As I’ve expressed in related articles, and in Maximized Living Nutrition Plans, the world is waking up to the dangers of sugar. In some circles, its actually big news whenever another celebrity comes out “sugar free.” In contrast, when I graduated as a doctor over a decade ago, I consumed several tablespoons of sugar on a daily basis, and never thought twice about it. The world is getting there!
However, there are some definite challenges faced by people when they work to eliminate sugar from their diets. When you eliminate refined sugar from your diet, it is natural to go through a seven to fourteen day “withdrawal” period while your taste buds are retrained. The best way to overcome this is to eliminate sugar “cold turkey”. It’s not about counting calories or slowly reducing sugar consumption over time. We are dealing with the body’s memory, it’s neurological response. Our taste buds are accustomed to sugar. It has been my experience that, after fourteen days without sugar, no one continues to crave it. In fact, many find that, having eliminated the craving, they can’t stand the degree of sweetness in a food with added sugar.
But, if you absolutely have to have some sweetness, look to natural sweeteners, which are less likely to elevate blood glucose, insulin, or inflammation. You may want something in your tea, or you want some kind of healthy treat like coconut ice cream (yum!). If so, there are some options.
Apart from using fresh berries, my personal preference for an added sweetener is stevia. (It’s hard to add berries to a coffee.)
Stevia is an herb that is 300 times sweeter than sugar in its purest form. It was introduced as a non-caloric table sweetener in the Brazilian market in 1988. Stevia will not raise blood sugar and is completely natural. Brands come in a variety of tastes and concentrations:
It comes from the plant kingdom and it’s an herb, like parsley or oregano, which happens to be sweet. The plant is green and leafy like parsley. The most natural way to use it is to put fresh leaves into a tea ball, put it in some water and use the sweetened water as your sweetener.
Some will argue that even stevia is processed, and that is true to some extent – all store brands of stevia are processed. It will be important to look at the label to determine how the stevia is processed and to use the least processed product. Buy the best product you can afford – it is likely to have the fewest additives. The best product will have stevia plus a liquid to make it into a formula that will drop from a dropper. Others are powdered and have some added ingredients to facilitate flow or to add bulk – look for one with natural ingredients as additives. Spoonable stevia in a one-to-one ratio is typically bulked up with inulin fiber (from chicory root), erythritol (a fruit crystal), or fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), which are all acceptable bulking agents.
Be cautious of the additive maltodextrin, which is a polysaccharide derived from starch.
If using other brands of stevia, taste test your recipe and adjust the amount of stevia accordingly. Too much stevia may taste bitter. Cinnamon is a helpful addition to reduce bitterness or aftertaste, especially as your tastes change. When substituting stevia for sugar in your own recipes, you may have to adjust for the bulk. Stevia is sold as a nutritional supplement and not as a sweetener or food additive.
Many people have told me they don’t like the bitter aftertaste that can come with using stevia. My inside voice says, “the aftertaste is no worse than the aftertaste of diabetes or cancer”. The reality is that it’s unlikely you will ever have stevia by itself. That means you can appreciate the taste of whatever other flavour you’re using the stevia with – whether it’s cinnamon, vanilla, cacao or coffee, you won’t be having pure stevia.
I have added a conversion chart below for ease of translating stevia amounts into recipes.
|Sugar||Stevia Packets||Stevia Powder||Liquid Stevia|
|1 teaspoon||½ packet||¼ teaspoon||2 to 3 drops|
|2 teaspoons||1 packet||½ teaspoon||4 to 6 drops|
|1 tablespoon||1 ½ to 2 packets||¾ tablespoon||6 to 9 drops|
|1 cup||18 to 24 packets||3 to 4 tablespoons||1 teaspoon|
|2 cups||36 to 48 packets||3 to 4 tablespoons||2 teaspoons|
Equivalencies are approximate.
Somewhat Natural. Be Careful.
The most popular sugar alcohol, Xylitol, is generally considered a safe replacement for sugar and it will not increase blood sugar. Some people prefer the taste of Xylitol over stevia – this is an individual preference. The main sources of commercially produced Xylitol are birch trees and corncobs. Anti-corn people will tout the qualities of birch-derived Xylitol over others.
