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With so many sweeteners and sugars on the market, it can be challenging to know which are the healthiest options. Despite the prevalence of processed, artificial sweeteners available, there are many natural sweeteners that are good for you and provide various health benefits.
First and foremost, what makes a sweetener artificial or natural? In other words, how can we tell if they’re fake or real? Artificial sweeteners, unlike natural ones, are often processed and refined. Despite often containing little or zero calories, these sweeteners contribute to sugar cravings, as they’re hyper-palatable. On the other hand, natural sweeteners are made from whole food sources mainly from plants. Although, keep in mind, that products labeled “natural” don’t always equal “healthy.”
Arguably, the worst part of artificial sweeteners is their negative impact on gut health. These fake sugars prove to alter bacteria in the gut microbiome, which can lead to a host of other diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even autoimmunity. Other common side effects of artificial sweeteners include headaches, diarrhea, bloating, and gas.
As previously mentioned, these harmful products are hyper-palatable. Meaning, they are created by using chemicals to taste excessively sweet, keeping your body craving more and more. As a result, real, whole foods can often taste bland or boring.
Common artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sorbitol, erythritol, sucralose, xylitol, sucralose, saccharin, and surprisingly, agave nectar. Look out for these ingredients that are hiding in your chewing gums, toothpastes, OTC vitamins or medicines, cocktails, salad dressings, ice cream, yogurt, and more. Keep an eye out for products labeled “low fat.” More often than not, they will contain artificial sweeteners to make up for the lack of fat. At all costs, avoid these “low fat” products. When a food product lists “sugar free” or “fat free”, they can actually leave you feeling even more addicted to sugar, cause weight gain, and even more fatigue due to the added chemicals and toxins needed to remove the sugar and fat.
As opposed to artificial or fake sweeteners, most natural sweeteners are less refined and contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and in some cases, fiber. It’s important to mention that even natural sweeteners should still be consumed in moderation. After all, they are still sugar. That being said, consuming lower amounts of these natural sweeteners can still be part of a healthy gut and autoimmune-friendly diet.
A common misconception is that stevia and monk fruit are gut-friendly, natural sweeteners. While they are often a better option and can be included as part of a health diet, I recommend avoiding these sweeteners in the early stages of healing the gut. Unprocessed, natural forms of stevia and monk fruit have actually provided health benefits for thousands of years. However, most of these items on store shelves are far from unprocessed. More so, they usually contain hidden artificial sweeteners, like erythritol or xylitol. Be sure to always read the ingredient label!
In my professional opinion, these are the top natural sweeteners with a low glycemic index to use in recipes.
Raw honey contains enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. However, pasteurization kills off most of the good stuff, so “raw” is the key word here. Consuming local, raw honey has been known to help build up your immunity to common allergens in your area. By introducing your body to the bee pollen from local bees, your body strengthens it’s immune system and naturally fights sneezing, itching, and runny noses. To take it a step further, raw manuka honey is proven to boost both immune and gut health!
How to Use: Drizzle honey on top of yogurt, oatmeal, or pancakes. It’s also great to bake with! This is my favorite brand of raw manuka honey with a high live enzyme count.
Real Maple Syrup
Similar to honey, real maple syrup contains high amounts of antioxidants to reduce inflammation. It also ranks low on the glycemic index, making it a wise choice for those with metabolic disease. Canada’s Finest Maple Syrup is my personal go to that’s made from Canadian maple trees and is organically certified. You can find it on Amazon here.
How to Use: In addition to enjoying maple syrup on waffles or pancakes, it’s a healthier option for salad dressings, baked goods, or even glazes.
Surprisingly, coconut sugar isn’t made from coconuts. It’s actually made from the coconut blossoms on coconut trees! This natural sweetener is a healthy source of potassium, iron, and essential vitamins.
Interestingly, coconut sugar contains the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as cane sugar, but it’s lower on the glycemic index, which helps provide a more stable release of glucose into the blood.
How to Use: Coconut sugar is an effective replacement for cane sugar in many baked goods, like breads, cupcakes, or muffins and is an equal replacement for recipes.
Blackstrap molasses is one of the most nutritious sweeteners available. This thick, rich syrup is derived from sugar cane or sugar beet. It’s an excellent source of iron (20% RDI) and something I suggest to women with anemia or those who are low in ferritin. Blackstrap molasses is also a great source of B-vitamins, calcium, magnesium, and potassium.
How to Use: Blackstrap molasses has a distinct taste that is best used when a recipe calls for it. You might find it in healthy BBQ sauces, gingersnaps, and various glazes. I like this one here.
Date Syrup, Paste, or Sugar
Dates have a caramel-like color and taste. Medjool dates, specifically, are known for their health benefits, including boosting the immune system and reducing inflammation. You can easily use whole, pitted dates to make date paste by blending soaked dates with water. For best results, soak dates in filtered water for 8 hours.
How to Use: Use whole dates or date syrup, paste, or sugar, to sweeten smoothies or create homemade energy bars or bites.
