The Good The Bad & The Ugly: Natural and Artificial Sweeteners, and how they stack up

We love our sweets. And the more we have, the more we crave.

That’s not simply habit, or lack of will power. It’s biochemistry, taken full advantage of by the food industry: do we really need sugars added to breads, crackers, nuts, salad dressings, ketchup, sauces, marinades, and even fast food meat?  Let alone sodas, juices, candy, cookies and almost every packaged product out there. Research shows us that the brain reacts to sugar and refined processed carbs (that are metabolised as sugars), similarly to how it reacts to highly addictive drugs.

Did you see the article about Oreos being as addictive as crack? hmmmm… not an accident, I think

Let’s be clear: I do not believe in deprivation, and I absolutely love healthy, tasty sweets.  My website is full of recipes I’ve developed that are actually good for you to have.  And you can get my downloadable Tasty Healthy Easy cookbook for free.

But more typically, treats pack an unsuspected sugary wallop that throw off any attempts to improve health and well-being, and leave you feeling hungry, tired and disappointed in your once-again thwarted efforts at self-control.

This is not just about weight. You can have these problems at a normal weight, although you are twice as likely to have them if you are overweight.  And exercise won’t save you. You must change how you eat.  Health is 80% nutrition, and only about 20% exercise.

I never want to discourage exercise, but the greatest impact on health is the quality and quantity of your food.

The good news is… you don’t have to live without sweets! You do need to choose wisely. Here’s my rundown of the options, and how they stack up.

Healthy Natural Sweeteners

Stevia – YES!
Stevia is a plant that has been used for centuries, primarily to sweeten tea, such as the traditional yerba mate of Brazil. Stevia leaves are more than 150 times sweeter than sugar, but have no calories, and no impact on blood sugar, so are a great option, and safe for diabetics.  Stevia has been cultivated for over 200 years, and has been approved in Japan since 1970 to sweeten ice cream, candy, soft drinks and other foods. In the US, stevia has been approved as a food supplement, but not as a sweetener. Based on existing research, there seem to be absolutely no health issues with long term consumption.

The most commonly found form of stevia is the extract, either in powder or liquid form. This is somewhat processed, but as long as it is pure stevia, it’s fine. While you may occasionally find dried or fresh leaves, be careful, as I have always  found mold to be a problem there.  If you want it fresh and pure, try growing stevia plants, and use the leaves.

Many people tell me they don’t like the taste of stevia, but it’s usually not the stevia itself that’s the problem. When they try mine, they like it! It’s what manufacturers add in, not the stevia itself, that leaves an aftertaste. Most commercial products have fillers such as maltodextrin (a sugar) or inulin. Instead, look for liquid stevia, without additives. I offer one in the office (and by the tea in my waiting room) that most people find pleasant. But one or two drops will more than do!

Because stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, it can not easily be substituted for sugar in recipes, but is great for beverages, or to add just a little bit more sweetness to something you’ve prepared.

Note on Truvia: Truvia is a mix of stevia, erythritol (see below),  and “natural flavors” that are not specified. The baking mix also contains sugar. It is highly processed, will raise blood sugar, and I do not recommend it. So I give Truvia a NO.

2. Xylitol – YES!
Xylitol is my favorite sweetener for baking and cooking. It is not only okay to use, it is beneficial!  It occurs naturally, not only in fruits and vegetables, but in our own bodies, where we make both xylitol and the enzymes to digest it, every day.  It has none of the undesirable effects of either sugar or artificial sweeteners, and no bad aftertaste.

Xylitol has an impressive array of health benefits, and a taste almost identical to sugar, yet 40% fewer calories and 75% fewer carbs than sugar.  It rates a mere 7 on the glycemic index (which measures the impact of food on our blood sugar levels), compared to sugar’s glycemic index of 100.  It does not require insulin for metabolism, so is an excellent choice for diabetics. It is alkalinizing, increases satiety, and has anti-microbial effects.  Unlike sugar, it does not feed yeast or other microbes. This is good for your health, but makes it unsuitable for baking bread or brewing kombucha or other fermented foods. It can be substituted 1:1 for sugar in most recipes.

