Is Sugar Paleo?

March 6, 2012 in Categories: , , by

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One of the most frequent questions I get about my recipes is why do I sometimes use sugar? Aren’t we supposed to be avoiding sugar?  Isn’t refined sugar the cause of the Diseases of Civilization?  As previously outlined in my post Why Is Sugar Bad?, sugar should not be a staple of our diets.  But just like prehistoric man would have made a feast of fruit when it was in season or enjoyed a good dose of honey when it could be found, an occasional sugary treat is okay (depending of course on your personal goals, how far away from those goals you are, and what health issues you are challenged with; see my post How To Cheat and Stay on Track for ideas of how often you might indulge).  But the big question here is: when you do allow yourself a paleo treat, does it matter what it’s sweetened with?

The answer is yes and no.  Let’s start with the sugars and sweeteners that I dislike.  I am opposed to non-sugar sweeteners (both artificial and natural) for two reasons:  1) some of these sweeteners cause gut irritation; and 2) these sweeteners can cause a spike in insulin which leads to blood sugar crashes because you aren’t consuming glucose which can lead to hormone disregulation and/or sugar cravings (as I explained more in my post Sugar vs. Sweeteners).  I am opposed to high fructose content sweeteners, like agave syrup, because the fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, so the amount of toxic byproducts produced is disproportionately high compared to higher glucose content sugars.  In addition, high fructose consumption can drastically decrease leptin (the hunger hormone) sensitivity, so your appetite increases.  Fiber-based sweeteners like coconut palm sugar, which is predominantly inulin, seem to be a good solution for many people since the glycemic index is very low.  However, these concentrated sources of soluble fibers can irritate the gut and contribute to Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, especially in larger doses.  Just like sucrose, natural sources of these fibers (like fruit and vegetables) provide health benefits but once you concentrate it and start consuming larger quantities, health issues occur (but, I do think coconut palm sugar is okay in small doses if you have a very healthy gut).

So what sugars are left that are okay for occasional consumption?  Really, this just leaves glucose or a mix of 50% glucose and 50% fructose (like what sucrose, a.k.a. sugar, is made of).  We can take our cues from nature:  most fruit contains approximately half glucose and half fructose.  This half and half mix of fructose and glucose seems to be a pretty happy medium that doesn’t cause too much stress on the pancreas or the liver or produce too many toxic byproducts, as long as the amount we are eating is relatively low (if you really really want me to quantify this, I would suggest limiting the carbohydrate grams of any special treat to 15-30g).  This ability of the body to handle a small dose of sugar is especially true when the sugar source in question contains insoluble fiber (which is why fresh fruit is a great choice for a paleo dessert).  I will talk about the merits of using dates or other dried fruit as a sugar source for baking in a future post.

But there are choices when it comes to sugar: from raw honey to sucanat to refined white table sugar.  Which is better?  The answer is that there really isn’t much to differentiate them.  You get some beneficial trace minerals when you use sucanat, molasses, muscovado sugar, honey and maple syrup (I emphasize the word “trace” since the contribution to the mineral content of whatever you are baking is so small; and, we’ve already discussed the importance of keeping the amount you consume low).  Raw honey is reported to have a variety of additional health benefits.  But when we compare the glucose and fructose content and the glycemic index (which reflects the glucose content but also how easy that glucose is to absorb), there isn’t a whole lot of difference, and only a slight benefit to expensive unrefined sugars:

The Paleo Mom-approved sugars (as long as you keep the dose low!):
Saccharide Content
% Fructose
% Glucose
% Sucrose
% Other
Glycemic Index
Vitamin/Mineral Content
White Sugar
0
0
100
0
65
none
Brown Sugar
1
1
97
1
65
none
Raw Honey
45
35
1
14
50 (varies)
Vitamin A, B1, B6, B12, C, D, E, Folic Acid, Calcium, Sodium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Silicon, Iron, Manganese, Copper
Maple Syrup
1
4
95
0
55
Manganese, Zinc
Molasses
23
21
53
3
55
Vitamin A, Vitamin B (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper, Chromium, Phosphorus, Manganese, Sodium, Potassium, Selenium
Sucanat
(Evaporated Cane Juice)
Muscovado/Barbados
Sugar
2
2
88
8
55
Vitamin A, Vitamin B (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper, Chromium, Phosphorus, Manganese, Sodium, Potassium
Turbinado Sugar
(Raw sugar)
1
1
97
1
65
negligible

Note: This table is compiled from a few dozen sources and the data presented are averages.  Since some of these sugars contain varying amounts of the different saccharides depending on exactly where and how they are produced, the numbers may not reflect the version that you have purchased.  Honey is especially variable in its glucose and fructose content. 

