Is There Any Room for Sweeteners in a Healthy Diet? | Chris Kresser
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Is There Any Room for Sweeteners in a Healthy Diet?

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sweeteners, healthy diets
There are many sweeteners available, but not all are created equal.

Humans are hard-wired to like sweet foods. Sweet tastes are strongly tied to the reward centers in our brain, and can actually relieve pain and reduce symptoms of depression, PMS, and stress. (1)

Unfortunately, these properties strongly dispose us to over-consume sweeteners, and it’s pretty clear that the huge quantities of concentrated sweeteners consumed today are harmful to our health.

People are always searching for ways to enjoy sweet foods without the health repercussions, and this is the first post in a series that I hope will help you do just that! But before we jump into the nitty-gritty of different types of sweeteners and how they can fit into a healthy diet, I want to set the stage with some history and evolutionary background.

Did #Paleo man eat as much sugar as we do? You may be surprised!

Sweeteners in Evolution

Most of us primarily think of taste – especially sweetness – in terms of enjoyment, but sweetness is not just another source of pleasure. As omnivores, hunter-gatherers had a wide array of potential foods to choose from, and the sweet taste sensation is one of the ways humans could identify safe, non-poisonous foods with a high nutrient-to-toxin ratio.

Honey was the only concentrated sweetener available for much of human history, and common belief is that honey was quite rare, and only consumed in small quantities. While this is undoubtedly true for many hunter-gatherer groups, it doesn’t appear to be true for all of them.

We can get an idea about the role of honey in Paleolithic diets by studying modern hunter-gatherer societies like the Hadza; during the wet season, honey comprises up to 20% of their diet by weight. (2) Given honey’s caloric density, this likely represents a much larger portion of their total calories.

When asked to rank their dietary staples in order of preference, honey was ranked highest, above meat, berries, tubers, and baobab (a large tree fruit). The Mbuti pygmies of the Congo can obtain up to 80% of their calories from honey, although only during the 2-month honey season. (3)

One interesting paper hypothesized that honey was actually far more abundant throughout early history than we typically acknowledge, and that the consumption of honey at certain times in history may rival our current consumption of sweeteners. (4) Some researchers have even posited that honey, along with meat and starchy tubers, helped make us human by providing concentrated glucose to support brain growth. (5) Although it’s impossible to know exactly how much honey early humans had access to, we do know that people went to great lengths to obtain honey, even when other foods were more readily available. (6, 7)

The Evolution of Sweeteners

Once hunter-gatherers began settling down, humans gradually discovered new sources of concentrated sugars. Maple syrup was introduced by Native Americans, and became popular in North America. (8) Jaggery, produced from sugar cane, became popular in India and its use is still widespread. (9) Some sweeteners common in early China include “tree honey” and “thorn honey,” both extracted from different plants. (10) And in the 17th or 18th century, table sugar surpassed all of these traditional foods and became the world’s leading sweetener. (11)

Fast forward to 1970, when the average American’s consumption of added sugar was 23.7 teaspoons per person per day according to loss-adjusted availability data. (12) By 2012, that amount had increased to 24.7 teaspoons, and the percentage of total calories obtained from sweeteners had risen from 13% in 1977 to 16%. (13) Significantly, 80% of this increase was from sugar-sweetened beverages, rather than solid food.

Changing Attitude Towards Sweeteners

Amidst all this background, I think it’s particularly interesting to note the shift in attitude towards sweeteners.

For modern hunter-gatherers like the Hadza, a sweetener (honey, in their case) is just another food, albeit a highly prized one. We can probably assume that traditional hunter-gatherers didn’t have a conception of “healthy” and “unhealthy” like we do today, and if they did, they probably would have classified concentrated sweeteners as one of their “healthiest” foods, because they provide ample nutrients without causing illness.

Now our beliefs are quite different – opposite, in fact. Most of us have become conditioned to think of “sweet” as “unhealthy,” and instead of using sweet taste as a guide to the most calorie-dense foods, people are trying to figure out how to avoid caloric density, while still enjoying sweet tastes. This can be seen in the widespread use of non-caloric sweeteners, as well as the current research into sweet-tasting proteins that could sweeten foods without triggering an insulin response. (15)

And along with the desire to limit caloric density in general, there’s now a growing fear of sugar itself, and refined sweeteners such as table sugar and HFCS are often labeled ‘toxins.’ This is a dramatic shift from our evolutionary background, where sweetness signaled safety and a lack of toxins.

