From demonizing fat to demonizing sugar and carbs, there’s been a big swing on the pendulum. Yet, all the research, contemporary, historical, anecdotal, etc indicate we’re now moving in the right direction to be wary of sugars and excessive carbs.
Yes, sugar, as I’ve shared before is linked with weight gain, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, metabolic syndrome, and all sorts of other health problems. With that, it is rightly called white poison or white death.
Yet, our bodies are evolutionarily designed to seek out sweet tastes. Why?
- Sweets and sugar nourish us,
- sweet tastes usually means sugar, which increases blood sugar and conversion to fat storage for long-term viability,
- they’re typically safe to eat in the wild, and
- they raise serotonin levels in the brain.
With the forces stacked against our willpower and self control, despite best intentions to reduce sweeteners, ultimately some will still enter our diet. Therefore, we’re forced to pick the best from bad options. Apparently this sugar dilemma is troubling some people as this question came up at the last paleo talk I did [48:40]. So,
What are the best and worst choices when it comes to sweeteners?
The following sweeteners are listed from most harmful to least harmful, broadly speaking.
High Fructose Corn Syrup – Not only do you get the insulinogenic effects of the fructose, 99% of HFCS is made with GMO corn. With this, not only are you setting yourself up for metabolic derangement, you’re also damaging your gut with genetically modified corn. Its also very inflammatory.
Table Sugar (Beets) – Simple white sugar, table sugar, or baking sugar is made from either beets or sugar cane. What most people don’t realize is that sugar beets are typically genetically modified, again exposing the body to chem lab franken foods.
Table Sugar (Cane sugar) – Sometimes called dried cane sugar solids or just cane sugar, as far as insulin and the metabolic effects anything called “cane sugar” is no different than white sugar, much as food packers like to fancy-up the names. The only advantage this has is not being genetically modified and therefore better than GMO beet sugar and HFCS.
Agave – Who gave agave the green light as a sweetener? Wrong! Most commercial agave syrup is nutritionally and functionally equivalent to HFCS. And the insulin effects are just as real. Plus, “agave has about 60 calories per tablespoon, compared to 40 calories for the same amount of table sugar.”
Coconut Sugar (Palm Sugar) – While touted as having a lower glycemic index (the amount by which blood sugar is raised), very little research exists to back this up. Coconut sugar has trace amounts of micronutrients, but not enough to be any kind of beneficial.
Since many health-conscious folks, including the paleo community, try to avoid the above listed sugars, but still want an occasional treat (remember the body and brain seeks sweet), a compromise had to be made somewhere. That’s how we get to these:
Honey – Most store-bought honey is not really that different than HFCS. In regards to insulin effect, that’s pretty much true of honey–or any sweetener–in general. However, if you can find locally-raised, raw honey, there will be trace amounts of micronutrients in it that have antioxidant, anti-viral, and anti-allergenic properties. Research also suggests that honey reduces inflammation and trigyclerides relative to HFCS. That being said, this is not a free pass to eat honey in any larger quantities than you’d consume table sugar.
Maple Syrup – Similar to honey in its effects on the metabolic system and blood sugar, as well as containing trace amounts of micronutrients, authentic (expensive) maple syrup gets a pass in many health and paleo circles, but should really be used just as sparingly as any other sweetener. The mineral manganese is abundant in maple syrup.
Molasses – Of the natural sweeteners listed above, this one is the most nutrient dense with high levels of choline, magnesium and manganese, but like the others, its sugar, just one with a rich, complex taste profile.
Dates – These sweet little nuggets are nutrient dense, plus, they have the benefit of fiber. Dates, after pitting and soaking in hot water, can be blended into treats or desserts as an alternative sweetener (see instructions).
Dried fruit – Other dried fruits, such as figs, prunes, etc can be used instead of dates, though dates tend be most the most nutrient dense and the sweetest. Read ingredient labels when buying dried fruit as many of them contain the preservative potassium sorbate, which can cause digestive distress or migraines in some people.
Fruit – Fruit itself is sweet. It also contains water, fiber and nutrients, so the glycemic load isn’t as high. Therefore, when you don’t need something really sweet, fruit is a good choice. Likewise, if you are going to be making a treat, oftentimes a ripe banana or apple, pureed, can be substituted for other more offensive sweeteners. Or just grab a handful of berries and skip the dessert.
Stevia and other plant-based sweeteners – These typically don’t affect blood sugar; however, the sweet taste can cause the body to still release insulin in response to perceived sugar source. If you can tolerate the taste of stevia or other plant-based sweeteners, this would be your best choice. Also, be on the lookout for other plant-based sweeteners entering the market.
–ol – These such as xylitol, manitol, etc must be saved for another post.
Basically what I’m saying is, to the greatest extent possible, reduce all sources of sugar and sweeteners for better brain health, weight control, metabolic health, and longevity. And vanity: those who eat lower calorie diets and lower sugar diets look younger. Keep moving down the list, constantly opting for better choices of sweeteners, until you can get by with none at all.