I believe that if you are going to have a sweet treat, then just use sugar, whichever of the above forms of sugar you prefer for taste, for mineral content, or for price.  This is why I sometimes use plain old brown sugar in my recipes (sure, I give up those trace vitamins and minerals but I also save a ton of money).  Go ahead and swap it out for sucanat or muscovado sugar if you prefer.  You would be making a small improvement in terms of mineral content and glycemic index.  But given how similar these sugars are chemically, the most important factor isn’t which one you choose, but how much of it you consume.  

Comments

Sarah, I am trying to sort this sugar thing out. I have read so many different things. I have recipes that call for Stevia and Agave Nectar. I was all set to make them and call them healthy until I read your article and other on the controversy of agave nectar. Have you had a chance to look into dates as a sweetener? How would you modify recipes that call for Stevia or Agave Nectar? Maybe I should just stick to fruit :)

I love dates and use them frequently. I think dried fruit are the best source of sugar for a sweet recipe. When a recipe calls for agave, I substitute 1:1 with honey. When a recipe calls for stevia, I usually keep looking for other versions of the recipe or do a big modification to sweeten with plain sugar or honey (depending on what it is, I might have to add a binder like egg or something like coconut flour to absorb the extra moisture). I hope this helps!

Thank you Sarah! Awesome advice once again :-) Now I can make the scones and Blueberry muffins recipes that I found with the agave. I made your French Toast last night and it was a hit with the whole family! That was a first. My husband and oldest son who are most critical of this new lifestyle used words like delicious, really good, I want this again. Thank you for helping me on this journey to healthy living.

From Sarah’s response to one of the other comments: “Coconut sugars are very high in the fiber inulin. This is why they are low glycemic index, but inulin is also a gut irritant, especially when isolated/concentrated as in the case of coconut/palm sugar. I think small amounts here and there aren’t likely to cause too much of an issue for most people, but I don’t think it’s a healthy sugar substitute for daily consumption.” – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

so, are we supposed to be having any sugar for daily consumption? how does that go with the ‘treat’ idea?

Sugar has applications outside of treats. If you have tea every morning but like to sweeten it a little, some sugars will be better than others for consumption that frequent. – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

I think it’s important to keep in mind that humans can live & thrive incredibly well with ZERO sugar. Indigenous arctic peoples have done this for thousands of years, without suffering from diseases of civilization (except osteoporosis, from not eating enough vegetables, & the acid-load of a 100% animal diet). The common notion that “we NEED some carbs in our diet” is incorrect. Your body can make all the sugar it needs by consuming healthy animal fats, protein, and vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, fruit is AMAZING for you. But even that in moderation. And refined/concentrated sugars….just keep in mind it’s only because you want it, not that you need it.

I agree with you completely! Although, I might add that people with a history of obesity and/or metabolic derangement tend not to do well on extremely low carb diets because their bodies are so inefficient at gluconeogenesis, at least until they have corrected the hormone imbalances and sensitivities (which can be done through exercise, weight loss, and low-carb paleo, just not super low carb).

I am strict about the mind-set regarding refined/concentrated sugars, because they are non-essential to our diet, and because they cause common catastrophic illnesses. I hear others comment on how they “need” sugar/carbs for various reasons: to stay awake, for the extra energy, to get through this exam/task, because it’s better than artificial sweeteners, etc. These “reasons” are actually excuses. Healthy humans never need refined sugars. However, you make an interesting point that for obese (i.e. unhealthy) individuals, perhaps it is not an excuse…sugars are needed & excessively craved for various metabolic reasons. However I argue that these craved sugars can be obtained through fresh fruit.

I understand that sometimes it helps people stay balanced & remain on track, to enjoy their favorite dessert on a rare occasion. I just prefer the mind-set that refined sugars are actually never paleo, & admitting that refined sugars are for enjoyment purposes only (which are sometimes important! As long as it is done sparingly. There is no point in living when you can never enjoy certain favorite foods.).

So in short, my personal answer to the title question is: No, refined/concentrated sugars are definitely not paleo. But sometimes, sparingly, it is okay to be not-paleo. (Think Cordain’s 85-15 rule, or even better 90-10 or 95-5) Unless you are extremely autoimmune. Then be strict until your body’s inflammation goes away & heals fully. Then carefully & sparingly test common trigger foods & listen to your bodys reaction.

