Sweeteners: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


One of the most common topics I navigate involves sugar, sugar substitutes, and natural sweeteners. We’ve all heard that sugar is toxic and that it’s responsible for making us fat; dietary fat is not the enemy here. If you want to read about 143 ways sugar ruins your health, check out Get the Sugar Out author Nancy Appleton’s convincing list. A few high points:

  • Sugar suppresses immune function
  • Sugar reduces HDL cholesterol and increases LDL
  • Sugar causes mineral deficiency
  • Sugar makes you acidic. An acidic body is prone to degeneration, pain, and illness
  • Sugar feeds candida (bad bacteria in your gut), causing dysbiosis. Read: poor digestion, inability to absorb nutrients from food (leading to increased cravings and weight gain), gas and bloating.
  • Sugar worsens ADD and hyperactivity in children
  • Sugar is addictive. More so than crack, apparently.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Sugar is wildly addictive and is, in my opinion, one of the worst health crises facing this country currently. Eating excess sugar can cause myriad health problems from diabetes to heart disease to cancer. Sugar, in one form or another, is present in almost all packaged and processed foods and hides in “health” foods under healthful sounding names such as beet sugar, brown rice syrup, or evaporated cane juice. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig. Sugar is sugar, and it still has the same harmful and addictive effects on health.

Eating sugar causes you to crave more sugar, and once you’re on that roller coaster, it’s hard to get off. You experience energy highs and lows, irritability, cravings, weight gain, difficulty sleeping, and foggy thinking, to name a few side effects. Internally, you’re subject to immune suppression, inflammation, high blood glucose and high insulin, putting you at risk for diabetes and increased fat storage, high triglycerides and high cholesterol. Sugar has also been linked to cancer growth: many cancerous tumors in the body have insulin receptors on their outer shell. Insulin in the body binds with the receptors and signals cancer to start consuming glucose.

If you fight the sugar craving beast every day, try a sugar detox. Just get off it for 21 days. The first week can be hairy, but it’s worth it to not have that monkey on your back. Side effects: weight loss. Better and more even moods. Better energy. During these 21 days, you should steer clear of all sweeteners to retrain your palette. For the great beyond, it’s up to you to determine how much sweet stuff you can handle and in what forms, but I’ve compiled a list of the best and worst sweeteners.

1. Xylitol: I’m a big fan of xyltiol. It was first used in Finland and is derived from the fiber of the birch tree. Get this: xyltiol doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, doesn’t feed intestinal yeast, is actually good for teeth and gums (!), can be swapped out for regular sugar 1:1 in recipes, and is safe for diabetics. I can attest to the fact that it doesn’t jack you like regular sugar because I am very sugar sensitive (meaning i feel CRACKED OUT when i bake with sugar and taste test the batter repeatedly), and I don’t get the same effect when I use xyltiol. On another note, I actually use less xyltiol in recipes because I think a) most recipes call for too much sugar anyway and b) xylitol may actually be sweeter than cane sugar. This kind is 100 percent birch sugar, non GMO, not derived from corn.


xylitol is granulated like sugar and can be swapped out 1:1 for sugar in recipes.

2. Coconut palm sugar: comes from the nectar of the coconut palm tree. Low on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t jack your blood sugar and shouldn’t lead to sugar cravings. It’s nutrient-rich and unrefined (no chemicals used in the extraction process). Coconut palm sugar is the nectar acquired from the flowers growing high on coconut trees. The nectar is air-dried to form a crystalline sugar that’s naturally rich in potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6. It has a rich, nutty taste and is a lovely dark/golden brown.

3. Raw honey, grade B maple syrup, molasses: I’m not *crazy* about using these sweeteners frequently (every day), but they are mineral and enzyme-rich and unrefined. Raw honey has some decent health benefits, and molasses is notoriously high in iron. These are natural sweeteners but are a bit higher on the glycemic index, meaning they may spike blood sugar, especially in sensitive individuals. When my clients ask me if honey is an acceptable sweetener, I tell them to notice how it makes them feel. If you feel that honey makes you crave more sugar when you eat it, avoid.

4. Unrefined stevia: green in color (avoid the white, which is refined), stevia is 30 times sweeter than sugar, yet has no effect on insulin levels. 0 in the glycemic index, meaning it has no effect on blood sugar levels. Made from the leaves of the stevia herb, which are dried and milled into a powder. I don’t recommend using too much stevia, but a little is fine.


unrefined green stevia

1. Refined sugars: white cane sugar (sucrose), brown sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup. Avoid corn syrup at all costs: it stresses the liver and increases oxidized fat. Chemicals used in the extraction process; highly processed; contains chemicals and anti-caking agents; all high on glycemic index, meaning sugar crash is imminent; leaches minerals from the body.

2. Unrefined sugars: sucanat, turbinado, rapadura. These fancy sugars are the lipstick on the pig I described earlier. Although they aren’t as refined and stripped as white sugar, and some are even organic or extracted directly from sugar cane and dried, they still have the same action on the body as regular cane sugar. Organic and unrefined is a plus, but still high on glycemic index, causing blood sugar spikes, insulin surge, and cravings.

3. Agave nectar: highly processed and high in fructose. Doesn’t spike insulin or blood sugar, but too much fructose is insidious. When fructose enters the liver, the liver can’t process it all fast enough for the body to use as glucose for fuel. To compensate, it converts the fructose to fats and sends them off into the bloodstream as triglycerides. High triglycerides = heart disease risk. As osteopath Dr. Mercola says, “While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”

4. Corn syrup: for God’s sake, avoid corn syrup. Also high in fructose and highly refined. Read my post on corn syrup here.

And here.

5. Any fake sugar: splenda, aspartame, Nutra-Sweet, Sweet N Low, whatever. Even cane sugar is better for you than these 100 percent chemically toxic agents. Neurotoxic (causes brain cell death and linked to a number of neurological issues, even epilepsy) and can actually cause weight gain. Folks, avoid this like the plague. Read my post on diet sodas and sugar subs here.

Read all my posts on sugar:
How to smash sugar cravings
How to get off the sugar roller coaster
Kick off a sugar detox
More on sugar cravings
Avoid diabetes

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  1. Bethany says

    Xylitol is sometimes derived from corn, so just make sure you know where it comes from, everyone! :)

  2. says

    I think this is one of the most significant info for me.
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  3. says

    I don’t use or recommend it because it can cause major GI upset and isn’t naturally derived (xylitol is at least made from the birch tree).

  4. shaheen says

    why do you not recommend the “white” stevia and why don’t you recommend too much of it?

  5. Becky says

    Does birch tree xylitol cause diarrhea? I ask because after buying a huge bag of corn xylitol, we found that it causes diarrhea in our family :/.

  6. Christine says

    Thanks Mary, I was curious about this, Rapadura in a lot of so called health products. Also, Organic Agave Syrup, it said agave, so I passed on that one also.

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