All of the above is wonderful, and why I have recommended Xylitol as a sugar substitute, along with stevia, for many years.  However, Xylitol has some unique and significant therapeutic benefits that particularly recommend it to use.  Let’s go over its positive qualities:

Xylitol has only a negligible impact on blood sugar and insulin levels. This means that unlike sugar, there are no highs and lows: no roller coaster for either your energy or your mood, and no subsequent cravings for more sweets and carbohydrates.  No adrenal fatigue, no weight gain, no increase in cortisol levels.  In fact, xylitol can help keep you hormonally balanced through its insulin stabilization factors.  A healthy insulin response is essential to healthy aging and healthy hormones, as well as effecting cholesterol levels, incidence of Type II Diabetes, high blood pressure, and much more.

Tooth & Gum Health Xylitol alkalinizes the mouth.  It not only reduces bacterial growth but actually inhibits and interferes with development of cavities, plaque and bad bacterial strains such as strep.  Research has been extensive in this area, and is impressive. Using it during teething can even help protect incoming teeth.

The Journal of the American Dental Association said: “Xylitol is an effective preventive agent against dental caries… Consumption of xylitol-containing chewing gum has been demonstrated to reduce caries in Finnish teenagers by 30-60%.  Studies conducted in Canada, Thailand, Polynesia and Belize have shown similar results…” 

A study conducted at Harvard School of Dental Medicine concluded that “Xylitol can significantly decrease the incidence of dental caries.”  – which is why more and more dentists are recommending it, and it is being used in toothpastes, gums and candies.  Sugar, of course, increases the acidity of the mouth and the body as a whole, and contributes to bacterial growth and the incidence of cavities, among other problems.

Among young children whose mothers chewed xylitol gum, there was a 70% decrease in tooth decay, presumably because it inhibited bacteria that are normally passed back and forth with shared kisses, drinks, food, etc.  It looks as if, used consistently over time, Xylitol may even repair some damage from cavities.

For oral health, use xylitol mints, lozenges or gum 3-5 times a day, and especially after meals and snacks.  Toothpaste with xylitol is great too, and is becoming more widely available.

Craving Reduction Xylitol slows stomach emptying time, promoting a feeling of fullness similar to extra fiber.  According to research, including xylitol around mealtime significantly decreases the number of calories needed to feel full.  Obviously, this can have great potential for weight management.

Ear Infections 8-10 grams of xylitol daily led to a 30% decrease in ear infections in young children.  Xylitol gum led to a 42% decrease. This is attributed to its anti-microbial effects, particularly on strep and flu viruses. Xylitol gum increases the benefits because of the movement of the jaw.

Sinus Health Many people are discovering the benefits of using a Neti Pot for help with allergies, colds, and sinus infections.  Take advantage of xylitol’s anti-microbial properties by adding some to your neti therapy. Start with just 1/4 teaspoon or less: a little goes a long way. You can also add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt. Do not use tap water. Use sterile or distilled water.

Alkalinity Xylitol is alkalinizing to our systems, making us less hospitable to harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi of all kinds.  Keeping the body alkaline makes it easier and more likely for you to stay healthy and balanced in every way.  Sugar, in contrast, creates an acidic environment, feeding destructive microbes and weakening your immune system.

Bone Health Studies suggest that regular consumption of xylitol can improve bone strength during aging, probably because of the increased consumption of calcium, as well as the alkalinizing effect.  The more acidic your system, the more the body will leech calcium from bones and teeth to re-balance itself.

Yeast/Candida Xylitol is a sugar that does not feed yeast. In fact, it contributes to its destruction. This means it is not only safe for those grappling with candida, it is actually beneficial.  This is not true of any of the other sugars or sugar alcohols, including sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, as well as fructose, honey, maple syrup, agave, malt, molasses, coconut sugar, etc. (Erythritol may have the same quality, but research is not definitive at this point.) Again, this is why xylitol can not be successfully substituted in recipes such as bread, or kombucha, that need sugars for fermentation.

