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The Ultimate Guide to Sweeteners

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

Sugars, Chemicals, and Natural Compounds - Learn the Good From the Bad


Different sweetener packets on white background

If I had to pick what I'm asked about the most, I'd guess that sweeteners would be at the top of my list.


There's a lot of confusion around the topic:


Here we'll answer them all.


The Basics of Sugar


There are many different types of sugar, but at the end of the day the most important ones are the 2 major simple sugars in our diet: glucose and fructose, and their combined form of sucrose.


Glucose is a mildly sweet simple sugar that is also the building block of starches, which are really just chains of glucose stuck together. Most carbohydrates break down into glucose before being released into the blood stream. The "blood sugar" we measure is actually blood glucose.


Fructose is a very sweet simple sugar originally found in fruit. It does not raise blood sugar because it is treated basically like alcohol by the body - it is sent to the liver where it is turned into fat.


Sucrose is what we mainly think of when we think of sugar. Table sugar is made out of sucrose. It is the combined form of glucose and fructose


Then there are non-sugar or sugar-free sweeteners, which are compounds that taste sweet but are not sugar.



The Three Major Categories


A lot of people mistakenly think there are 2 groups of sweeteners: Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners.


There are actually 3 groups: Sugars (natural or processed), Artificial Sugar-Free Sweeteners, and Natural Sugar-Free Sweeteners.


Shortcuts

 

The Problem With Artificial (Chemical) Sweeteners

Scientist creating artificial sweetener in laboratory

Artificial sweeteners have had a bad reputation for years, and as the research rolls in, it keeps getting worse. Artificial sweeteners have been tied to weight control problems for years, though we couldn't figure out exactly why. With the new research, here are my best guesses:


Problem #1. Artificial sweeteners seem to cause issues with blood sugar control when combined with carbohydrates - they make us less sensitive to insulin, which is a major player in whether we store or burn fat.


Problem #2. They also damage and aggravate our healthy gut bacteria, which further affects blood sugar control and metabolism with regular intake.


Artificial chemical sweeteners are common in diet and low sugar/sugar free sweet foods and drinks, unless the item states it is “All Natural” or advertises using natural sweeteners.




Artificial Sweeteners To Limit/Avoid


1. Sucralose aka Splenda

Common in protein drinks and sugar free foods, Sucralose is a chemically changed sugar that is partially replaced by chlorine, making it 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose in the powder form is combined with maltodextrin or dextrose, either of which cause problem #1 listed above. In addition, sucralose increases intestinal inflammation.


2. Acesulfame Potassium aka Acesulfame K or Ace K

Common in diet and health drinks, this sweetener was accidentally found by a chemist who licked his fingertips while working with chemicals (not the best idea). In addition to the above concerns, it is potential thyroid disrupter in dietary doses.


3. Aspartame aka Equal

Commonly found in Big Brand diet sodas, this sweetener was also found on accident while a scientist was searching for an anti-ulcer drug. In addition to the above concerns, it is also a trigger for migraines, and potentially increases the risk of kidney disease.


4. Saccharin aka Sweet n Low

This sweetener was also found accidentally by a chemist working with the coal tar derivative benzoic sulfamide. No longer used in foods or drinks, saccharin is now only found in the pink packets. In addition to the above concerns, long term consumption is concerning for liver, kidney, and brain damage.



Is Sugar Safer than Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners are an aggravator to our gastrointestinal tract and hurt the body's ability to deal with carbs appropriately, so we should try to minimize them.

Sugar is at least something that occurs naturally that our bodies' recognize as food, but when it comes to safety, the dose makes the poison.

 

Sugars: Natural, Processed, and a Warning

Natural sweeteners in bowls on wood table

The sweeteners in this group are all some form of sugar. Some are better than others: the natural ones have more minerals and act a little better in our bodies than the processed ones.



⚠️ WARNING ⚠️


We didn't evolve with a lot of access to sugar, natural or otherwise.


Excessive added sugar is my number one concern with most people's diets. It is inflammatory and stressful to the body and an excellent way to gain fat quickly.

Our average intake up until about 80 years ago was around 5 grams of added sugar PER DAY. That's a single teaspoon of sugar. The current American average is 77 grams or 15 teaspoons per day.


The current recommendation for what is considered a healthy limit for added sugar is around 25 grams PER DAY for most people, and ideally it should be 7 grams or less for a serving of food or drink.


All of the following natural and processed sugars contain around 5 grams per teaspoon.



