Sugar Vs. Sweeteners

November 22, 2011 in Categories: , , by

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You may have noticed that when I am making some paleo version of a food for my kids (like Paleo Snickerdoodles), I use actual sugar (or honey or molasses) in my recipes.  Your saying to yourself “Wait!  I thought we were supposed to avoid refined sugars!”.  We are.  Research is now showing that it is sugar and other carbohydrates (and not saturated fat!) that are the cause of the current rise in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.  I don’t eat much of these sweet recipes myself.  But I think that kids don’t function that well on too low of carbs and as I transition my kids to paleo foods, it helps to feed them something really yummy!   Now you ask “so, why not use a sugar substitute?”.  Good question. My answer is that I just don’t like them.  I definitely fall under the Julia Child philosophy of I’d rather eat an occasional little piece of the real thing than a giant bowl of the imitation (I think she was talking about mashed potatoes made with butter versus milk, but I can’t quite remember).

Why am I so suspicious of sweeteners?  Well, different sweeteners cause me different heebee geegies, but it boils down to how sugar substitutes affect insulin and hunger hormones.  Some of the natural sweeteners, like agave syrup, contain a large percentage of fructose.  While it is true that this is a low glycemic load sweetener, it’s also true that consuming alot of fructose completely messes with your insulin, leptin and other hunger hormones.  Fructose makes you hungrier.  Artificial sweeteners and some natural sweetners have been shown to do something similar.  For some people, they elicit an insulin response (basically, they taste sweet so your body releases some insulin before it realizes there isn’t actually any glucose in there!), which drops your blood glucose, so your body tells you to consume more glucose, so you feel hungry.  I just don’t like messing with this.

So why don’t I stick with honey and maple syrup?  I do in some cases, but I’m not opposed to small doses of white or brown sugar.  All of these sugars are basically half fructose and half glucose, so they have nearly identical effects on your body chemistry.  There is some benefit to using raw, unprocessed sugars (like Blackstrap Molasses or Tropical Traditions Organic Whole Cane Sugar or  Dark Muscovado Sugar) since these sugars do have some valuable trace minerals.  I generally choose which sugar (yes, these are all sugar) to use in my recipes based on chemistry (desired texture, other binders, etc.).  BUT I have to tell you one very important thing.  When you stick to a strict paleo diet, your sugar taste buds get REALLY sensitive.  This means that eating something that wouldn’t have tasted very sweet to you before, tastes GREAT!  Some of my sweet recipes are Kid Friendly (like my Paleo Snickerdoodles), which means there’s more sugar than most adults would want to consume except for very special occasions (or maybe this is a good post work-out food?).  I have other recipes that qualify as Paleo Treats (like my Almond Coconut Bars), which means maybe not sweet enough for the kids, but probably okay for a more frequent treat for adults. So, when you go to do some paleo baking, don’t worry so much about which form of glucose and fructose I’m using in my recipes so much as how much of it you eat.

Another KEY POINT here is that a lot of the sugar substitutes out there are quite a lot more expensive than the old standbys.  And I am doing this on a tight budget (and I’d rather put that extra cash toward some really good quality almond flour).  But, by all means play with other sweeteners, if that floats your boat.  I like the look of a lot of recipes from (and love the recipes that I’ve tried so far) and she often uses substitutes like stevia and yacon syrup in her baking.


How do you feel about Xylitol? At this point it’s the only sugar substitute I can tolerate… everything else bothers me, including stevia because of the histamine.

Can you please reference the studies that have influenced your opinion on Erythritol and Xylitol as I can’t find the serious adverse effects you speak of on the nih.

I personally love the taste of Madhava organic coconut sugar. I weaned myself off of Splenda and began using the coconut sugar a couple weeks ago. My next step is to try and bake with it (along with coconut flour).

Some Xylitol is made from birch trees and some Xylitol is made from corn. Corn – GMO potential and cross reactive to gluten = BAD. :) Be careful of how the xylitol is being processed, as well. Good luck.

Both ingredients are highly fermentable and known to preferentially feed Gram-negative bacteria. Erythritol may also cause a leaky gut and is known to increase virulence of some bacteria. I do not recommend it.