Safety Xylitol is safe.  It was approved as an additive by the FDA in 1963, and recognized as a safe sweetener in 1986.  Although some people experience some initial GI discomfort as they incorporate higher amounts, this is usually temporary.  My experience with clients is that this initial reaction merely indicates an existing imbalance in the GI tract which still needs to be addressed.  Once this is cleared, xylitol is well-tolerated and the client is healthier than before.

Practical Xylitol has a consistency, texture and flavor virtually identical to sugar, although it is just very slightly less sweet.  It is great for tea, cookies, candies, brownies, etc. It can be substituted for sugar in recipes without any other changes.

As xylitol has become more popular and available there are, of course, more products from which to choose. Originally, xylitol was made from birch sugar, and this was considered the gold standard. Now, most xylitol is made from corn. However, I find that it is not necessary to use only xylitol from birch. What matters, as always, is the quality of the raw ingredients, and the quality of the manufacturing process. The one I offer in my office is corn-based, but non-GMO and made to pharmaceutical standards. It tests well and is well-tolerated by my clients, almost without exception. And the good news is that it has actually gone down in price as the demand has increased!  Some of the cheaper commercial xylitol products are more problematic: they do not test well, don’t taste as good, and are more likely to cause irritation in the gut.

If you can’t tolerate xylitol, it would be wise to identify and address the underlying issues. That said, too much too quickly can have a laxative effect, so increase slowly.

I have Xylitol granules and toothpaste available in my office. It is also one of the sweeteners used in many of the shakes and bars I offer.
Erythritol – PROBABLY
Erythritol has a 5 carbon structure similar to xylitol, and unlike any of the other sugars. It looks like it might have some similar and synergistic benefits as well, but there has not been as much research on erythritol as there has been on xylitol as of yet. It does not feed yeast, and may be helpful, along with xylitol, against strep and biofilm. The good news is that it seems to be more easily tolerated by the gut than xylitol. That said, if you have difficulty with xylitol, it is an indication that you have unresolved gut issues – so do something about it!

Sugar is a fermentable carbohydrate that feeds infections of all sorts. White sugar is a highly processed product treated with numerous toxins to produce those uniform white granules. Its waste product, in our bodies, is acid, which contributes to the formation of biofilm, a “walled” symbiotic community of fungi, yeast, bacteria, viruses and parasites.  Our bodies have not evolved to deal with the huge quantities of sugars in the Standard American Diet (SAD) and we are paying the price.

For the first time in history, we are dying less from infectious diseases, and more of chronic degenerative diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.  Sugar consumption contributes significantly, particularly to high blood pressure, high triglycerides, insulin resistance (diabetes and pre-diabetes), and liver toxicity.

Sometimes manufacturers are sneaky, and sugar is on the label in different forms. Learn to recognize its disguises: cane juice; fruit juice, solids or concentrates; corn syrup; maltodextrin; sucrose; turbinado; lactose; sorghum; turbinado; glucose; malt; syrups; and fructose are just a few of its many names. Remember: to your body, they’re all metabolized as sugar, no matter what they’re called.

As I’ve frequently written, you can’t just count calories. 100 calories of cookies is not equal to 100 calories of nuts, or vegetables, so don’t be fooled.  Sugar calories behave differently in the body.  Sugars are biologically addictive.  They act on the brain to produce dependence, much like alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. Here’s what happens when you eat sugar:

  • You feel tired, cranky and crave another “fix” because blood sugar spikes and drops.
  • You overeat when you’re not hungry, because sugar interferes with leptin, the hormone that signals satiety.
  • Serotonin, the feel-happy hormone, spikes, but only fleetingly, leaving you feeling worse mentally and emotionally than before, perpetuating more cravings.
  • You become less sensitive to the hormone insulin, creating a pre-diabetic or diabetic state.
  • Dopamine is reduced, inhibiting the pleasure response.
  • You store more calories as fat because you consume many more than you can burn, but without getting essential nutrition.

Sugar has no intrinsic value, and contributes to disease by increasing inflammation, free radicals, and insulin resistance.  It’s cancer’s favorite food. That’s why glucose uptake is used to trace cancer in PET scans.