However, in the form that comes from corn, the grain of the corn is never used. Still, people sensitive to corn might look to other forms of Xylitol or use stevia instead. Note: Xylitol is typically sweeter than stevia; therefore, less Xylitol is needed when you would otherwise use sugar or stevia.
Having said that, neither sugar nor alcohol is good for you. Xylitol is still a processed element. Xylitol is naturally occurring and is extracted from plant material, therefore it is not a chemical product. However, there is quite a chemical process to extract the xylan (source) from the hardwood, even though those chemicals are removed from the final product, Xylitol.
Sugar alcohols, and Xylitol in particular, are known to have little effect on blood glucose and none on insulin levels, primarily because they are not absorbed into the bloodstream. Naturally, they have no caloric value. Interestingly, Xylitol has been found to prevent ear infections. It has a cooling effect, and prevents tooth decay, and is therefore common in sugar free gum. But, personally, I think a more sound approach to prevent tooth decay would be to avoid sugar, brush, and floss.
The problem is that because sugar alcohols pass through the body unrecognized, they can cause gastric distress – bloating, cramps and diarrhea. Once in the intestinal system they can promote fermentation. And sugar alcohols, like chocolate, are poisonous to dogs, and should not be given to children since their undeveloped digestive systems can’t process it as easily as adults.
Sugar alcohols are less invasive than other sweeteners, and after stevia, they are the safest route to creating an artificial sweetener. Even though there is processing needed to go from a birch tree to sugar alcohol, it’s definitely not the same as adding chemicals, chlorine and other noxious substances in the search to find something to sweeten the pot. However, if it shouldn’t be given to children, or could kill your dog, I don’t know that I’d consume Xylitol if I could avoid it.
A note about Erythritol – This is another sugar alcohol. It’s not quite as sweet as sugar (60-70%), offers no calories, has a low glycemic index (0), and carries similar tooth decay preventive properties to Xylitol. Erythritol seems like the safest of sugar alcohols, but it’s not as widely available as Xylitol. Where it is, for example in my own preferred treat, an occasional can of Zevia (natural soft drink) contains Erythritol as well as stevia.
Xylitol and other sugar alcohols should be consumed sparingly, and should be treated as “junk food” for healthy people. At least try to go without absolutely any sugar for two weeks, then see whether that “sweet tooth” still has hold of you, or whether you can do without.
You can probably do better.
Agave Nectar. Coconut Nectar. Honey. Maple Syrup. Cane Juice. It seems we’ll do anything to identify the most natural “syrup” to use instead of white sugar.
While it is true that these syrups and juices are far less processed than white sugar, come from natural sources, and may even be organic, they are purely sugar at the molecular level and will cause a rise in blood sugar, insulin, and the body’s inflammatory response. However, raw and organic forms of these syrups are far more identifiable and usable by the body than alternatives, which are highly refined, or created in a laboratory, and have no chance of being broken down safely.
Raw, undenatured honey is the least processed of all these sweeteners. Honey produces smaller blood glucose spikes, less inflammation and less oxidative stress. The source of the honey can be significant. The darker the honey, the higher it is in bioactive compounds and antioxidant activity. Interestingly, rapeseed (canola) honey has the lowest number of included nutritional compounds such as phenolics and flavonoids (antioxidants). A popular online proponent of honey chooses it over stevia because of the aftertaste and the additives, as well as the potential it has to tax the adrenals (more about this when we talk about artificial sweeteners).
Maple sugar is good source of trace minerals manganese and zinc (antioxidants). Maple syrup is sweeter than sugar so you’ll need less to provide the sweet taste you’re addicted to. Be careful: It can offer a giant glycemic load on your body.
Agave syrup is one sweetener that seems to have become popular as a sugar replacement, touted as a healthy sugar. It is being used in a wide variety of commercially produced “health foods” such as teas, nutrition bars and energy drinks. What is not widely known is that agave contains a high fructose content, even higher than high fructose corn syrup. While fructose doesn’t raise glucose levels in the blood, research shows that excessive fructose consumption impairs the function of your liver. And, fructose is responsible for an increase in Type II diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Fructose is also linked to increased blood pressure and gout due to its high uric acid content. And a high consumption of fructose can lead to loss of essential minerals, resulting in low bone density. The less fructose you consume, the better.