I read this and think.. This information is just about straight Paleo, NOT my Nightshade free autoimmune issues! Sugar is worse for autoimmune right? And the substitutes seem to conflict with the regimen of coconut free? Honey free?? All of your ideas of sweeteners conflict with something. I am overwhelmed by not having a sweetener to use so I get frustrated.. emotional eating is also among my problems and frustration makes that worse! I am still drinking three diet dr peppers a day (at work) and they have caffeine also. I need a mental imagery idea to convince me to stay clear of these. Or I need viable substitute. I have lost 40 lbs so far in little less than 3 months but am not counting calories. I work and dont always have time to cook like some people. .I am pain free (when I dont goof) so a lot is working well.. BUT…

Even with autoimmune disease, I think a little honey or maple syrup or molasses or evaporated cane juice or date sugar or fruit is better than any substitute. What’s important is that you regulate blood sugars, so that should guide how much you consume. If you need a little honey to get you off aspartame and caffeine, I think that’s fine.

I don’t know if this is legit for Paleo eating but I drink occasional sodas called ZEVIA that are sweetened with stevia. Cream Soda is my favorite flavor. But they also have a flavor called Dr. Zevia as a Dr. Pepper copy.

I tried these awhile back and had a moderate reaction (most severe reaction in awhile for me because I’m diligent about avoiding all grains). Based on the severity of my reaction I believe these contain corn products.

Maybe just try cutting out the pop first and then focus on the sugar later after you have established that healthy pattern. I know for me when there is too much change I get very overwhelmed. This last year I have been gluten free (I have hashimotos) and now I am grain free. Eventually I will progress in the aip diet. I seem to do far better when I make changes slowly.

Sweeteners are a large issue for people. I have found that having even a moderate carbohydrate intake (>50g/day) lowers my kidney function. While I know that saccharin is considered anathema by those in the health/natural genre I have found that that is the only sweetener/artificial sweetener that I can tolerate. Studies vindicated saccharin as not causing cancer and now carries no warning label. It is not a health food but it works for me.

Just FYI.. I have understood that honey has nightshades. 2800 plants seems logical there would be a few where the bees fly and truthfully my pain was so bad before the nightshade free diet… I cant go backwards. I will try the maple syrup but struggle that taste will change my tea flavor. Maybe just constantly using less and less regular sugar will work best for me. I don’t notice pain with sugar but am recovering diabetic (no meds now and good A1-C) but with only one kidney, so i want to stay ahead of any other problems.
I would like to compliment you on your diligence. You truly care about us and me being new to this that is so appreciated. The dietitian I am under, (his focus is more gluten free), he has told me items I can eat that you say no to, my experience so far is your autoimmune way is correct for me! But I have not actually been diagnosed with an autoimmune. No need to respond! You are awesome!

Yes, honey can be problematic if you have an allergy or sensitivity to the pollen from any of the plants the bees go to… the proteins that are a problem in nightshades aren’t in the pollen though, so there’s no need to avoid honey if you have nightshade intolerance (unless as I said, it’s an allergy to nightshade pollen).

I’ve been on the paleo for 6 months and AIP for another 1 month. I have found that eating anything I shouldn’t (type 1 diabetic for 44 years) will sharply increase my insulin needs independent of carbohydrate content. The increased need will last for over 24 hours. For me having to much of any one sugar (artificial or natural) causes a problem. Mixing smaller amounts doesn’t cause a reaction. I don’t know why that should be since the total sugar load is the same. But for the few items where I want some sweetness if I mix sweeteners I seem to have no adverse symptoms.

I actually think it’s fine. The big issue with rice is gluten cross-reactivity, but the syrup would have almost no protein. So, if it’s well tolerated, I think it’s a good option.

HI Sarah, Thanks for this information.
What do you think of Yacon flour which says it contains fructo-oligosaccharides?