Natural Sugars


1. Molasses

Molasses is where all of the nutritious parts of the sugar cane end up when white sugar is extracted from cane juice. This dark brown sweetener is high in iron, magnesium, potassium, copper, manganese, B Vitamins, and other minerals and antioxidants and lends a brown sugar/caramel flavor to foods it is added to. Blackstrap molasses is the lowest sugar and most nutritious. It's strong flavored so it's hard to use a lot, so this is the only sugar I don't worry too much about measuring. I often combine it with low sugar sweeteners (below) to give brown sugar flavor to food and drinks.


2. D-Ribose

This unique sugar is a part of DNA and is a building block of our cells' main energy source Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). D-ribose may help improve exercise performance and recovery, chronic fatigue and pain disorders, and protect the heart.

3. D-Mannose

D-mannose naturally occurs in small amounts in apples, peaches, oranges, and larger amounts in cranberries, and can help prevent and treat UTIs. It will raise your blood sugar so caution is needed just like the other sugars, but this one also functions as a prebiotic that encourages healthy probiotic growth in the gut.


4. Sorghum Syrup

Sorghum is second only to molasses in minerals and antioxidants and is especially high in iron, potassium, and magnesium. It is mainly sucrose similar to sugar or molasses, and a flavor similar to molasses except a little mellower.


5. Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup is mainly made out of glucose and is quite low in fructose, which makes it more likely to raise blood sugar, but less damaging to the liver. Maple syrup actually reduces inflammation in the liver, as well as lower cholesterol and protect against Alzheimer's, most likely thanks to its antioxidants.

Dark amber grades (also known as grades B and C) are higher in minerals and antioxidants, especially manganese - 1 tablespoon contains 33% of your daily needs.


6. Honey

RAW AND LOCAL honey is good for allergies at doses of 1-6 teaspoons per day. It is actually a more effective cough suppressant than the mainstream OTC cough meds, especially for children. Honey doesn't seem to contribute to cavities as much as other sugars, likely due to it's antibacterial properties. It is high in fructose, so it will not impact blood sugar as much but is more concerning for liver health in large doses.


7. Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar contains small amounts of iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and antioxidants. Because it also contains the prebiotic fiber inulin, it does not spike blood sugar as quickly as other sugars.

8. Fruit Syrups and Concentrates

Date syrup, berry syrup, apple syrup, and any other fruit syrup or fruit juice concentrate belongs to this category. These are sometimes a pure extract of the fruit, or a blend with fruit, sugar, and water. These at least have more minerals and antioxidants than some other sweeteners on this list, but have just as much sugar as any other sweetener on this list. Some can be very high in fructose, so use caution.


9. Raw Cane Sugar / Brown Sugar / Turbinado / Jaggery / Panela / Rapadura

These are all versions of cane sugar that is either dehydrated cane juice or white sugar mixed with molasses, so contains small amounts of minerals and antioxidants along with the sugar.


10. Brown Rice Syrup ⚠️

Brown rice is fructose free but causes a more rapid and higher blood sugar spike than the other sugars on this list. It has a bit of minerals and antioxidants but it's mostly glucose. There is also a risk for arsenic contamination, so I generally pass on this one.

11. Agave Nectar/Syrup/Sugar - ⚠️ LIMIT as much as possible.

This is one sweetener I recommend being extremely careful around. It has almost no antioxidants and it is close to 100% fructose. Excessive fructose intake has been tied to many diseases including Type II Diabetes and Fatty Liver.


12. New Natural Sweeteners on the Horizon

Barley Syrup, Sorghum Syrup, Malt Syrup, Birch Syrup, Carob syrup, Oat syrup, and others are newer to popularity but have similar sugar profiles though they haven't been studied as closely. In general, foods containing the words sugar and syrup will belong in this added sugar category.



Processed Sugars

High fructose corn syrup in amber bottle in chemistry lab

1. Refined White Sugar

Sometimes called cane sugar or beet sugar, table sugar or just "sugar", this is a purified sugar extracted usually from sugar cane or sugar beets. No nutrition here, just sugar.


2. High Fructose Corn Syrup ⚠️

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) gets a lot of negative attention, but nutritionally it's not that different from refined white sugar. Table sugar contains sucrose, which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. HFCS is usually either 42% or 55% fructose and the rest is glucose, though there is a less common 90% fructose HFCS. The corn used is usually GMO and given a lot of pesticides, but HFCS is so refined and stripped of everything that may not matter from a nutrition perspective.


