avoid stevia-based sweeteners that have been mixed with other ingredients (usually sugar alcohols). Use a pure, natural stevia. My favourite brand is Nirvana.
Some people insist that stevia has a bitter aftertaste, but if you use a quality brand, it just tastes sweet; no aftertaste. It can, however, start tasting artificial if you use too much. It comes in a powder, drops, or tablets (easy to add to hot drinks); my preferred form is the extract powder. Nirvana comes with a tiny scoop that is equivalent to 1 tsp of sugar, so it makes it easier to measure. ½ a tsp is equivalent to 1 cup of sugar.
Honey is starting to get a bad rap now that everyone is more aware of the dangers of fructose. However, there are a few facts about honey that many people aren’t aware of. Even though it is quite high in fructose (around 50%), raw honey contains compounds that reduce the insulin response, so the fructose doesn’t have the same impact. Studies also show that raw honey stabilises blood sugar levels.
In addition, raw honey is full of antioxidants, and is also loaded with minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and vitamins. Raw honey also contains nutraceuticals, which are nutrients found to neutralise free radicals and improve the immune system. It is a wholesome food that has been eaten for centuries, before we started loading our diets with sugar.
Having said all that, because raw honey is a natural sugar, its use does need to be limited. If there is any insulin resistance, I recommend avoiding and being strict keto (use the Easy Keto Cookbook).
For people who don’t need to be as strict with carbohydrate, I recommend no more than 1 tsp in a day, which equates to about 4 g of fructose. When I use raw honey in a recipe, I use one or two tablespoons in the entire recipe, which means each serve contains less than a tsp of honey. If you see a recipe asking for 1 cup of honey, consider using stevia instead. Keep in mind that once you are sugar-free, your taste buds will change, and you will no longer want your desserts to be super sweet.
Notice that I keep saying ‘raw honey’. Commercial honey has been super-heated, and no longer contains any beneficial compounds, and you may as well be consuming high fructose corn syrup. Honey also becomes toxic when overheated.
Maple syrup is also around 50% fructose. I won’t get too technical here, but the monosaccharide fructose form of fructose (the type in high fructose corn syrup) is the most harmful. Raw honey has around 42g of monosaccharide fructose per 100g, while maple syrup only has around 4g per 100g, so it is very low in the dangerous kind of fructose. However, while we know that raw honey is beneficial to health, and has properties mitigating its high fructose content, maple syrup isn’t generally a whole food because it needs to be boiled extensively to reduce the maple tree sap into thick syrup. As a result, its nutritious value and enzymes are usually destroyed. It would be lovely to think the syrup simply pours out of the tree, but that generally isn’t the case.
The blue agave plant is a succulent, traditionally grown in Mexico, but also found the U.S. and South America, and is the source for Tequila.
Agave syrup has been marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, and many raw desserts sold in health food shops are loaded with it. It is advertised as healthy because of the Glycemic Index. The GI measures the glycemic response in the body, and ‘low GI’ foods have been deemed healthier by many health professionals. Using GI does actually work in a lot of cases, but there was one huge problem with the entire theory. Fructose has a very low GI, and we now know that high levels of fructose cause major health issues.
Even though agave syrup is ‘low GI’, it is 90% fructose, so is actually quite unhealthy. In addition, it is not a natural, whole food with enzymes. The agave syrup is not made from the sap, but from the bulb. Heat and chemicals are used to convert the bulb into syrup. Some syrups are processed under 50°C, so are marketed as ‘raw’, but they are generally not raw or wholesome.
In addition, natural enzymes are physically removed to prevent the mixture from fermenting (and becoming tequila). Once agave syrup is processed, it becomes a condensed fructose-syrup, with no nutritional value; far higher in fructose than any other commercial sweetener, including sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
The term ‘sugar alcohol’ sounds pretty natural, but the name comes from the chemical structure, which is similar to sugar and alcohol. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates; some are extracted from plants, but most are manufactured from sugars and starches. Sugar alcohols are popular because they have half the calories of sugar. I personally don’t believe calories have anything to do with maintaining a healthy weight, but the reason they have less calories is because the body doesn’t absorb them. As a result of the malabsorption, they often cause bloating, gas, and diarrhoea. The common sugar alcohols are:
Are they natural? Sugar alcohols do occur in nature in tiny amounts. But we can’t go out into nature to collect sugar alcohols to use as a sweetener. They are manufactured products, and I recommend avoiding them. Xylitol will also kill a dog if it accidentally ingests something made with xylitol and isn’t treated quickly.
Dextrose (the commercial form of glucose) is now quite commonly being used as a sugar alternative. Extensive research has shown that fructose is the more dangerous part of any sugar.
However, that being said, glucose is still an issue for many people, especially now that more and more people are becoming insulin resistant (many people who have insulin resistance are unaware they have it, and it is the number one reason why people fail to lose weight initially on LCHF or keto).
Also, dextrose is not a whole food. It is generally made from highly processed corn, sugar cane or sugar beets.
There is much evidence out there showing detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners, so I will just give you a brief synopsis. There are over 10,000 documented reports of reactions to artificial sweeteners. Aspartame and sucralose have been shown to cause bloating, depression, migraines, anaemia, kidney dysfunction, and more. They also can harm healthy gut bacteria. Aspartame is also an excitotoxin, which can cause overactive brain cells, which can damage the cells. The ester bond in aspartame is broken down into formaldehyde and methanol, toxic substances that have been shown to increase risk for cancer. Again, to achieve optimal health and weight, it is better to look for something naturally occurring in the environment. In addition, one of the documented side effects of artificial sweeteners is hunger and weight gain!
The Best Alternatives
My favourites are stevia and small amounts of raw honey. If nothing else, it does make it simple.
Note: If you want to go keto, avoid raw honey.