We are evolutionarily programmed to want to seek out the sweet, but it’s not our fault—that’s how Mother Nature intended it.
She wanted our early human ancestors to binge on fruit, help plants spread their seed, and store the excess sugar as fat to use for energy later on when food wasn’t as readily available.
It’s a survival mechanism that unfortunately backfired on us, however, because now we have sugar at our fingertips—all the time.
Paying attention to the refined carbs and sugar in our diet and limiting them where we can is foundational for maintaining good health and preventing disease. However, depriving ourselves of sugar completely is unrealistic. And let’s face it—having a sweet treat every now and then is a part of living and enjoying life.
We don’t have to be sugar free to live a long, happy, and healthy life, but it’s important to be aware of how much we’re consuming and where it comes from.
Whether you have children, grandchildren, or a sweet tooth yourself, there are going to be times when we want a hit of sweetness. When these moments come up, my best advice is to be intentional about it, especially with the sweet foods you eat outside your home and the sweeteners you choose to use inside your home.
My goal for this newsletter is to help you better navigate the sugar alternatives out there and understand how they might affect your body so you can feel confident choosing the ones that are right for you.
This week we’re covering some of the most popular natural sweetener alternatives.
I’m going to give you a summary of what these natural sweeteners are, where they come from, and the health properties associated with them (both good and bad). Next week I’ll be covering the pros and cons of sugar alcohols and some less-than-ideal artificial sweeteners.
A Quick Note About Real Sugar: Sugar is not the devil; we just don’t want to have it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When the base of our diet is solid and primarily organized around whole foods, a little real sugar here and there is all good—that’s the foundation of metabolic flexibility.
The challenge is everyone has a different definition of what “a little” looks like. This is why I’m such a big fan of using tools like a continuous glucose monitor to witness how different sweeteners impact my blood sugar in real time. Plus, getting blood work done twice a year is a great way to see how the sugar in your diet affects your overall metabolic health, especially your fasting insulin.
Natural Sweetener Alternatives Cheat Sheet
Monk fruit is a small, round melon native to Southeast Asia. Legend has it the monk fruit got its name from the Buddhist monks who first discovered it in the thirteenth century. The fruit was cultivated and used for centuries in Eastern medicine as a cold remedy and digestive aid (1)(2).
Nowadays, monk fruit is best known for being a zero-calorie, natural alternative to table sugar. It does not raise blood glucose or insulin levels, so it is a safer, better option for type 2 diabetics, as well as people on a low-carbohydrate diet who want to limit their sugar intake (1)(2).
Monk-fruit sweetener is made by extracting the fruit’s juice and converting it into a concentrated, dried powder that’s 100-to-250 times sweeter than regular sugar. The intense sweetness of monk fruit comes from a unique antioxidant known as mogroside, which is also responsible for its reported anti-inflammatory benefits (although most studies are in vitro and in mice) (3).
Monk-fruit sweetener is so intensely sweet that manufacturers mix it with erythritol, another natural sweetener, to make it more tolerable. Although erythritol does not spike your blood sugar (more on this next week), many Functional Medicine doctors caution against it because regular consumption can disrupt the gut microbiome. If you have a sensitive gut, be mindful of the regular use of monk fruit mixed with erythritol.
Commentary: When monk-fruit sweetener first came out (the FDA approved it as a sweetener in 2010), I started experimenting with it and found that erythritol messes with my gut. But once I switched over to plain monk-fruit sweetener the irritation went away. Pure monk fruit is expensive and a little tricky to use at home because it is so “sweet”, but I’m excited to see more products (protein powders, etc) on the market using it.
Because pure monk fruit is tricky and expensive to use, I’ve found that a lot of experts on my podcast are excited about our next sweetener, Allulose.
Allulose is a naturally occurring molecule found in figs, raisins, jackfruit, kiwi, and maple syrup. It’s structurally identical to fructose apart from the orientation of one chemical group, but this slight distinction makes a big difference. It keeps allulose from being converted into energy while still mirroring the taste of sugar. Granted, it’s only about 70 percent as sweet, but at the benefit of saving 95 percent of the calories (4).
Experts are excited about allulose because about 90 percent of it is excreted by the kidneys without being metabolized. That’s why allulose doesn’t raise your blood-sugar or insulin levels or turn on your fat storage switch (4), and it could also be supportive for losing weight and belly fat (5). A meta-analysis found that allulose might help lower blood glucose levels after eating by dragging glucose to be excreted (4)(6).
The FDA has only recently recognized allulose. They added it to their list of generally recognized as safe (GRAS) ingredients in 2014 and announced in 2019 that it does not need to be counted towards “Added Sugars” or “Total Sugars” on Nutrition Facts labels (7).
One of the downsides of the majority of allulose on the market today is that it’s made from the fructose that’s in corn, the majority of it being genetically modified (8). The final product doesn’t contain GMO corn, but the practices used to obtain it are less than ideal for the planet and our food system.
As allulose becomes more popular we’ll start seeing cleaner versions of it on the market. Here’s an allulose sweetener that I currently use made by Wholesome that’s non-GMO.
Commentary: I’ve been experimenting with allulose over the last few months, and I have to say I’m pretty impressed with the taste. It tastes more like sugar than monk fruit and it’s cheaper, which is key for accessibility. In my (n=1) experiment, I discovered that two teaspoons in my morning iced latte tastes fantastic. As mentioned above, I have a sensitive gut, so I’m always curious to see if a sugar alternative agitates me. In a follow-up experiment, I increased the amount in my latte to two tablespoons and my stomach felt rumbly and unsettled all morning.