I agree with you completely. My point is more that on the odd occasion that we do allow ourselves a treat, that it really doesn’t matter what type of sugar we use (no rationalizing that it’s okay because it’s made with honey).

ok, but if we’re only having treats on an odd occassion, then the price of a sweetener shouldn’t matter. so we might as well get the trace minerals in there also, even if the unrefined sweeteners are more expensive.

i don’t think it will kill anyone to have some refined sugar once in a while. but, that’s about all you can find outside of your own kitchen, why deliberately add it when you’re going to the trouble of making something from scratch?

I think you contradicted yourself. You state that the notion that we NEED some carbs is incorrect, then you state in the following sentence that our body can make sugar from fats, protein and vegetables. Veggies are carbs. If it’s not a fat or protein, it’s a carb. I agree we don’t need carbs to be healthy, our hunter gatherers probably didn’t consume much, if any, carbs. That would mean we don’t need fruit or veggies. You won’t find many veggies in the wild anyway, other than herbs, which were used for medicinal properties not as food. We have been sold on the idea that huge salads are so good for us. I don’t think so. We don’t have the digestion or enzymes to break down the tough cellulose in plants. That is why we eat the animals that eat the plants. Healthy animal fats, meat and eggs are the easiest to digest. Then fruit. I love fruit but when I ate almost all fruit and no meat, it screwed up my health big time. I feel best when eating no carbs or very little. I also think this fungal epidemic we have is related to too much carb consumption, even fruit. Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts. You brought up some great points about carbs. :)

Would love to know your take on coconut sugars. Love your site,I find it so easy to understand and the way you’ve broken it down helps to not feel overwhelmed,especially when just starting out.I’ve been slowly working towards going full paleo for a year now.Thank you for all you do to help us all. : )

Coconut sugars are very high in the fiber inulin. This is why they are low glycemic index, but inulin is also a gut irritant, especially when isolated/concentrated as in the case of coconut/palm sugar. I think small amounts here and there aren’t likely to cause too much of an issue for most people, but I don’t think it’s a healthy sugar substitute for daily consumption.

In the SCD diet (Breaking the viscious Cylcle) she says that honey alone is OK for trying to regain a healthy gut flora, because it is made up of monosacharides. She says that unlike most of the other sweetners which are made up of disachrides, honey is absorbed by your body quickly because of its simple structure so that it never makes it to you gut to serve as a food source for the “bad” bacteria. For there reasons, isn’t there a case to be made that honey is superior? From my own experience, I find honey much more tolerable than most other sweetners.

I had a reaction to Xylitol today. I used it in a Sweet & Sour pork recipe last night, then ate the leftovers for lunch today. Bloating, stomach gurgling and extra trips to the bathroom tonight! I buy Xylitol for my husband who is Type 2 dabetic. This was the first time I’ve used it….and the last!

Paleo Mom, I am so excited that a found your blog today! I so need your help! I found a recipe for Cherry BBQ sauce, it calls for 1/4 cup of brown sugar. I was thinking about just leaving it out completely and relying on the cherries for the sweetness… I found my love for cooking while eating Paleo and I’m still learning. What would you suggest? Would you use honey?

You are so sweet! Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to help me! I truly appreciate it! By the way, I love the cave girl pencil drawings, they are great! I’ll let you know how the BBQ sauce turns out. I can point you to the site where I found the recipe if you would like to try it. I just didn’t want to be rude and put that on your blog.

I have a sugar sensitivity and use Stevia which I understand to be a healthy choice. Do you incorporate this plant ingredient into a paleo diet recipes?

Thank you so much for this article! I think all those unrefined sugars deserve a place in Paleo baking/cooking…especially since it’s a mouthful to say “grain-free, soy-free, dairy-free, unrefined sugar free!” :)

We are just beginning our journey going paleo. I have seen Swerve mentioned in lots of other recipes (not here) on other websites. Just curious what your thoughts were on that product. Thank you so much for sharing your wealth of knowledge!!

Erythritol has been shown to open up tight junctions between epithelial cells so it may contribute to a leaky gut. Oligosaccharides are very difficult to digest and may help feed bacterial overgrowths.