In addition to these amazing and healthy natural sweeteners, we can’t forget about fruit! Whole fruits blended up also make wonderful sweeteners for many dishes. For example, add a few pieces of fresh blended pineapple or apple to a sauce to add sweetness. The list above is specifically focused on sweeteners that are not whole fruits and veggies.
This list of natural sweeteners should provide you with a sugar alternative for almost any dish or condiment, from baked goods to sauces and dressings! By implementing these natural sweeteners, you can better manage blood sugar levels, reduce inflammation, and improve your gut health and immunity!Choose small amounts of natural sweeteners in moderation instead of fake artificial sugars! Click To Tweet
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
If you are ready to stop wasting precious time, get off the never-ending hamster wheel, and finally surrender trying to figure things out on your own—this is your moment.
You don’t have to settle for just getting by and hoping tomorrow is a better day. We both know you are a woman who deserves better and are made for so. much. more.
This is great advice and as always very informative.
What gut safe sugar do you recommend for diabetics?
Great question Kathleen! I still recommend using REAL sugar vs. fake sugar even with diabetes. Any of the sugars I mentioned above would be great, I would just suggest doing small amounts of it and not overdoing it. Monk fruit is a natural sweetener that doesn’t spike blood sugar as much, however I find most individuals with leaky gut will experience bloating, gas, and stomach discomfort with this sweetener, especially if they are consuming it often
I love maple sugar, perfect for coffee and cooking. You mention molasses but not brown sugar … what’s your take on it? As well as raw sugar? Thank you!
Hi Kat! Love these questions 🙂
So I am a big believer in real sugar vs. fake sugar. So I would much rather someone have brown sugar or raw cane sugar over splenda, stevia, etc. Raw and brown sugar will respond similarly to molasses, honey, and maple in the body. The key takeaway is that when it comes to healing the gut–we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, we just want to limit it.
Really good answers. After suffering a severe IBS exacerbation, probably brought on by Erithritol (Swerve) and covid, I went back to mostly real sugars. I am following a low carb diet, which up to the point of the exacerbation had fixed my IBS. Then I got the exacerbation and wasn’t sure how to stick with low carb and not eat any of the sweetener alternatives. Finally, I decided not to play around with my stomach. Not dying from abdominal cramps is more important than losing weight faster. Now, I just stay away from anything sweet until I can’t stand it and then I use real sugar but factor in the carb count for whatever sugar/ honey/maple syrup/molasses/Agave I use. Yes, I can tolerate Agave. I also use the stevia or monk fruit, which don’t seem to bother me either unless they are cut with something else, like erythritol. I use them in small doses, in case they might set me off in larger amounts. Gut-wise I feel better and food tastes better using real and traditional sugars in moderation. I agree with you, keeping the sugars real, but using them in moderation is really the best way, if you have IBS. Actually, having followed a low carb for a while now, I have lost my taste for very much sugar anyway, so that one or two teaspoons goes a long, long way in my protein shake or tea these days. I only need a tiny little sweet taste on occasion. My tummy just cannot handle that fake stuff. My belly hurts just thinking about that last exacerbation I had. When my stomach is cramping, the only thing that I can eat or drink sometimes is peppermint or tummy tea and tea needs sweetener, so honey it is.
Hi Katrina! Thank you so much for chiming in on the conversation here! It sounds like you have been doing really well with your health journey and making so many positive changes. Glad to hear you find what works for you in moderation, this is KEY. Keep doing what you are, so happy to connect with you 🙂
Agave is not a fake sugar. it is from the agave plant. It is not healthy though
and xylitol is a horrible product. if it’s bad enough to cuase people with reflux a severe relfux attack- it is bad. I vomited like crazy when i tried it.
Correct, agave is not a “fake sugar” but like you said, not ideal either as a natural sugar source. I agree, it is such a shame these are marketed as “healthy”
Interesting article. I’ve gone to town on the so-called healthy, like the ones from the health store, fake sugars. I want to go back to something more healing and this is interesting. Coconut sugar crash my blood sugar like no ones business, so I don’t trust those at all. Dates and date sugars have been oddly stabilizing. Maybe because it’s a real food. I remember maybe 30 years ago when health foods were coming into the mainstream and you could get all kinds of desserts sweetened with fruits extracted, or brown rice syrup! Not anymore alas. Your thoughts on brown rice syrup and barley malt? Thanks Nikki!
I’m so glad this was helpful, thanks for your message here! We’ve all been there, right!? It is interesting because even natural sugars can respond poorly for people. Sometimes this has to do with how it was paired with a meal and the person’s unique chemistry. This is one of the reasons why listening to your body is such a valuable tool and it sounds like you are doing that really well!
Brown rice syrup can be something that might work for you if you want to try that. There’s also coconut nectar as well that most tolerate. Since barley malt contains gluten, I typically recommend avoiding that for my clients since most are working to heal the gut or reverse autoimmunity.
Ah yes, of course about the barley malt. Didn’t think of the gluten for whatever reason.
Anything coconut that’s sweet crashes my blood sugar like crazy. I’m a canary in the mine so I suspect it will eventually be found that those sugars are not healthy in the long run for most anyone. Thanks for the reply!
Sometimes it is so tough to identify gluten. It is so sneaky!