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

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

Join the conversation

  1. I would like to know about the use of concentrated fruit juice, like apple, when used in place of sugar in savory recipes like ketchup.

  2. Hi Chris,

    I have been following the Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet for several years with great results. They originally recommended rice syrup but now say to avoid it. I’ve always found honey too sweet but have grown to love rice syrup and find it hard to give up. How bad is rice syrup?

  3. excellent questions Chris, I always love your intelligent way of digging deeper. I’d love to hear more about the specific ways different sweeteners affect our bodies and cognitive function, if there are studies out there. Thank you!

  4. Hi Chris, I would also like to hear your thoughts on the theories of Ray Peat, Danny Roddy, Matt Stone etc. I have personally noticed GREAT improvements in my IBS (much less bloating/gas and constipation eliminated) and metabolism (hands and feet much warmer) by increasing the amount of simple carbs, especially orange juice, honey and white rice, and decreasing starchy and high fibre food like sweet potato, green vegetables, etc. Having the sweetness with some fat and protein helps with the insulin response. I have otherwise been paleo for about two years and introducing these changes has helped more than the low/no sugar approach. Changing a ‘restriction’ mentality (that results in a cycle of anxiety, binging and guilt) to one of more intuitive eating (that helps me respond to my body’s signals) has also been revolutionary from a mental health perspective. I no longer over-eat because I know that I can always have some more if needed. I have coeliac disease, PCOS and am concerned about thyroid health – I am convinced that sugar is now helping me heal where a low sugar diet compromised my gut and thyroid health and metabolism.

    • yay! a matt stone follower. Me too, when I started letting go of these rules I also healed my thyroid, I didn’t have major issues, just overtraining and adrenal fatigue but my eyebrows grew fuller, in the outer 1/3 portion and I generally felt better.

      I’m working on a post right now, that will be released in a few days.

  5. As a member of the overeaters anonymous everyone talks about the evils of sugar and flour.

    I am a little more unit little of the road. I don’t think there is such a thing as an evil food. But I do think too much of anything is bad for you.

    As a compulsive eater myself I have found it smart to limit my intake of artificial sweeteners. Often flavors have reminded me of foods that have no real Nutritional value. And for me the watchword has been
    Is there a sweetener that the truly has nutritional value?

    For those who are truly trying to lose a lot of fat (I still have 260 pounds to go) carbohydrates seem to be my enemies. I am eating in a Paleo fashion with and Atkins carbohydrate load. It is working I lost 105 pounds.

    Question:
    With 260 pounds left to go, are there any natural sweeteners I should even consider?
    I have been keeping the percentage of carbohydrates calories to about 20% not counting fiber calories. I Have been averaging about 5 pounds a week of weight loss .

    • 5lbs is quite a bit. beware of plateauing and subsequent weight gain from low-carb diet induced insulin resistance.

  6. I also would love to hear more about specific sweetners and their relationship to blood sugar levels. I always enjoy your articles and webinars. Thank you!

  7. Thanks Chris, you’re a brave soul (treading into unknown territory)!
    As Jeanne pointed out, there is a huge difference is structure of the ‘sugar’/carbohydrate in most honeys, from their comb-counterparts. Humans have exquisite digestive capabilities but this must be matched with what is happening in nature to be effective. Excessive heating of honey will kill all the bees in the hive, yet we use this as human-food? Processed cows milk will kill calves, yet we label this as ‘safe’ for human consumption,
    isn’t there a tie-in with the ripeness of fruit (its sweetness) and circadian patterning. Will we eat fruit or veggies that have altered the sugar-structures in qualitative terms as well as quantitatively? Do we not consume food cross-zones and cross seasonal rhythmic patterns … eg. organic bananas in winter?

  8. I too would like your thoughts on xylitol. It’s been my go-to sweetener now for a couple of years. The birch version that is. I even use it to brush my teeth with. My teeth stay clean and feel like polished pearls all day long. Even my hygienist comments on how there isn’t much to clean anymore these days. That is a far cry from the work she had to do in the past so I know it is making a big difference. And the GI upset that some people feel in the beginning goes away in a short time with continued use. Your body just has to get accustomed to it. I don’t care much for stevia, and honey and maple syrup cause me to put on weight. Plus I find them very addictive where as with the xylitol I don’t crave sweets any longer. I’d be curious what your thoughts are on it.

  9. Hi! I’m looking forward to reading this series. What about coconut sugar? I have found some Paleo recipes that call for it, and I’m just curious about it in spiking blood sugar. I seem to still have a higher blood sugar level than my naturopath likes, and I’ve dropped most sugars already for more than a year.

    Thanks!

  10. It would take you 10 years to answer these questions and then the follow up questions to your answers, and….etc.

    Partial to the questions which begin “I would LOVE to know…

    Just amused by the overwhelming number of responses and the task you face by writing about “sugar” and all its iterations.

