Before the advent of modern food processing methods, sweet foods were eaten in moderation, as they were available. Fruit, berries, honey, sugar cane or beet all contained nutrients and were a useful part of a whole food, balanced diet. Concentrated sweet foods like honey were not eaten every day, but were an occasional special treat.

These days sugar, stripped of it’s nutrients, is in virtually every processed food. It is highly addictive and very dangerous to our health. Nancy Appleton’s book “Lick The Sugar Habit” lists 146 ways that sugar harms health.

Many people, for a variety of reasons, are following whole food or sugar free diets. Because our systems have become badly out of balance, many of us can’t eat natural sweet foods. But we still have a sweet tooth, and we’re always looking for safe alternatives. Those alternatives are mostly artificial, or highly processed, and that is seldom healthy. As a rule of thumb, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Our systems were not designed to cope with a constant influx of concentrated sweet foods. So it is wise to think of sweet foods as an occasional treat, and eat them in moderation. Some people need to be more moderate than others. If you have blood sugar problems of any kind, it will be easier to break the addictive cycle if you don’t eat sweet things at all. Partly because eating some sweet foods can cause an insulin response just because of the sweet taste, even if there are no calories. And partly to give your taste buds a chance to get used to a new way of eating. (NB : l-glutamine is a handy supplement to have on hand for those times when you’re having a strong craving.)

Let’s have a look at the different sweeteners around.

Good Choices

* Stevia – There seems to be pretty much universal agreement that this herb, with it’s very sweet taste, is a natural and safe sweetener. But having no liquid content, you can’t just substitute it in baking recipes. It doesn’t help bread to rise. Some people find it has an aftertaste, athough many don’t, and that reduces when cooked. It comes in different formats, the pure white powder, or liquid extracts being the most versatile. It is very concentrated, so should be used in tiny quantities.

Candida Control* Vegetable Glycerine – “Glycerine, or glycerol, is a liquid alcohol most commonly found in the diet as a component of fat or triglycerides. The glycerol serves as the backbone onto which fatty acid molecules are attached. Commercial preparation of glycerol can be obtained by hydrolysis (removal) of the fatty acids from the glycerol molecule.” There are different opinions on glycerine, or glycerol. Many people consider it an additive, rather than a sweetener. It is a humectant and is added to foods to help keep them moist, or in the case of diet bars, to stick them together. Gail Burton, author of “The Candida Control Cookbook” considers it the only acceptable sweetener for candida sufferers. It is a common additive to bars and is usually not included in the carb count, as it has no effect on blood sugar levels. Some people disagree with this treatment, and consider it a carbohydrate which they prefer to avoid. Personally, I would rather use glycerine occasionally than use artificial sweeteners. It has a mildly sweet taste which I find rather pleasant, and I sometimes use it in combination with stevia.

Healing Power* Diastatic malt – Apart from stevia, this is the only sweetener allowed on Beth Loiselle’s Perfect Whole Food diet (in “The Healing Power of Whole Foods”). It is an unrefined malt product that can be used to make unsweetened breads. It is made by sprouting a whole grain, drying the sprouts, and grinding to a powder. Beth explains how to make your own. Of course, if you are following a grain free or reduced carb diet, this would not be suitable. If you’re gluten free, try buckwheat.

* Fresh fruit – The traditional food pyramid recommends about 3 servings of fruit a day. This is quite suitable for some people. But people who are on a controlled carb diet for whatever reason must generally keep their fruit intake very low, or sometimes avoid it altogether. It is best to eat whatever is in season and fresh, preferably fruits low on the Glycemic Index, and the ones that offer good nutritive value for their calories. Eat fruit at the end of a meal, or with some fat, like a nut butter or cream.

Next Best Choices

These are natural sweeteners that can be used safely, in moderation, by people with good health, who have not over-eaten sugar in the past. If you have candida, are diabetic or are on a carb-controlled diet, avoid all of these.

* Barley malt, brown rice syrup, raw honey, molasses – After a period (say, 3 months to a year) on the Perfect Whole Foods diet, it is usually possible to liberalise the diet. Beth Loiselle allows these sweeteners in small quantities then. She recommends that you continue to treat sweet foods as an occasional treat, rather than a part of your every day diet.

Nourishing Traditions* Raw honey, maple syrup, dried sugar cane juice (eg. rapadura, shakkar), palm sugar, date sugar, molasses, malted grain syrups, sorghum syrup – Sally Fallon, in her book “Nourishing Traditions”, explains that these sweeteners have not had their nutrients removed, and in small quantities, are acceptable in a traditional diet.

Warning : Babies less than one year old should not be given honey due to the rare but possible chance of contracting infant botulism. In fact, it’s probably best to totally exclude sweeteners from your baby’s diet.