I do primarily stevia due to diabetes. I mostly use it in drinks, coffee, lemonade, cause I can’t do them completely unsweetened and find dosing insulin just to drink to be too much hassle. I use it in a FEW recipes intended to be shared, but they have to be strong tasting otherwise or hubby objects to the stevia flavor. Like I can get away with it for pickles or cole slaw, but not for regular baking.

Baking for just him, I use muscovado; for both of us, I use honey. And I keep molasses and maple syrups around for things that need those flavors, but we use little of them.

I like your factual account of the differences and agree 100%. I’ve often said of the “healthy” cooking things I do, buying “whole sugars” is the least useful. The mineral content is extremely minimal and frankly, if you get a significant amount of minerals from sugar, you’ve got way worse dietary problems than possible mineral deficiencies anyways. I would keep pastured meats, eggs and dairy and organic “dirty dozen” produce long after I had gone back to white sugar; it’s just not very important in the scheme of things.

But I do think there’s another advantage to the natural sweeteners, namely that they have very distinctive tastes beyond just “sweet”. As such, it is much harder to massively overeat them. It’s much easier to increase white sugar consumption a little at a time as there’s no flavor there; e.g. a person can learn to like 2 tablespoons of white sugar in a mug of coffee, but it’s harder to like that much molasses.

While hubby’s sugar consumption has dropped a lot since we married, it’s dropped even more since I switched to muscovado. The majority of granular sugar around here gets used in his coffee, and I buy WAY less than I used to. And when he’s out somewhere and using white sugar instead, he uses less of that too. To me, that is a way bigger advantage than it not being “processed” or having some minerals.

I also had to cut the amount of sugar in cookies and brownies WAY down when we switched to muscovado – they were just so rich, like eating fudge. Instead of the first tray of cookies immediately disappearing, we’d eat maybe 2 or 3.

So it seems to me that natural sugars tend to have portion-control built in compared to white sugar.

I’m new to these diet changes because of Dr’s orders. Taking everything you have written on sugar vs sweeteners vs natural forms of sweetening, what is best for someone to control their sugar (at 100) so as not to become pre- or full diabetic? Being GF also, I have cut out all sugar, except for dates, figs, very little honey and maple and adopted a semi-paleo diet, using mainly nut flours. Now after I bought stevia, agave and coconut sugar crystals … because of other paleo recipe blogs … I really shouldn’t use them? There is so much to learn about the paleo philosophy and foods. You really have background in this area. And I like your suggestion that it matters how much, not which type; however, I lean toward the vitamin content and portion control.

I am on the fence about coconut sugar crystals (there’s a lot of controversy about exactly what kinds of sugars are in them, so that doesn’t help me when it comes to forming a strong opinion one way or the other). I am completely opposed to agave and don’t think stevia is a good idea for most people (but stevia once in a while is probably okay).

Thanks, this was a really great article. I’ve been paleo for about 6 months now & have been sticking to honey or occasionally maple syrup but recently realised that I wasn’t actually sure of the scientific reasons why. In my research this morning this is the clearest info I’ve found. I think honey will still be my preference but I’m glad to realise that it wouldn’t be so terrible to use muscavado in my Christmas cake this year! :)

thank you for this post. I am just in the process of researching this ‘diet’ as I am trying to rethink my eating habits. You bring up lots of points I have not even considered. I have been using splenda as a replacement for sugar as well as half splenda/half sugar for my coffee. not sure what to believe with all the conflicting information out there. Your information seems very thorough and gives explanations for why you believe certain things are better than others or why they might not make a difference. I appreciate your taking the time to spell it out.

It’s probably the least problematic of the sugar alcohols, but there’s evidence in cell culture studies that erythritol opens up the tight junctions between epithelial cells, which could potentially cause a leaky gut. I don’t endorse any sugar substitutes.

[…] *A note on molasses: There are varying viewpoints about whether or not molasses is technically Paleo. Molasses is made when sugar cane syrup is boiled down — and when that syrup is boiled down again, blackstrap molasses is made. My position is that blackstrap molasses is totally acceptable as a Paleo sweetener, as it doesn’t suffer the same disadvantages of refinement that white table sugar does. Additionally, I think you could go as far as to consider blackstrap molasses one of your best choices for Paleo sweetening, since it contains many vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, Vitamin B (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper, Chromium, Phosphorus, Manganese, Sodium, Potassium, and Selenium. This again differentiates it from table sugar, which does not contribute anything nutritionally (other than calories). Also, let’s be real. Molasses is delicious. If you still aren’t drinking my Kool-Aid, feel free to just leave it out! You can read more here and here. […]

Ok so I have a teaspoon of coconut palm sugar in my coffee everyday because I thought it was better for my hormones than white sugar :( should I stop??

