Does It Matter If A Sweetener Is “Natural”? | Chris Kresser
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Does It Matter If A Sweetener Is “Natural”?

by Chris Kresser

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The ancestral health community and other heath-conscious bloggers have increasingly embraced natural sweeteners such as honey, stevia, and maple syrup as healthier alternatives to refined sugar. But just how much healthier, really, are these natural sweeteners?

In this article, I’ll review the three major “natural” sweeteners typically used by Paleo dieters, and determine whether or not these foods belong in a healthy eating plan.

Find out if “natural” sweeteners like honey, stevia, and maple syrup belong in a #Paleo diet.

Honey

As I mentioned in the first article of this series, honey has long been an important food in the human diet. Its fructose to glucose ratio is similar to that of high fructose corn syrup, with about 38% fructose and 31% glucose (the rest being primarily water). (1) Honey also contains enzymes and other proteins, trace minerals, flavonoids and other polyphenols.

Although honey is “Paleo” even in the strictest sense, it can be easy to think of it as just another source of sugar; better than table sugar, perhaps, but still an indulgence that should be kept to an absolute minimum. Sugar is sugar, right? On the contrary, increasing evidence indicates that honey is a functional food with uniquely beneficial physiological effects.

For example, two human studies found that supplementing with 3-5 tbsp of honey per day (depending on body weight) increases serum antioxidant levels, including vitamin C and glutathione reductase. (2, 3) In another study, the same dose of honey lowered plasma prostaglandin levels by 48-63% after 15 days, signaling a reduction in inflammation. (4)

In overweight and obese patients, consumption of about 3.5 tbsp honey per day for a month resulted in lower LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein (particularly in people with elevated values), and higher HDL cholesterol. (5) In another study, honey also reduced levels of homocysteine and blood glucose. (6)

Honey also has antibacterial activity, and can shorten the duration of acute bacterial diarrhea in children. (7) Honey might even be an effective treatment in some cases of h. pylori infection. (8) Other potential benefits of honey include antiviral, antitumor, and antimutagenic effects, and reduction of IBD-associated inflammation, but these have yet to be tested on humans. (9) So it would appear that honey has many benefits that outweigh the potential downsides of consuming a concentrated sweetener. I recommend using raw honey, which will have the most enzymes and nutrients when destructive heat has not been used.

One of my favorite brands of raw honey is Beekeeper’s Natural.

Stevia

Stevia continues to be a contentious topic in the ancestral health world, with some respected bloggers endorsing it heartily and others cautioning against it. Although I’ve seen good points raised by both sides, the majority of the evidence indicates that stevia, used in reasonable quantities, is a harmless (and possibly beneficial) natural sweetener.

Because stevia contains almost no calories, one potential issue with stevia is that the sweet taste without the influx of sugar might confuse our insulin response (I’ll talk about this at length when I cover artificial sweeteners). While this is an understandable concern, stevia has actually been used traditionally as a treatment for diabetics and may actually improve blood sugar control. (10)

In one study, participants were given a dose of either sucrose or stevia before lunch. Compared with the sucrose preload, the stevia preload resulted in lower blood sugar after the meal and a lower insulin load, even compared with aspartame. (11) Also, even though the stevia provided fewer calories than the sucrose, participants didn’t compensate by consuming more calories at lunch.

Another small study with 16 volunteers found that 5-gram doses of stevia extract every 6 hours for three days improved glucose tolerance. (12) In insulin-resistant and diabetic rats, stevia improved insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and liver and kidney function. (13, 14, 15)

Stevia has also been called into question due to its potential negative impact on fertility. Stevia was used traditionally in South America as a contraceptive, although we don’t know how effective it was, and results from animal studies have been mixed.

One study found that doses of stevioside up to 2.5g/kg bodyweight per day didn’t affect the fertility of hamsters, even after three generations. (16) For a human, this would translate to about 0.34g/kg, so a person weighing 70 kg (about 150 lbs) would need to consume almost 24 stevia packets every single day to reach that dose. That’s far more than anyone would reasonably consume, even if they were consciously trying to maximize their stevia intake.