This brief history of sweeteners leaves us with many questions. If the Hadza obtain a large portion of calories from sweeteners, why can’t we? What makes traditional sweeteners like honey so different from table sugar, and for that matter, which sweeteners are healthiest? Why has sugar become such a bane to our health? Is it really addictive? And ultimately, how can sweeteners fit into a healthy diet? These are all questions I’ll attempt to answer in subsequent posts.

I’m open to suggestions for what to cover in this series, so if you have any thoughts or burning questions, feel free to leave them in the comments! Thanks for reading, everyone.

202 Comments

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  1. Breastmilk is very sweet, so babies often prefer sweet foods as their first foods. Something to consider, that’s its hard to break this habit and preference from a young age!

    • Also something to consider, if breastmilk is so sweet and high in fat why is our idea of a “healthy” diet low-fat and sugar-free? Breastmilk was designed to be a complete healthy source of fuel for an infant (yes to also provide a lot of calories for growth) but I often wonder if our adult diets should more closely resemble the macronutrient ratios found in our original source of food. Just a thought.

      • So true. But oddly, my baby who has just started exploring food, much prefers sauerkraut, savory soups and sardines to bananas and apples. And I think that’s not uncommon. Strange!

  2. King Solomon knew the wisdom of not eating too much honey: “Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.” (Proverbs 25:16)

    I know this series has already started, so I’m glad to see natural sweetners, including stevia being addressed. I’d also like to hear about the different processing, such as brown sugar & raw sugar.

    My personal experience: I used to live on sugar, until a naturopath encouraged me to go on an elimination diet to determine the reason for my low energy. That was 2010, and I had marked improvement. Now however, I can’t have any sugar whatsoever. A slice of cake will leave me with a migraine and nausea the entire next day. A quarter of a teaspoon of honey will make me feel lightheaded and dizzy.

    Is this likely to be an allergy to sugar, or a symptom of an underlying digestive issue?

  3. My two cents:

    I think the old saying of everything in moderation has some validity. Actually, quite a lot of validity.
    With that said, I do think one should try to eat the MAJORITY of their calories from nutrient dense foods. Real food like organic eggs, grass fed meat, real butter. Guess that kinda makes me paleo. I don’t forbid sugar. But I don’t get it from sodas and artificial foods.
    I recently lost 20 lbs. not focusing on “dieting” per se, but focusing on getting much more quality nutrious food from a moderate amount of calories.I just wanted to see how healthy I could be and this led to weight loss as a result.
    The key I feel is that poor quality food is empty calories and eating it leaves you hungry for more…so you eat and eat, trying to fill yourself up with emptiness and you still remain hungry.You are never satisfied that way. Nutrient dense food gives your body what it needs and leads to more satiation.
    So I even eat the taboo foods like sugar. Real sugar. But I just have a little bit in moderation mostly thru fruits ( a few a day, like a apple and a grapefruit, or berries) Sometimes raw honey in my tea. But I just don’t eat a LOT of it as in the past. I limit my sugar intake to a few tsps. in my coffee instead of several tbsps. No more Starbucks with LOADS of HFCS. This has made a world of difference.
    I think you actually want less food because you are giving your body what it needs and wants, so it doesn’t go looking for excess empty calories elsewhere. Always craving and never feeling satisfied or nourished. You can get used to eating less sugar once you start practicing limiting your intake and most importantly, eating really high quality life giving foods instead of dead food.

  4. I believe that, in our search for perfect health, or in our desperation to rebuild health, we often go to extremes, instead of striking a balance. To say that maple syrup or honey should be out of our diets, because it feeds Candida is an extreme response. During a period of Candida overgrowth, brought on by years of improper diet, elimination of all – or most – sugars is sane and logical. However, the body must return to moderation at some point in order to create balance in Mind, Body and Spirit. We are not meant to live extreme existences, nor can most of us tolerate or sustain such a regimen. Trying to live this way usually fails, and results in rebounding, much too far, the opposite direction, leading to the yo-yo dieting syndrome. Balance is the key. Learning to make better choices that can be predictably maintained long term – organic natural maple syrup, in reasonable amounts, over refined white sugar, for example, is critical to long term health. In my humble opinion –

  5. Would love to see more discussion about artificial sweeteners like Splenda and Ace K and what role they play in candida and SIBO.