3. Corn Syrup

Corn syrup is borderline between the natural and processed sweeteners depending on how it's made. Organic corn syrup will fall in the above Natural sugar category, and is almost 100% glucose so will spike blood sugar but has the benefit of being fructose free. Your regular Big Brand and store brand corn syrups tend to have the same GMO/pesticide concerns as High Fructose Corn Syrup but are also about 100% glucose.


4. Other terms for processed sugar:

Glucose

Maltose

Dextrose

Sucrose

Maltodextrin

Malt powder

Dextran

Barley Malt


In general, things with the word Malt or ending in -ose are worth Googling to see if they are a type of sugar.



 


The Safest Sweeteners: Natural and Low Sugar


This is the group I recommend switching to, and there's no limit on these. Many of them are being studied for health benefits, and most are quite safe in the amounts people normally consume.

Raw whole stevia and monk fruit in white background

The Safest of Them All: Sweet Plant Extracts


1. Stevia

Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) is a perennial plant that originates from South America and is easy to grow as an indoor or backyard herb. Stevia contains compounds called rebaudiosides that are several hundred times sweeter than sugar gram for gram. Stevia can be bought as pure powdered leaf, or as a liquid or powdered extract.


Several companies are blending stevia with sugar alcohols and other natural sweeteners to closely mimic the flavor of sugar. Stevia is currently being studied for benefits for Type II Diabetes, stevia improves blood sugar & insulin response. It's also full of antioxidants, with the pure leaf being especially high in them.


2. Monk Fruit

Monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii) also known as Luo Han Guo, originates in China where it was cultivated by the Luo Han monks who prized it for increasing their qi or life energy. Monk fruit is naturally very low in carbs and contains compounds called mogrosides that are about 200 times sweeter than sugar. The purified extract of monk fruit contains zero sugar and net carbs.


Monk fruit is available as a pure fruit powder but more commonly found in liquid and powdered extracts as well as being included in blends to boost the sweetness of natural sweeteners listed above. Monk fruit is being studied for weight loss and is also a strong antioxidant, especially the pure fruit powder.



Is Stevia an Artificial Sweetener?


No, stevia is considered a natural plant extract, along with monk fruit. These plants have naturally occurring compounds that taste sweet to us without any sugar or sugar alcohols. These are probably the safest sweeteners of them all, because even people with serious digestive issues can tolerate them.



Does Stevia Have Any Calories or Sugar?


No, stevia and monk fruit are both calorie free and sugar free. The naturally occurring compounds are not related to sugar or carbohydrates, and are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar or sugar alcohols so only very tiny amounts are needed.


Will Stevia Mess With my Digestion?


No, stevia and monk fruit are the safest sweeteners for digestive issues including FODMAP friendly, IBS/IBD, SIBO, and more.


 

Sugar Alcohols


Natural sweetener bowl with wooden spoon on a wood table


What the Heck are Sugar Alcohols?


Sugar Alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol - they will not raise your blood sugar or get you drunk! Sugar alcohols are chemistry relatives of sugar; if you zoom in on a molecule of a Xylitol molecule, it looks almost like a sugar molecule but with alcohol groups (chemistry term) attached to it. Because they resemble sugar so closely, sugar alcohols have a very similar taste and texture to sugar.



Types of Sugar Alcohols



1. Xylitol

Naturally occurring in berries, mushrooms, corn, lettuce, and birch syrup. Xylitol is used in a lot of oral care products including mints and gum. It's poisonous to dogs but safe for other pets, reduces cavities and improves oral/ear/nose health, increases calcium absorption, minimal to no effect on blood sugar (Glycemic index of 9) but does have calories (2.4 calories per gram, about 70% of it is absorbed). Because it isn't metabolized like sugar, it has no net carbs.


2. Mannitol

Occurs naturally in small amounts in most fruits and vegetables. Mannitol is used in candies and chewing gum. It is essentially sugar free because it is poorly absorbed and has no effect on blood sugar. It can act as a laxative in doses higher than 20 grams, though, so better to keep this one in moderation.


3. Maltitol

Occurs naturally in small amounts in chicory leaves and roasted malt cereals. Common in sugar free candies, small effect on blood sugar (Glycemic index 35, 2.1 calories per gram, and about 40% of it is absorbed), it can cause bloating/GI discomfort in large amounts.


4. Sorbitol

Found naturally in berries, apples, avocados, and stone fruits. Sorbitol is common in sugar free candies, baked goods, condiments, and oral care products because it does not contribute to cavities. Sorbitol has minimal to no effect on blood sugar (Glycemic index of 9) but does have calories (2.7 per gram, absorption is around 25%) It can act as a laxative in large amounts.