* Dried fruit – Some people can eat small amounts of dried fruits with no ill effects. But make sure they have no added sugar, and eat them in moderation. Think of how much fresh fruit you would eat, and eat the equivalent serves in dried. For example, if you’d never eat more than two plums at a time, don’t eat more than two prunes.

The Maybes

* Agave nectar – This is considered by many to be a good sweetener as it’s natural and low on the Glycaemic index scale. It works very well in baking, better than other natural sweeteners, which also makes it a popular choice. It is a traditional sweetener that is often used with fermented drinks such as water kefir. But I’m including this under the Maybes, rather than with the natural sweeteners, due to it’s high fructose content. Used as the sweetener in your water kefir, it’s probably fine. In small quantities in baking, it MAY be OK. But I’d be wary of it, and use it as little as possible.

* FOS (FructoOligoSaccharide) – These are short chain polymers of simple carbohydrates (fructose and sucrose) which do not behave like simple sugars in the body.  They occur naturally in certain foods, and technically are a soluble fiber.  FOS are effective sweeteners, being half as sweet as sucrose, yet are not absorbed as they are indigestible, and have minimal caloric value.  They selectively support the proliferation of intestinal probiotics, especially the bifido and lacto bacteria. Studies also show that supplementing with it can improve the uptake of certain minerals including calcium & magnesium. It is commonly used in Japan as a sweetener. The suitable level of FOS intake is believed to be 3-7 grams per day. Maximum FOS intake per day should not exceed 18-20 grams for males. (The suggested intake for males is 0.3 g per kg body weight, for females: 0.4 g per kg.)

Warning : However, it is not suitable for everybody. At higher dosages intestinal gas may develop from the flourishing crop of intestinal flora. There is evidence that the undesirable bacteria Klebsiella can also utilize FOS for energy. It may cause digestive disturbances, especially in those with the inability to digest lactose, leaky gut syndrome, irritable bowel, Crohn’s disease and acute food sensitivities, and is not recommended for people with citrobacter fruend. My personal experience with it is that it is very palatable, but that I wanted to keep eating it – ie. it doesn’t help settle the food cravings.

*  Polyols or sugar alcohols – There are a few of these around including mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol (the monosaccharides), maltitol and isomalt (the disaccharides), and a comparative “newby”, erythritol. These are all low calorie sweeteners, which are incompletely absorbed in the small intestine. They have little effect on blood sugar levels, so are considered preferable to sugar. They tend to have a laxative effect and can cause stomach cramps, gas and diarrhoea if overeaten, so they are best used only occasionally. As they are not broken down in the stomach, and draw water into the bowel, they can cause fermentation of undesirable bacteria. This can make yeast problems such as candida worse. They can also stop ketosis dead in it’s tracks, so if you’re on a low carb diet for bodyfat reduction, they wouldn’t be a good choice.

Studies seem to indicate that erythritol (marketed as Eridex) is the best – it’s nearly non-caloric, does not elevate blood glucose or insulin levels, is not a laxative, and is eliminated rapidly. However it is a corn derivative, which may be a problem for some people. Of the others it appears that maltitol and xylitol cause the least side effects. I wouldn’t recommend eating any of these on a regular basis, but you may find you can have the occasional serving of a commercial food which is sweetened this way. Note that Beth Loiselle does not allow these on her Perfect Whole Food diet.

If you have food allergies or sensitivities, it may be helpful to know what each is derived from:

  • Erythritol is created by a fermentation process derived from corn.
  • Xylitol is manufactured from corn.
  • Maltitol is derived from chicory and roasted malt and may promote flatulence (gas) and other gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Sorbitol is manufactured from corn syrup. It has less of a tendency to cause diarrhea compared to mannitol. In large amounts, sorbitol may cause a laxative effect.
  • Mannitol is extracted from seaweed for use in food manufacturing. Mannitol lingers in the intestines for a long time and therefore often causes bloating and diarrhea.
  • Lactitol is produced from milk sugar.
  • Isomalt is produced by the hydrogenation of corn sucrose. Hydrogenation creates trans fats.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) are produced by the partial hydrolysis of corn. Hydrogenation creates trans fats. Hydrolysis creates monosodium glutamate derivatives.
  • Polydextrose is prepared by melting and heating corn dextrose in the presence of sorbitol and an acid catalyst.

* MagnaSweet (TM) – MagnaSweet is a commercial product used by the food processing industry. It’s derived from glycyrrhizin which comes from licorice. The manufacturers say it “can be used in a wide range of applications to enhance, intensify and potentiate flavors; augment or modify sweetness; eliminate or modify bitterness; and mask unpleasant aftertastes.”

