Guide to Sweeteners and why we use them

Evolving Sweeteners

20 years ago I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, hypoglycemia, hypothyroidism and had zero tolerance for sweets. Even eating fresh fruit gave me headaches and fatigue.

After opening my mind to the Leaky Gut model for understanding overall health I began wending my way through a forest of uncertainty and an ocean of literature about natural health and healing with many conflicting voices about what was and was not essential to restoring me to vibrant health.

Taking my body’s pain messaging system as my guide, I eliminated every single food that made me feel bad, including fruit. Employing every measure God put in my path to restore integrity to my bowel and other immune defenses, our kitchen became a laboratory of food science. 

Vegetable Glycerin and Fruit Juice

The earliest baked goods I tried on my completely sweetener free special diet were Oat Bran Muffins sweetened with vegetable glycerin. They would never win prizes at large, but to me they were a treat. I found other low or no sugar recipes at the back of Back to Health: A Comprehensive Guide to Overcoming Yeast Related Illness by Dennis Remington. After three months work to heal my body, I began introducing fresh fruit again, just half a green apple a day. I picked up ‘Desserts to Lower Your Fat Thermostat’, by Barbara Higa, and began using fruit juices, primarily white grape juice concentrate, to create an even broader repertoire of culinary creations.

Honey and maple Syrup

After about a year I could tolerate a little honey without effect, so I combed through my old cookbooks for recipes I could modify. It was so fun to watch my options grow! I adapted recipes replacing the amount of sugar called for with half or a third as much honey; I continued to use sweeteners sparingly. Rice flour muffins and Sweet ‘N Sour sauce had more bang with honey than with fruit juice, but today I continue using juice concentrates to sweeten fruity dishes like smoothies, pies, gelatins, sorbets and ice creams. Stevia Stevia is an herb that has a sweet taste, but contains no sugar. Nada. While it does not raise blood sugar, it in fact does the opposite. It ties up glucose, which quickly lowers blood sugar. For diabetics, this could be a useful tool, but for anyone with a history of low blood sugar problems it theoretically could lower blood sugar too much, although this was never the case for me. Begin by using small amounts and see how you feel after consuming it. The primary complaint about stevia is the herby aftertaste. But now that it’s available in crystalline form, my kids and I don’t mind the signature taste at all. This is the most desireable sweetener as it has absolutely zero carbs. Works well for ‘at the table’ sweetening. Not as awesome for baking.

Xylitol vs. other sugar alcohols

More and more products are being sweetened with sugar alcohols like xylitol, sorbitol, and maltitol, (the “ol” ending means alcohol.) These non-sacharride sweeteners taste the most like sugar because they once shared chemical bonds with the simple sugars themselves.

Xylitol is a naturally occurring form of the five carbon sugar xylose. Found in many fruits and vegetables such as plums, corn and strawberries, xylitol is even produced in small amounts in the human body. Advantages of xylitol over other sugar alcohols are that it is a native substance in the body that aids cellular transport, prevents bad bacteria from adhering to cell walls and can’t be digested by bad bacteria at all. It also comes in a granular crystal form that looks and tastes and performs very much like table sugar.

The main sources of commercially produced xylitol are birch bark and corn cobs and it has 40% fewer calories and 75% fewer carbs than sugar. Because it’s slowly absorbed and metabolized, it affects very little change in insulin. About 1/3 of xylitol is absorbed in the liver while the other 2/3 travel to the intestinal tract, where it is broken down by gut bacteria into short-chain fatty acids.

It has been used for over a hundred years in European countries and in recent years has had more than a thousand studies confirm its wide ranging health benefits. These include improving diabetes, hormone regulation, weight loss/control, osteoporosis, cavities, allergies, and ear, nose and upper respiratory infections.

I consider it a safe, healthful, natural sweetener. But beware! In commercial products like chewing gum, xylitol is usually coupled with aspartame, which is unquestionably bad news to your body. If you care about feeling good, you just have to read every label. Also know that because of its action against bad bacteria, xylitol can cause cleansing reactions if over consumed. As with any of the sugar alcohols, watch for a gassy reaction, dizziness or energy loss as a sign to scale back on your intake.


Agave nectar is another “naturally formed” sweetener on the market today. Extracted from the agave plant grown in the deserts of Mexico, historically it’s been used in the production of tequila. It has been widely marketed as great for diabetics, but beware. Agave is composed of 20% glucose and about 80% fructose, but overall it is 100% natural sugar. It’s almost identical in fructose/glucose composition to high fructose corn syrup which is also a “natural” 80/20 sweetener.

Make no mistake, it is not nectar at all, which would come from the half dozen blossoms the agave produces per year. Instead it is produced by taking the remaining agave roots and leaves (after removing the portion used in tequila production) and subjecting it to a high heat/chemical extraction process to reduce the root and leaves to syrup. Sweet juice could never be cold pressed out of this plant, which is what nectar traditionally means. It will affect your insulin levels, just not as much as table sugar. Good to keep in mind that the 80% fructose also impacts blood sugar levels via the liver, and overuse will eventually lead to both liver stress (just like high fructose corn syrup does) and glucose intolerance which is what diabetes is all about.

Agave will feed bacteria and yeast just like table sugar or honey. So use it sparingly if you’re well and not at all if you’re dealing with a leaky gut or yeast overgrowth. I choose it over honey because it doesn’t crystalize, and it dissolves in cold liquids. But I use it sparingly, when xylitol won’t work.

You can learn what recent science has to say about the health risks and benefits of any individual sweetener by further researching reliable sources on the web.

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