5. Erythritol

Naturally existing in grapes, peaches, watermelon, pears, mushrooms, and fermented foods. Erythritol is increasingly used in beverages and other sweet foods. No effect on blood sugar, zero calorie, antioxidant, gentle on digestion, reduces cavities and plaque.

⚠️HOWEVER, I no longer recommend large amounts of erythritol. Small amounts of erythritol (7 grams or less) function as a heart-healthy antioxidant, but large amounts (30 grams or more) seem to increase blood clotting abilities for a few days after consumption.




Special Sugars and Sweet Fibers


1. Allulose

Occurs naturally in figs and raisins. Allulose is a special type of rare sugar that is not metabolized so there is no effect on blood sugar and is considered zero calorie. Because it is technically a sugar, it tastes exactly like sugar. It has anti-inflammatory properties and seems to protect against obesity and high blood sugar, and does not cause digestive problems like most of the other sugars and sugar alcohols. Allulose is unique on this list because it also behaves like sucrose when cooking and baking, meaning it caramelizes like a champion.


2. Tagatose

Naturally occurring in many foods but is highest in dairy products, fruit, and cacao. Tagatose is another special sugar that has practically no effect on blood sugar (Glycemic Index of 3) has some calories (1.5 per gram) but only 20% is absorbed so it is keto friendly.


3. FOS

Fructo-oligo-saccharides are a type of plant sugar that we cannot digest, but functions as a prebiotic (feeds our healthy gut bacteria). This is beneficial for most people, and has shown to protect against problematic bacteria like Salmonella and C. perfringens. However, it can irritate people with SIBO or FODMAP-related digestive issues.



Sweetener Comparison: Calories and Net Carbs

Sweetener

Calories per gram

Absorption*

Actual calories per gram

Net g carbs per 25 grams

Sugars (the whole natural and processed sugar category)

3.9

100%

3.9

25

Stevia

0

0%

0

0

Monk Fruit

0

0%

0

0

Xylitol

​2.4

70%

1.68

0

Mannitol

1.6

7.2%

0.12

0.7

Maltitol

2.1

40%

0.84

5.3

Sorbitol

2.7

25%

0.675

4.2

Allulose

0.2

14%

negligable

0

Tagatose

1.5

20%

0.3

1.9

FOS

​1.75

0%

0

0

Erythritol

0.2

0%

0

0 ⚠️(amounts over 10 g not recommended)

*average, true digestibility and absorption varies from person to person.



 


Brand Recommendations

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. That means that if you purchase something by clicking the link, I earn a small commission from the company, at no cost to you. I only recommend items that I have researched and tried myself, and recommend to clients in my practice.


These days there are tons of brands doing different mixes of the natural low sugar sweeteners, many of them high quality. If you want a few ideas to get started, here are some of my favorites. These are also some of the best bangs for the buck I've found - double check the price per ounce when comparing!


Allulose - Wholesome or Anthony's

Xylitol - I prefer birch derived, Anthony's for a smaller bag or Morning Pep for the bulk bag

Stevia - SweetLeaf Drops for stevia extract, Mayan Sweet Organic for a true leaf powder

Monk Fruit - Lakanto Drops for a pure monk fruit extract, they also make great monk fruit blends and low carb pancake syrup



My baking and cooking staples:


Truvia Cane Sugar Blend - One of the best bangs for the buck because it's twice as sweet as sugar so you use half as much, great for holiday baking season

Blackstrap Molasses (hint - a drop of this will turn any of these other sweeteners into brown "sugar")



** NOT sweeteners but I use them all the time in baking, sweets, and drinks:


Baking Extracts by Olive Nation, Watkins, and McCormick

- Maple, Cinnamon, Caramel, Lemon, and so many more


 




A Final Word on Sweeteners


Humans are designed to love sweetness. It's an instinct that guided our ancestors to high calorie foods in a world where few calories could be found, keeping them fed enough to make it through winter and carry on the species.


Most people can adapt their taste buds to reduce their need for added sweetness, but for many people it doesn't go away entirely - I am definitely one of them!


Sugar alcohols, sweet plants, and small amounts of natural sugars can be a healthy way to add some sweetness to our day.



If you feel like you're really struggling with a sweet tooth or lots of sweets cravings, make sure you're eating enough protein, and check out The Trick to End Your Struggles with Snacking.

 

Comments? Questions? Head on over to The Forum!

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