  6. Chris, I’d love to know what you think about the effects of raw, natural dates on blood sugar, insulin production and inflammation. I’d also love to hear your thoughts on coconut sugar as a low-glycemic alternative to cane sugar, especially in the context of a discussion on glycemic index vs. glycemic load and inflammation.

    • HI Chris,
      thank you so much for this post!! Just what I needed! That’s what I’ve been wondering about for a while now!!!

      I have a couple of questions: How big of a difference is there between so called healthy sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and common white sugar…. I mean yes, I know they got a little bit of minerals to them but how big of a difference can it really be?
      And how big of a difference is eating complex carbs vs simple sugars from sweet frutis – beyond the effect on blood sugar levels maybe… How about gut health and sugar? Is there really a difference for the gut in white sugar, sugar from frutit or healthy grains like quinoa… if everything is broken down into glucose anyway!? I know about the different effect of fructose on the body, and I guess that’s the worst part about sugar….

      I was raw vegan for two years and now since I eat meat again some days all I seem to crave is fruits and steak 😀
      I try to limit my intake of (sweet) fruits, but I’m really having a hard time doing so! I guess my body was used to using carbs as a main source of calories for two long (although I was not doing high carb low fat, actually ate a lot of fat)

      What’s your thoughts on this?

  7. I’m new to all things Paleo, and just found Chris’s blog as a result of the Thyroid Sessions. LOVED the first session with Chris!!

    This sugar issue is very interesting to me. I’ve actually been following the eating plan set out in the book, “Trim Healthy Mamas” since about late January. The basic tenets are: no sugar or other sweeteners which will raise your blood sugar (stevia and erythritol are acceptable sweeteners); no wheat, white rice, corn, or highly refined grains; and avoid eating fats with carbohydrates. The plan includes lots of good fats like coconut oil, butter, Greek yogurt, nuts, red meat, and fish; and lots of berries, greens, veggies, and nutrient-dense grains like quinoa, amaranth, etc. Proteins are considered the building block, and then you add either fats or carbs to each meal, constantly changing things up so your body doesn’t adapt and your body keeps burning fuel.

    I’ve got Hashimoto’s disease and Rheumatoid arthritis, both obviously auto-immune, plus Osteo-arthritis, and hereditary neuropathy. A lot of chronic pain. Since going off all sugar and only using Stevia, not only have I lost 25 lbs, (without exercise), but more importantly to me, my PAIN LEVEL has decreased dramatically!!! Even so, I *still* struggle to stay away from sugar (and gluten, which I am very sensitive to)…and often find myself suffering the consequences of having eaten a “sweet treat” or, even more tempting, a “sweet, bread-y treat!” So I completely think there is something addictive about sugar, or something in our brains that wires us to crave sweets.

    • Yes you’re absolutely right about the cravings – sugar is highly addictive and found to be as additive as cocaine! The food industry KNOWS this, that’s they why put it in everything. good for you and great job – you are healing your neurology and withdrawing from the cravings! I too love the podcasts and the discussions and articles that come into my inbox each day. There are other great sites in addition to this one: Mercola (and he is similar to paleo but has differences worth noting – search mercola paleo, also check out dr. eric berg on youtube, mark sisson, sean croxton and there are more) All reject the lipid hypothesis and are against sugar.

    • Jen C, I’m not familiar with “Trim Healthy Mamas” but the plan as you describe it sounds good. My sympathies with regard to your Hashimoto’s and RA.

      While your description of the “Trim” didn’t emphasize fiber in the diet, I see the foods recommended tend to give a healthy level of fiber.

      To restore your immune system it is essential to restore your gut microbial climate and of course the gut lining itself. As long as you are able to eat the recommended fibrous foods (nuts, veggies, fruits) without adverse reactions (some people have such a sick gut they can’t eat much fiber), you should be able to restore your gut even more, and further your progress against auto-immune symptoms.