Someone else asked about this recently, and Sarah’s answer was that yacon is very high in fructose and fructooligosaccharides, which can cause a variety of issues. She does not recommend it. — Tamar, Sarah’s assistant

I love your blog! It seems like just as I come across something that I am unsure about, you post something related. Yesterday while at the store, I kept coming across dextrose in the ingredient lists. How does this compare against other sweeteners (I am assuming that is why it was in the product – deli meat and pepperoni)? Thank you!!

Sarah & Tamara, Is there an answer to the question concerning Swerve? I have hear some good and some not so good things. The whole thing is confusing to me.

There’s no way to cheat sugar. The body can actually handle small amounts of real sugar better than any substitute. Both ingredients in swerve are highly fermentable and known to preferentially feed Gram-negative bacteria. Erythritol may also cause a leaky gut and is known to increase virulence of some bacteria. I do not recommend it.

I come from a long line of diabetics. I’ve been making change and using Agave syrup for the low glycemic effects but now I’m reading that it’s not good for me. How much is too much? What do you suggest I use to sweeten my tea which is what I only use it for in the mornings or sometimes at night. And what do you suggest for baking? Thanks!

Hi Sarah,
In Australia we are able to buy powdered glucose which I use as the sweetener in my kids’ desserts and treats. We are all Paleo but like you, feel like kids have higher energy needs and their bodies have much better insulin regulation. The glucose seems a nice clean sugar as it is not as sweet as table sugar, and we save the fructose for all the fruit they eat!
Thanks for all of your great research!

As a diabetic i can guarantee you that artificial sweeteners absolutely do NOT make your body release insulin and your blood sugar drop. Your tongue tastes sweetness not your pancreas. Your body doesnt metabolize sugar alcohols or the chemicals in fake sweeteners so no insulin is released. If it did anyone who gulped a can of sugar free pop would be dead.
All carbs turn to sugars in your body. Doesnt matter what plant they are from. All natural sweeteners hit your body the same. There’s no difference between coconut sugar or beet sugar to your pancreas. It pumps out the same insulin for both. ( each have 4 grams of sugar per teaspoon) The only natural sweetener i have found that is carb free is Stevia.
All complex carbs become sugar in your body too, they just take a little bit longer to break down.

I have found that there is no way to cook or bake without some sort of sweeteners and I share your opinion on artificial sweeteners.
I personally use dextrose in my baking and cooking, since that is what insulin transforms into energy for us, it is a bit more expensive than normal sugar but normal sugar is 50% fructose and insulin does not work on that and if I understand correctly it is processed by the liver and transformed into fat and we have to burn that fat to use it as energy.
Since I started doing this and completely stopped consuming fructose I have lost 22 kg over 3 months.

Thanks for this great site

All the “…ose” sugars are just that… Sugar. Dextrose, fructose, glucose, sucrose… They all become glucose in your blood stream (hence why diabetics test their blood glucose…) Insulin works on them all the same as they are all sugars. Sugar from sugar cane, beets, agave, bananas, oranges, rice, potatoes, wheat, milk, and every other carb out there all make your body produce insulin to store it in your muscles as future energy. Extra carbs eaten are transformed into fat and stored but it takes 1/4 of them as the energy required to transform them (probably why people who eat too many carbs get tired after eating – your body is burning lots of energy to store the excess) Marketing is confusing a lot of people right now. Buy the most natural source of sweetener you can and realize that it all works the same inside your body. It’s just the chemicals from processing and the taste that are different. :-)

This place is awesome! I am SO excited to do this!

I have Hashimotos and yesterday began AIP (boy this is a ride!), in hopes to rid my body of some of these nasty symptoms. My Dr. has also recommended I do this diet, so here I am!

I have a question (trying to find it, because I know it must be on here somewhere):
Can tanking blood sugar and lack of water cause a flare up in symptoms? I have, at one point, had bad Seborrheic Dermatitis, but it resolved with in a month of diet changes. After that I every so often have just an all over crazy itchy face and/or eye brows. That is predominately the symptom I experience when I believe my blood sugar must be low, or I need more water. Sometimes I also randomly experience a flare up in my thyroid, as I have a goiter and can tell when it is aggravated (throbs, like it is injured).

Do you have any info to direct me to with in your blog that might help me in understanding better what is happening?

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