What is the best sweetener to use? This is by far the most common question I hear. In our day-to-day life, we may be trying to limit our sweets, but for the occasional treat, what is the best way to go?

My first rule of thumb:

It must be natural. Our bodies do not process chemically extracted sugars the same as they do natural ones. Fake sugars and sugar alcohols force your liver and body to work far harder than natural sugars. If you are going to enjoy something sweet, make it real.

Next, I have three questions:

  • How well do you digest the sweetener?

Sweeteners are made from either monosaccharides (single molecules) or disaccharides (double molecules). Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose and galactose and each of these penetrate the gut lining without needing much digestion. In this regard, they are considered easier to digest than disaccharides. Disaccharides include sucrose, lactose and maltose. Disaccharides must be broken apart into their monosaccharide components by enzymes in your small intestine. If you have any form of gut dysfunction, this action is impaired and will make sugar digestion difficult leaving you with gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and likely some form of gut imbalance.

  • How is your blood sugar impacted?

The benefit of disaccharide sugars is that they take a little longer to digest, and may have a less dramatic effect on blood sugar. Monosaccharides are absorbed directly into the blood stream from your stomach, impacting your blood sugar in about 20-30 minutes. How much of an impact will depend on your body’s current ability to manage your blood sugar levels. For some, even the taste of sweetness on the tongue will send the body into a blood sugar roller coaster.

  • Does the sweetener have any nutritive value?

Every sweet food that enters your body will require nutrients to break it down, process and remove them. Table sugar has zero nutrients attached to it. This is why it isn’t just a zero-sum food but a negative-sum food. It will deplete you of important nutrients in the body to process it. I recommend using sweeteners that come equipped with nutrients needed to process the sugars, particularly B vitamins and minerals.

Here are three popular natural sweeteners:

Honey 

Honey has long been known for its powerful healing properties through some of its phytonutrients that act as antifungals and antibacterials. Honey also contains vitamins B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid and certain amino acids. The minerals found in honey include calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc. Honey is primarily comprised of glucose and fructose and to a lesser extent sucrose. It is considered an easier sugar to digest because it is primarily comprised of monosaccharides. Honey is the only sweetener used on the GAPS and SCD diets because of this reason.

Maple Syrup 

Maple syrup contains at least 24 antioxidants and the darker the syrup (Grade B) the more antioxidants you will find. Maple syrup also contains the minerals manganese and zinc and the vitamins niacin, B2, B5, B6, folic acid, and biotin. Maple syrup is composed of about two-thirds sucrose, a disaccharide, making it more difficult to digest for some.

Coconut Sugar (Palm Sugar)

Coconut sugar, which is made from the sap of a coconut tree and is a lower glycemic sweetener than either honey or maple syrup. Coconut sugar contains the minerals potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfur. It also contains many B vitamins such as inositol, thiamine, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, folic acid, and choline. Coconut sugar is mainly comprised of sucrose, with just small amounts of fructose and glucose.

For some, even the above sweeteners are too much. Below are two herbal, natural sweeteners that rank a zero on the Glycemic Index:

Stevia

Stevia extract can be 300 times sweeter than table sugar and only a few drops are needed to sweeten a beverage. Stevia is considered the ‘one exception’ by Dr. Mark Hyman, even for those working to regulate blood sugar. It has been used for over 1,500 years in South America and some studies suggest it can help reverse diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Do be careful of the source by making sure the only ingredient is Stevia rebaudiana. (Some brands include dextrose or maltodextrin or other unclean ingredients.)

As a side note, if you have an allergy to ragweed or any related plants, stevia might not be for you. (Which now explains why I don’t tolerate stevia very well!)

Lou Han Guo

Similar to stevia, lou han guo can be 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Lou han guo comes from the monk fruit in China. This fruit is considered the “longevity fruit” and has been used in China since the 13th century to treat many health conditions. It is being studied for its inhibitory effect on blood sugar levels, antioxidant properties and its potential inhibitory effect on tumors. The fruit is dried and the sweet extract called mongrosides is made into a powder for baking.

When trying to answer the question, what is the best sweetener, it really depends on the individual and how you tolerate each one. Do a little experimenting with the above sweeteners and see what works best for you!

References:

Calton, J., Calton, M. (2015). The Micronutrient Miracle. New York: Rodale.

Campbell-McBride, N. (2011). Gut and Psychology Syndrome. Cambridge: Medinform Publishing.

Lou Han Guo: Sweet Fruit Used as Sugar Substitute and Medicinal Herb, by SubhutiDharmananda, Ph.D., Director, Institute for Traditional Medicine, Portland, Oregon. http://www.itmonline.org/arts/luohanguo.htm