Although two other studies did find that stevia reduced fertility in male and female rats, those conclusions have since been refuted by studies using more reliable methods. (17, 18, 19) Overall, the risk of negatively impacting fertility by consuming moderate amounts of stevia is very slim, but I would still advise people to be wary of stevia if they’re struggling with infertility.

As for other potential benefits of stevia, a 2-year RCT in Chinese adults with mild hypertension found that taking 500mg of stevioside powder 3 times per day significantly reduced blood pressure compared with baseline and placebo, from an average of 150/95 to 140/89. (20) However, smaller doses didn’t provide the same benefit, and there isn’t enough evidence to recommend large doses of stevia as a supplement to lower blood pressure. (21)

Finally, stevia appears to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties, but thus far we don’t know whether these properties have practical significance in humans. (22, 23) Ultimately, I think stevia is a good sweetener to use for those who have blood sugar control issues and would prefer to use a non-caloric sweetener.

Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugar, and Molasses

Maple syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses are other popular natural sweeteners, but they don’t have the modern research or the traditional background that honey and stevia do. Composition-wise, they’re all relatively similar: they’re mostly sucrose, with some free glucose and fructose. (24) They all contain some minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron, but they’re not going to contribute all that much to your daily mineral needs. (The exception to this might be molasses, which contains 20% of the daily value for potassium, 10% DV for calcium and vitamin B6, 15% DV for iron, and 8% DV for magnesium in just a tablespoon. (25))

All three are lower on the glycemic index than white sugar, which falls at around 65, with the award-winner being coconut sugar at 35. (26) Maple syrup has gotten a little research attention, and preliminary analytical and in vitro studies show that it has antioxidant and anticancer properties, as well as potential for the management of type 2 diabetes. (27, 28, 29, 30) However, this isn’t anywhere near being of clinical significance for humans.

If you’re just looking for an alternative to refined sugar to use occasionally, all of these are fine sweetener choices; they’re natural, minimally processed (depending on the quality you purchase), and still contain the minerals and phytonutrients that occur naturally. They also have favorable fructose:glucose ratios, which can be an important consideration for those with gut issues or fructose intolerance. (This is one reason I don’t recommend agave nectar.)

But if you’re looking for health benefits beyond simply replacing refined sugar with something a little healthier, current research (and tradition) sides with honey and stevia.

103 Comments

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  1. Hi Chris, Hi all,
    I would be very much interested in the background of this statement: “Because stevia contains almost no calories, one potential issue with stevia is that the sweet taste without the influx of sugar might confuse our insulin response (I’ll talk about this at length when I cover artificial sweeteners).” So could you or anyone please let me know what is exactly the science behind that statement concerning the insulin response to the sweet taste without the influx of sugar?

  2. Hello Kris, My husband and I are new to
    LCHF. I feel Im doing ok as I’ve always had an interest in what I put into my body.Right now most mornings we’re having a two egg omelette with cream cheese inside.We find that more satisfying than just the plain omelette.apart from cheese,our dairy consumption is low and I have cut back on the cheese.Today I’m cooking lambs liver with onion,leak and wild mushrooms+green veg.How am I doing? Thanks Shirley

  3. I read all the comments but I am still a little confused as to why agave nectar is bad if it’s organic and has a low glycemic index number. Can someone explain in layman’s terms for me? Also, if it is bad is it still better than refined white sugar? Than brown sugar? (I have a few bottles still to use up.)

  4. I learned a lot form this article. Sugar was recently banned from my house in exchange of honey which I don’t get at all, I know that honey is definitely healthier than sugar but what I don’t understand is why everyone around me seemed to be such a fan of it. Now that I know its health benefits I might have just figured out why. I’m don’t have the healthiest eating habits which is probably why my family thinks I honey can do me good. The jar of honey that my mother bought me has been sitting in the fridge untouched because I didn’t really care much about it. I’ll try to incorporate honey to my diet now that I have all these information. Thanks!

    Regards,
    Toni Simpson

  5. I was recently wondering about the health benefits of homemade marshmallows – they use clean ingredients as well as gelatin, however, they are so sweet. The honey is not raw, and I’m wondering if that doesn’t compromise homemade marshmallows’ “health” status. I am very torn on that and I’d love to hear what others have to say on that.