Well I don’t eat sugar anywhere else in my diet and I use virgin organic coconut oil and grass fed butter as my creamer but I still wanted to sweeten it.. Yes I know I don’t NEED it, but it’s what I like and want and I was just trying to find the best option for my morning treat :) thank you for replying!

For people who say they need a sweetener for their coffee or other beverage, I’d like to say that the taste buds can be re-educated. I think for most people it just takes time–probably a few weeks before you actually prefer the unsweetened variety. You can either decrease the sweetener gradually or all at once or go without the drink completely for a while, then re-introduce without sweetener. My daughter used to use sugar and half & half in her coffee but switched to heavy cream and no sugar. That’s the way I drink it also.

Thank you ! I’m in the middle of your book, but it’s nice to have updates like this :)

There seem to be a little mistake in the text “only a slight benefit to expensive unrefined sugars”. Shouldn’t it be “UNexpensive” ?

Also in the context of strength training, I use to use pure dextrose as a fact acting carb source post-workout. On the SCD Elaine says pure dextrose is ok.

Do you reckon pure dextrose post workout is OK on the AIP ?

Thank you !

For whatever reason, my body will crave regular sugar when exposed. It does not have the same attraction to coconut sugar, honey, and maple (although coconut sugar seems to be the best).

Besides the health issues, my criteria is how possible it would be to harvest something locally and then make or process it in my kitchen. Growing most of the plants that sugar is processed from isn’t possible in Oregon. And even if I could grow them the process of making sugar from them is more suitable to a factory or lab environment than a home kitchen. There are also the environmental and social issues that surround the growing, processing, shipping and marketing of most sweet substances. I do use some local honey sparingly.
Keep it local and simple.

[…] *A note on molasses: There are varying viewpoints about whether or not molasses is technically Paleo. I don’t follow a strict Paleo diet, but, assuming you might, here is some more information. Molasses is made when sugar cane syrup is boiled down — and when that syrup is boiled down again, blackstrap molasses is made. My position is that blackstrap molasses is totally acceptable as a Paleo sweetener, as it doesn’t suffer the same disadvantages of refinement that white table sugar does. Additionally, I think you could go as far as to consider blackstrap molasses one of your best choices for Paleo sweetening, since it contains many vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, Vitamin B (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6), Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper, Chromium, Phosphorus, Manganese, Sodium, Potassium, and Selenium. This again differentiates it from table sugar, which does not contribute anything nutritionally (other than calories). If you’re still not drinking my Kool-Aid, feel free to substitute honey or maple syrup. You can read more about molasses here and here. […]

Thank you for this information. I have always baked low in sugar. I usually use half of the sugar in a recipe because most recipes are way too sweet! Glad that I can still use it form time to time :)

I see evaporated cane juice in parenthesis to describe sucanat, which confuses me. Whenever I find ECJ, it is crystallized and a caramel color. However, sucanat is brown and a powder/dirt like consistency instead of crystals. Are they “the same”????

I purchased demarra because the ingredient was evaporated cane syrup. Is this still ok? I am confused by it not being Paleo but the ingredient was the same as sucanat.

Sarah has previously said: “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.” – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

Do to severe stomach issues I can’t have sugar/ fructose at all. So no fruits whatsoever either. I find I can substitute with rice malt syrup in cooking muffins and cakes and it always turns out ok. But it rice malt syrup really ok?? I have no sugar in tea or coffee, only have the syrup on my GF porridge or in a baked sweet treat.

From Sarah’s comment on another post: “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.” – Christina, Sarah’s assistant

When I do use dry sugar, I use Coconut Palm now for 2 years. But a few minutes ago, I ordered 2# Sucanat from Pureformulas. A review mentioned a strong flavor that needs “getting used too”. Does sucanat prompt one to use more flavoring to mask some strong flavor? What am I “in for” in altering my recipes. Ingredients are precious and costly and I would rather adjust than offer family a treat with an unexpected unpleasant taste. thnx.

[…] **NOTE- I used the coconut palm sugar in the two recipes, which is why they a have a richer brown color than described or photographed in the book. While coconut palm sugar is not entirely considered AIP because it can be a gut irritant, I personally do not have a problem with it. I will leave the choice of sweetener up to you, but for your personal reading you can check out the Paleo Mom’s post on sugar here. […]

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