The American Heart Association recommends no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugars each day for men, and 6 for women, but most people have many times that. Top sources? Soft drinks, candies, pastries, and fruit drinks, including 100% juice.

The next sugar source may surprise you: it’s milk and dairy products.  The endocrinologist I trained with preferred milk to orange juice to rapidly raise blood sugar for diabetics: there are more than 3 teaspoons of natural sugars in a cup of low-fat milk. Two cups of fat free chocolate milk? More than 10 teaspoons.  Six ounces of yogurt can have almost 8 teaspoons. That’s a lot of sugar. Another surprising source? Breads. Not just pastry and sweets, but even supposedly healthy “whole grain” bread can have the equivalent of 8 or 10 teaspoons of sugar.

Sugar – and foods metabolized as sugar – is addictive: according to research, as addictive as cocaine.  No wonder manufacturers add it to their products.  Most processed foods have added sugars, including many we don’t think of as sweet, such as salad dressings, breads and rolls, ketchup, sauces and marinades, tomato sauce, peanut butter, and cereals.  Beware low or no-fat products, which are likely to be higher in added sugar than comparable full-fat foods.  Sugars are even added to traditionally salty foods, like crackers and fried chicken.  A BIg Mac has more than 2 teaspoons of sugar, just in the meat. The bun, condiments, etc. are additional.

Even natural sugars can be problematic.  Though many people think of fruit as a “freebie” for healthy eating, our systems evolved at a time when fruit was only available in small amounts, and for a short part of the year.  Now we can buy fruits from around the world, year round.  Too much fructose (fruit sugar) stresses the liver and raises triglycerides.  A banana or an ear of corn (actually a grain but as sweet as fruit) each have over 4 teaspoons of sugar, an orange almost 6. Lowest glycemic fruits include berries and grapefruit, so choose these.

But It’s Natural, right? Honey, succanat, organic cane sugar, organic brown sugar, agave, maple syrup, rice syrup and other “natural sweeteners” are all still sugar to our bodies, and have the same effects: raising blood sugar, inflammation, feeding cancer cells, and increasing your risk of diabetes.  Sad, but true. And fruits.

Be a good detective: identify and eliminate stealth sugars in your diet. It will help keep your metabolism and your hormones healthy. Your body will thank you with better energy and better health.

When you are used to everything being sweet, eating “au natural” may taste flat at first, but the palate quickly adjusts, and “real food” soon tastes much better than before. Doing a sugar detox is not as difficult as you fear. Why not try for 3 weeks and experience the difference for yourself? Sign up for my Customized 21 Day Detox, and I will help you through it.

The bottom line is: they don’t work. Studies consistently show artificial sweeteners do not help people to reduce calories or lose weight. In fact, they cause “paradoxic weight gain”, even when compared with equivalent consumption of real sugar.

One reason might be what’s called “calorie dysregulation”.  Artificial sweeteners disrupt your body’s ability to monitor what you need nutritionally, beginning with your taste buds and the enzymes in your saliva.  The sweet taste triggers metabolic processes specific to sugar intake. Your body expects sugar, prepares for sugar, but there is none, so your system compensates, craving the calories it was primed for and throwing the system off balance.

Also, because artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than sugar, they distort our experience of sweetness: we need more and sweeter things to satisfy cravings.  An apple no longer tastes as sweet when you are used to diet soda with chemicals hundreds of times sweeter.

Lack of efficacy isn’t the only reason to eliminate artificial sweeteners from your menu. While research is neither clear nor consistent, it is growing: artificial sweeteners have been associated with many serious health problems. Our regulatory agencies label these “Generally Regarded As Safe” but studies backing that conclusion are short (a few months, rather than years) and small. Furthermore, research in the U.S. is funded by manufacturers who have a financial stake in the outcome.

In contrast, an Italian study looked at safety issues and concluded “re-evaluation of use is urgent and cannot be delayed.”  No one can definitively tell you they are toxic, but there are more than enough questions to raise concerns.

Want more help figuring out how and what to eat? That’s what I’m here for! I can teach  you how to demolish cravings and hunger, rev your metabolism, and easily and consistently make the best choices in any situation – FOR YOU, as a unique individual.

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