      I would suggest adding foods such as fermented veggies like sauerkraut. All fibrous foods though help move a lot more of the digestion down to the large intestine and colon (lower GI). Without fiber, your gut bacteria can survive only in the small intestine where they feast on any sugar you provide, and raise your numbers of yeast, but let the poor lower intestine fall apart due to a lack of nourishing bacteria. Fiber, especially if eaten in the absence of excess sugars, allows totally different microbes to flourish in the lower GI, and these microbes make vitamins and short chain fatty acids that nourish and lubricate the intestinal mucosa and allow it to become impermeable again to undigested foods and pathogens. The healthy intestinal mucosa can then again produce immunoglobulin A that helps prevent invasion of the body by pathogens and allergens.

      Check these links for more on fiber:

      http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/infocenter/phytochemicals/fiber/

      http://www.vivo.colostate.edu/hbooks/pathphys/digestion/largegut/index.html (also has other pages on the gut)

      Also critical to inflammatory problems is consideration of the use of animal connective tissue containing collagen, which is gelatin when it is cooked. Cooking down this animal tissue by making bone broth provides lots of glycine. It turns out that modern man, who consumes a lot of just muscle meat, has a shortage of glycine and needs this protein in order to get rid of excess tryptophan that comes from the muscle meat. Ironically, tryptophan is an essential fatty acid, and glycine can be made by the human body, yet we just can’t make enough glycine to rid our body of excess tryptophan if we eat too much muscle meat to the exclusion of connective tissue. So try adding bone broth or intake of gelatin to your diet. More here:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ni7wkPJKJfU (2 different videos)

      http://raypeat.com/articles/articles/gelatin.shtml

      Best of health to you,

      Glenn

  8. I only speak Spanish, this is an attempt to translation.
    I think not only because it says Dr. Ron Schmidt, but also from personal experience, that the optimal human diet should not include absolutely anything sweet! With time quality animal fat causes the body not even have interest in it.
    I liked it and it helped me your report of lactose intolerance. Then also I will comment on.
    Thank you and goodbye!

  9. How can a person who has had her rectum and most of her intestines removed get sufficient nutrition to stay healthy?

    As it is now most of the food she eats goes right through and into the external bag without being digested.

    At her last check up she was cancer free and she is just 65 years young. Lots of life left to live

    Thanks

    • Brenda,
      My heart goes out to you. Have you listened to either Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride’s Gaps material or the WAPF material yet? Sally Fallon of WAPF is a champion of nutrient dense foods. She explained that research shows that egg yolks for example, don’t even need to be digested, the nutrients are readily absorbed by the body and that is why it’s highly recommended to give it to babies as a first food at 4 months the earliest. Same goes for Fermented Cod Liver Oil – the Blue Ice brand is THE best one out there. Not just cod liver oil but it must be fermented. That is also full of the vital nutrients Vitamin A and D in the proper ratio. Can you also eat liver pate and fish eggs? Again, highly digestible and highly nutritious. NO I’m not a doctor but my recommendation after finally beginning to heal from leaky gut and losing all my intestinal lining years ago: You must focus on nutritionally dense foods, and find a wonderful holistic doctor who practices Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride’s protocol to heal the stomach: her website has a list of GAPS practitioners internationally. I believe the site is GAPS.ME
      BEST of luck to you and keep your spirits up, hope is not lost.
      Sincerely.

  10. I agree that honey is a wholesome sweetener. Unfortunately, many of us who have severe Candida/cancer cannot tolerate any sweeteners other than stevia, vegetable glycerin and the like. For myself, I must keep my carbs very low, ketogenic, or my symptoms return/worsen.

  11. I like honey, but I also find I have what I assume to be an uncomfortable reaction if I have even less than a tablespoon. It is difficult to describe, but it is like a small shortness of breath and a moderate tightness in my chest and throat. It takes a few minutes for me to feel free of that; and that can be shortened if I have a drink of something (water, etc.). I’ve not had that reaction with maple syrup. I assume it is a mild allergic response.

  12. I have read other articles of yours that implicate the massive increase in seed oil consumption in degenerative diseases, and that talk about the importance of getting enough of all the necessary nutrients and avoiding particular toxins (eg BPA). Have you found any well-run studies that study sugar consumption and control for these possibly confounding factors?

  13. I find this all SO interesting! We are shifting our “what’s healthly and what’s not” once again. I look forward to learning as you post more.
    Thank you.

  14. I read most of the comments, and have learned alot. I didn’t hear anyone mention coconut sugar? Any thoughts, opinions? I just cut sugar this past week and lost 6 pounds!

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