I am cautiously optimistic about allulose. If I have any reservations, it’s that when we extract a molecule (like sugar) or consume food outside of the food matrix (like fruit juice), there can be unintended consequences. It might not be the case with allulose, but I like to keep an open mind because the research is always changing. On that same note, I would also like to see more studies on how allulose influences the gut microbiome.
If you want to dive deeper into allulose Dr. Peter Attia has a great write-up.
There’s a lot of confusion around honey, so my goal is to simplify things for you. Honey has been part of our diet since well before modern civilization. Its taste, nutrient density, and medicinal properties have made it a highly sought-after food throughout history.
Honey has been unfairly dragged for being a high-fructose and calorically dense sweetener and has been grouped into the same category as regular sugar. This is a gross oversimplification of how honey interacts with our biology and genes. Sugar is a nonnutritive sweetener, meaning there’s no nutritional value to it at all.
Honey, by contrast, contains vitamins A, E, C, and K, essential minerals such as zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium, and trace elements like manganese, copper, chromium, and selenium (9). Unlike table sugar, honey contains powerful polyphenols like quercetin, luteolin, and kaempferol, which help protect against heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, depression, and other chronic diseases (10)(11).
Its medicinal value is attributed to its anti-inflammatory, insulin-sensitizing, blood-glucose-lowering, and positive gut-microbiome modulating properties (10)(12). Honey also has antimicrobial properties that help fight infection and allergies (13).
There are several different types of honey, and each offers unique benefits for allergic diseases. I won’t get into it here, but you can check out this review paper if you’re interested in learning more.
Commentary: My only comment is that you want to make sure you’re buying actual honey, and preferably raw honey. A huge percentage of commercial honey on the shelves is adulterated with other liquid sweeteners like corn syrup.
I’m a big believer in high-quality honey, especially local raw honey. My personal preference is to have a teaspoon by itself to fully take advantage of its healing properties. But occasionally I’ll have it in my tea or use it in a simple recipe.
My friend Chris Kresser has a nice write-up about the healing benefits of honey
Stevia is a nonnutritive, zero-calorie sweetener made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant native to parts of South America. The big stevia brands like Stevia, In The Raw, and Truvia don’t use the whole-leaf stevia, though. They use a highly refined extract derived from the stevia leaf called rebaudioside A, or Reb-A. Reb-A is approximately 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so it’s typically diluted with sweeteners like dextrose, erythritol, or maltodextrin to make it more palatable (14).
Steviol glycosides, the chemical compounds responsible for stevia’s sweet taste (i.e., Reb-A), are not metabolized or absorbed by the body. Based on this, research supports that stevia could aid in weight loss and blood-sugar control in type 2 diabetics (15). It has also been shown to reduce inflammation, enhance insulin secretion, and increase glucose uptake (16)(17). Note: these studies are in mice or in vitro and use pure stevia concentrate—not what you’re getting from the commercial sweeteners at your coffee shop or grocery store.
But the effects of stevia aren’t all good. Unfortunately, there are some downsides. For one, a newer study found that stevia could disrupt communication between gut microbes (18). Some studies report no changes in gut microbes from stevia, and others say it inhibits the growth of beneficial bacteria strains (19).
Commentary: In my opinion, if you’re going to have stevia, whole-leaf stevia extract is your best option. The benefits listed above are lost with conventional stevia sweeteners like Truvia because they are cut with erythritol, dextrose, and nonnutritive sweeteners.
Maple Syrup, Coconut Sugar, and Molasses
Although the research on these three natural sugars is sparse, they do have a lower glycemic index than table sugar (which falls around 65) and contain some nutrients, making them a slightly better alternative. Coconut sugar has the lowest glycemic index at around 35, followed by maple syrup at 54 and molasses at 55. Coconut sugar contains the prebiotic fiber inulin which slows sugar absorption and could contribute to its lower glycemic impact (20).
The glycemic index of molasses is closest to table sugar, but it has the best nutritional profile. One tablespoon contains 20 percent of the daily value (DV) for potassium, 10 percent DV for calcium and vitamin B6, 15 percent DV for iron, and 8 percent DV for magnesium (21). Blackstrap molasses is the most concentrated form and therefore has the most vitamins and minerals, but its high glycemic index makes it a poor source of nutrition (22).
Maple syrup and coconut sugar also have some vitamins and minerals but the amounts are negligible. There has been some research that the antioxidants in maple syrup make it a better alternative for diabetics, but most of these studies are in vitro (23). Furthermore, the maple syrup in the grocery store is actually high fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring. If you want to use maple syrup as an alternative to sugar, you have to make sure it’s organic and pure without any artificial color, flavors, or preservatives. The same applies for molasses and coconut sugar.
These three options might be a better swap for sugar, but the current research on replacing refined sugar with honey or stevia is much stronger.
By the way, when I crave some maple syrup and pancakes, which happen a few times a year, my go-to recipe is Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat Pancakes by Dr. Hyman.
Sugar is not the enemy. We just need to understand the effect it has on our bodies so that we can make room for it in our lives to enjoy it in a responsible way. One way of doing that is replacing regular sugar usage with one of the natural sweetener alternatives above. I’ve done that in my own life while also drastically cutting out processed foods which keeps all my metabolic health markers in good standing. But just to be super clear, I still have real sugar here and there, it’s just not the base of my diet.
I hope you found this newsletter helpful. Be sure to refer back to it as a cheat sheet or send it to a friend who could benefit from it.
Here’s to your health,