    Good luck.

  11. As a type 1 diabetic I use a bit of stevia to sweeten drinks and food. I use raw honey or glucose (dextrose) tablets to raise low blood sugar. I would appreciate your thoughts on the best sweeteners to use for this purpose in a type 1 diabetic. Thank you!

  12. For me xylitol spikes my blood sugar less than sugar, eryhritol less than xylitol, and all non-caloric sweeteners less than eryhritol.
    I stay away from all other sugar alchols (esp. maltitol).
    I think there may be a lot of differences between people as far as sweetner tolerance, partly due to conditioning (salivary +insulin response) rather than content.
    I use raw honey in medicinal quantities very occasionally and don’t worry about the rise in blood sugar. All medicines have side effects.
    Because sugar alcohols are highly toxic to my pets I try to use them rarely and lock them up securely.

  13. The overuse of vaccinations and antibiotics, as well as the synthetic and nutritionally deficient foods in Western diets, may well contribute to our inability to handle sweets, and the epidemic of candida. It should be pointed out, however, that diabetes was first diagnosed in Egypt thousands of years ago. Was excess consumption of honey the problem?

  14. Great topic Chris,

    I leave added sugars out entirely right now, per AI paleo approach as I’m in the process of healing my thyroid. Interestingly enough, I have to watch my intake of my version of sweet treats: unsweetened coconut flakes/shreds and carob powder with coconut oil, I find it’s easy to over consume these. I’m going to begin a trial of leaving them out completely. I agree with prior comments about using glucosometer, this has been very very helpful for learning individual response to the amount of starchy vegetables in my diet.

    I’ve been experimenting on my husband to help him decrease artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and Splenda. His biggest source are drinks. So, I’m eager to know your feedback on Stevia. In addition, I’m wondering if you’ve heard of Lacanto (from The Body Ecology diet). It’s a mixture of monk fruit and erythritol with claims that it’s safe for those on an anti-candida diet. There’s also another newer product I was hoping you could research. It’s called “just like sugar” and is made from chicory root and orange peel with claims that it is safe for diabetics.
    I wonder too about whether it’s recommended to always consume protein with sweeteners? And does the same go for starchy vegetables…always eat any carb with protein and fats?

      • Sugar feeds pathogenic flora in the gut. These pathogens generate inflammatory substances that can perpetuate thyroid inflammation. Candida albicans is a commensal organism that can overgrow in the digestive tract. It is a known contributor to thyroid inflammation as well as many other inflammatory responses in the body. Candida LOVES sugar and thrives when you eat it. It can even cause you to have intense sugar cravings. Also the insulin spike caused by eating sugar or other high glycemic foods contributes to inflammation and dysregulation of blood glucose, something that people with thyroid problems struggle with anyway. Achieving blood sugar balance for those with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis without stressing the body with a low carb diet that is too low carb can be a big challenge.

  15. Please talk about the differences of REAL unheated RAW honey compared to what many call honey and even what many call raw honey.

    We Want to Live and Aajonus Vonderplanitz had GREAT info about honey ( and other things).

    After trying everything for a mysterious disease that started when I took antibiotics, finally THAT approach helped and led me to a paleo/gaps style diet.

    Often honey that says it is raw has been heated and that makes a HUGE difference in how our body processes it.

    Just as there is a difference between truly grass fed beef and pastured eggs/chicken etc, really raw honey makes a huge difference and most of what is in the stores is worst than the typical franken olive oil etc.

    If you heat the honey you might as well eat white sugar!

  16. This is very interesting, especially so because it runs so counter to current assumptions about earlier diets. But why are we not surprised? How often is it that we are “sold a bill of goods” about a food item only to discover later that this food isn’t so bad as we thought, or even good. Coconut oil is a good case in point.

    I will look forward to reading your subsequent posts, and hope that you will address the effects various sweeteners and the amounts consumed have on the gut microbial communities. Thanks!

  17. How about Manuka honey? Also, how about resistant starch and it’s connection to sweeteners/glucose management? Thanks!

  18. Great topic! I would be interested to know if there is any research about the interplay of sugars and gut health. I grew up eating a diet VERY high in sugars, and have really struggled with reducing consumption of sweet foods as an adult. When I started eating paleo the cravings got better, but not significantly. More recently I’ve started doing a lot of fermented food, probiotics, and resistant starch, and that seems to have made a far bigger difference than any other dietary change.

  19. Great article! i look forward to more. I’d love to hear your thoughts on stevia/xylitol combination and stevia alone. Particularly interesting would be what brands or products you recommend and why. I currently use stevita and sweet drops.

    Also, i second the idea of putting a date on the published time of the article. would help as people go through the archives to see when you posted

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