    P.s. I make mommypotamus’ recipe for marshmallows, calls for 1 cup of honey that needs to be boiled.

    • I make these too! But I’m under no illusion that they are especially healthy! These are a rare treat for us and although the ingredients are good and wholesome of themselves I think there are much better ways to get gelatin into your diet and yes indeed, honey is much better for you raw – not boiled like crazy!.

      • Thanks! LOL somehow, I think that anything that I see on these blogs that I love is good for you. Mind you, some people post them as “healthy homemade marshmallows”. But then I tasted them and couldn’t help but wonder haha!
        I understand that they are much better than store-bough marshmallows, but it still needs to be approached as a treat.

  6. I recently discovered yummy dates and got some date sugar. I know that it also comes in syrup form. Any thoughts on this versus honey?

  7. Great article, Chris. I’m happy to hear that these sweeteners are for the most part “fine.” I have heard so many others say that “sugar” is “sugar,” and therefore none of them are ok. But clearly, there are differences between sweeteners.

    I don’t know. I just could never accept the taste of Stevia. It tastes like saccharin to me! I prefer raw, local honey (helps with seasonal allergies!), maple syrup and coconut sugar… depending on the application.

  8. I’m confused as to why molasses would be considered “natural” when it comes out of the same refinery / sugar process as sugar that is presumably being avoided.

    If you split the extract from a sugar beet or sugar cane into two – sugar and molasses – then either both or neither are “natural”, surely ?

  9. What does anyone know of coconut syrup? Glycemic index of 35 and supposedly the least processed of all sweeteners. It comes from the coconut tree much the same way as maple syrup. Is it ok?

  10. What about things like Just Like Sugar, Swerve, xylitol and erythritol (sugar alcohols)? Some websites use these exclusively and say honey, fruit, grains, etc are starches and should not be consumed, but that these sugar substitutes do not affect blood sugar. I’ve read that they stay in your blood longer – true?

  11. the commenter earlier is correct, stop wasting money trying to get kombucha to flourish and create the probiotics it wants to create using all the alternatives to white sugar
    kombucha likes white sugar it is it’s food, if you can’t tolerate even a small amount don’t drink kombucha, go to jun or just go without

  12. I don’t freak out about sugar – Ray Peat suggests white is fine for his own ray peat reasons – google it – and i use coconut sugar in my tea, white sugar in my kombucha, rapadura in my water kefir (they love it) and various sugars in my cooking and when i teach about wholefoods-
    i understand some people are anti sugar due to fodmaps or other conditions and some are just simple being hard core dogmatic – my biggest beef as an educator and chef is that HONEY is fantastic and awesome all on it’s own, but should never be heated – apart from the fact that it does indeed lose it’s nutrition, it also becomes toxic – if you are to look at this through the filter of ayurveda – cooked honey creates AMA and that translates to toxins – so why not stick to rice malt or god forbid maple or something else in your baking – stevia is dubious to me unless it’s the actual leaf in it’s wholefood form and is a hard flavour to adapt too if you are not used to it – but if it is the only solution then i am sure it can be worked out – all the other versions of ols are still processed –
    lastly i create a product that uses bee pollen so i am pretty familiar with bee info – yes there are countries that feed the bees sugar, and pollen is for the babies, but there are also sustainable, conscious bee keepers around the world and here in australia that go to great efforts for it to be a good situation for the bees and us – but yes supermarket honey would be heated to keep it free flowing and from bees treated not very well – so if you can buy from local reliable bee keepers, the pollen bees collect is food of the gods…food for the bees and us too!

    • “…for his own Ray Peat reasons…” Ha! I’ve actually been experimenting with a little more sugar and honey in my diet recently. Haven’t noticed any real changes, except maybe a slight increase in body temp, getting more toward a normal level. I will say this- If you think white sugar is okay, but still keep the other “Paleo” prohibitions in place (like grains, soy, omega six vegetable oils, and high fructose corn syrup), it doesn’t add that many additional foods. So far as I can tell, it’s just ice cream, juice and lemonade, some chocolate, maybe soda from Mexico, and a spoonful or two of real sugar in your coffee. 95% of other paleo banned foods are still banned.

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