Glycyrrhizin and other compounds derived from it are widely used in Japan for sweetening foods, beverages, medicines, and tobacco. Within the U.S., glycyrrhizin has GRAS status as a flavoring agent, but is not allowed as a sweetener. It seems to be widely used in a variety of applications, so I think that it probably is OK, or we would have started to hear the horror stories about it. So it’s in the Maybe’s for now, though if you have a choice of products – one with it, and one with no sweetener, go for the latter. If anyone comes across any indication that it may be causing problems for people, let me know and I’ll review it’s staus.

The Bad

* All refined sugars, including “raw”, “natural” & “turbinado” – these have had all their nutrients stripped from them. They are highly addictive and act as a poison in your body. It is hard to avoid sugar, as it is added to most processed foods. You need to be vigilant.

* Fructose and High Fructose corn syrup – Also highly refined. Fructose causes many adverse effects, especially in small children, and is the most dangerous part of the sugar molecule. One rat study was formulated to see whether the glucose or fructose molecule of sugar was most dangerous. The glucose group stayed healthy, possibly because every cell in the body can metabolise glucose. But fructose can only be metabolised in the liver, and is doesn’t produce the same insulin and leptin response that glucose does. The fructose group had many disastrous ill effects such as liver and heart disease, and failure to reach adulthood.

This also applies to other high fructose syrups such as agave (see above), apple and grape. Read labels carefully to see where it has been added.

There is also a metabolic disease called Hereditary Fructose Intolerance, caused by the absence of an enzyme, 1-phosphofructaldolase (i.e. fructose aldolase B). People with it are unable to correctly process fructose or sucrose, and eating even the smallest amount of them causes profound hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and progressive liver damage. This sometimes goes hand in hand with celiac disease. Yet another reason to stay off refined sweeteners, and to carefully observe how you or your children react to fruit.

* Anything ending with -ose – Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose, Galactose, Maltose, and Lactose are all another way to say sugar.

* Tagatose – a manufactured sweetener with the same chemical composition as fructose. Only 20% is absorbed and large amounts can cause diarrhea, nausea and flatulence

* Trehalose – a disaccharide made up of two glucose molecules. Not sweet enough to be used as a sweetener, but it is starting to be used as a stabilising protein in manufactured foods. Consider it an added sugar.

* Fruit juice – concentrated fruit juices are composed mostly of fructose, so are best avoided.

* Sucralose, marketed as Splenda – this seems to be becoming the “new aspartame” and is present in many foods. Some experts, such as Leslie Kenton, feel that this is the best of the non-nutritive sweeteners, if you absolutely most go that way. But Leslie cautions that we don’t know all the effects of it yet, and recommends using stevia instead. While it appears that many people can eat it with no apparent effects, Dr Mercola has come across some people who get an immediate bad reaction. Check out this page for more details.

I originally gave Splenda the benefit of the doubt, and put it in the Maybe’s, but as more information comes to light, I’m moving it to The Ugly. Who knows, it might eventually end in The Very Ugly with aspartame! See another article from Dr Mercola on this dubious sweetener. SPLENDA is not actually the same as sucralose – it also contains bulking agents that happen to be sugars. So people using it and thinking it’s calorie free are being fooled.

* Saccharin – It was the first non-caloric sweetener on the market. And despite its metallic aftertaste, for decades it was really the only alternative for weight loss or diabetes. It is possibly carcinogenic, though that has not been proved conclusively. But it is an exitotoxin, which means it causes metabolic shifts. Belgian researchers have discovered that it stimulates the pancreas to release insulin. It can also interfere with fat loss & overall vitality.

* Artificial sweeteners in general – Cyclamate, acesulfame-K, alitame and other chemical sweeteners are not natural foods. Even if they are generally considered safe, we don’t know all of the side effects and it seems sensible to be cautious about them.

The Very Ugly

* Aspartame, marketed as NutraSweet or Equal (also known as Canderel and AminoSweet) – I have read a lot of articles listing the adverse side effects of aspartame. If even half of what is written is true, this is a very toxic substance. Why take the risk?

Here is a list of medicines, approved in NZ for children, that include aspartame.

* Neotame, made by Monsanto’s Nutrasweet Co, and known as “superaspartame” – since it’s derived from aspartame, I wouldn’t touch it, let alone eat it.

Workers in factories making aspartame are required to wear full safety protective gear, as breathing in aspartame can damage the lungs and result in death.

General principles :

* If you have diabetes or candida or are on a carb controlled diet, avoid all sweeteners apart from stevia, glycerine, occasional small amounts of some sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol, maltitol) and possibly diastatic malt.

* Anything artificial does not belong in your body. Be wary of aspartame, sucralose and all other artificial sweeteners.

* Use only natural, unrefined sweeteners.

* If you eat sweet foods regularly, it becomes harder to break the addictive cycle.

* Think of sweet foods as a treat, and eat occasionally, in small quantities.

For more details, see this page from the Weston A Price foundation: Sugar free Blues