But isn’t fructose the type of sugar that comes from fruit? Yes. But nowhere in nature do you find fructose without fiber. One exception may be honey, but even in that case, bees guard it. The argument for consuming straight fructose is hard to justify in nature!
I explained in Maximized Living Nutrition Plans that people need to shift their focuses away from counting calories. At the same time, we should acknowledge that these sweeteners would all indeed add unnecessary calories to any food or beverage – giving you more to burn off, and potentially more to store as fat.
When it comes to adding additional carbohydrates to your diet, particularly these simple sugars, keep in mind that the most dangerous carbohydrates for your health are the ones you never use. What? I mean that adding carbohydrates through sugar may only make sense for those who are extremely active, not those who spend eight hours a day behind a desk or on a computer. The carbohydrates you don’t use because you’re living a sedentary lifestyle are the ones that are most dangerous to your health. So, use them sparingly, preferably on days of greatest activity or exercise.
But even if you are active, do you really need liquid, isolated sugar added to your diet? If you want to sweeten something with grape juice, consider blending in actual grapes. Coconut sugar? It comes from a whole coconut. Agave nectar? It comes from a cactus. (You probably don’t want to add that in its whole-food form to your recipe. Are you sure you want it in its processed form?)
Many people are still amazed to learn that brown sugar is no healthier than white – it is simply white sugar with the molasses by-product added back in for colour. It really isn’t a sweetener – it’s a coloured sugar.
Just Say No.
Before we look at the chemicals used to create today’s popular, artificial sweeteners, let’s first acknowledge what happens when the body consumes something sweet that offers no caloric value to the body. (This could be something as natural as stevia, or as manufactured as aspartame.)
When an additive with no caloric impact is introduced into the diet, it tricks the brain into thinking you’re consuming something that does have a caloric value. In fact, the brain thinks that what you’re eating or drinking is quite dense. The brain assumes you’re eating natural food items which would come with fibre, water, healthy fats and/or proteins. When you drink a Diet Coke®, your body says “Where’s the juice?”. There’s no nutrient or caloric value to what’s been consumed so the body looks for more and ironically, you’re stimulated to eat.
There’s a tax on the adrenal system when we consume processed sweeteners. The sweet taste causes the body to assume it is receiving sugar. Blood sugars drop, but there’s no compensating influx of glucose. The body then releases adrenaline and cortisol to take sugar from other parts of the body (liver, muscle) to raise the blood sugars back up. This frequent release of the stress hormones damages our adrenal glands, resulting in increased inflammation, a suppressed immune system and lower thyroid function.
One should keep these factors in mind when consuming any type of sweetener, not in its whole-food form.
The chemically-created packets found in coffee shops everywhere present additional concerns:
Aspartame consists mostly of chemicals that disrupt our normal serotonin levels, which can lead to depression or psychotic disorder. Cooking with aspartame creates formaldehyde which is highly carcinogenic.
Aspartic acid – found in Aspartame and other sweeteners – is an excitotoxin that over excites neurons, destroying cells.
Sucralose (Splenda) is basically chlorinated sugar. It is processed with chlorine atoms and can destroy the beneficial flora in the gut, leading to a variety of gastrointestinal diseases. Sucralose has been linked to a higher risk of developing leukemia.
With all the natural ways to have sweetness in your tea, why would you choose something that would so dangerously threaten your health? Ten years ago, fewer people had woken up to the dangers of chemically-processed, artificial sweeteners. Having come a long way, we should now be able to rest our case against Aspartame and Splenda with these points alone.
The Bottom Line
Avoid sugar and sugar substitutes if at all possible. Chemical sweeteners are poison. Natural sweeteners create the perfect storm for our pre-existing cancer cells to proliferate.
A sweet taste is an acquired taste. Our bodies do not physiologically “need” anything sweeter than the natural sweetness God and nature put into the foods that grow naturally. And even that we should consume in moderation. Manufacturers of processed foods have found a way to make those foods more appealing, and the more we consume these foods with added sugar and sweeteners, the less sensitive our taste buds become and the more we crave sugar in all its forms.
Divorce your love of sugar, or at the very least, go natural. Eat the nutritious foods you were designed to consume. Live long, prosper, and be confident that you CAN lick that sugar habit!