Paleo Plan

Paleo Sweeteners 101


 

honeyPaleo sweeteners are a confusing topic, and I receive a lot of questions from people about it. I’ve written about agave and coconut sap, but nothing specifically on raw honey, stevia, molasses, or grade B maple syrup, all of which are sweeteners I’d consider using if I were to make a Paleo treat.

Why Are Sweeteners So Taboo in The Paleo World?

So, the main reason our Paleo forefathers (Loren Cordain and company) suggested we not eat sweeteners was because we, as a culture, are overweight and metabolically imbalanced (ie diabetic or pre-diabetic). And sweeteners, when eaten too often, can make us gain weight and increase our blood glucose levels. In general. In the history of humanity, sweeteners have really taken off in popularity (not coincidentally) in the last 50 years, during which time we’ve gotten fatter and more diabetic. So yes, it makes sense that we should not be over-indulging in sweets. But you can’t prescribe the same diet to everyone, since not everyone is overweight and diabetic.

There are plenty of people who can and do tolerate sweeteners very well. I regularly eat sweeteners, and I’m not overweight and I haven’t had a cavity in about 10 years (knock on wood). I’m very active and my body responds particularly well to simple carbs, and particularly negatively to a low-carb diet. There are many other people out there just like me. So I’m not going to sit here and say that I don’t think anyone should be eating sweeteners. I think that’s ridiculous and dangerous to a lot of people, especially athletes, and especially endurance athletes. But I’ve written about this all before, so I’ll spare you the soap box for now :)

Hunter Gatherers and Sweeteners

Besides myself and other people in the modern world who tolerate sweeteners well, hunter gatherers, upon whom we’ve based this new Paleo diet, ate/eat sweeteners and were/are very healthy.

Honeyhoney has been a staple in the Maasai diet for quite some time, and they don’t have diabetes or weight problems.

He's jumping for joy because he gets to eat honey all the time.

He’s jumping for joy because he gets to eat honey all the time.

Maple Syrup – Native Americans of the United States were tapping maple trees to make syrup long before Europeans arrived on the scene. Or so say this article and wikipedia. In fact, they’d move their villages to the maple trees when they were in season in order to collect the sap and process it.

Coconut Sap – Now is the part where I was going to tell you that coconut sap was also used by traditional cultures, but I can’t find any evidence that it was. In fact, I’m finding evidence that–despite how easy it is to harvest the coconut nectar and turn it into sweetener–it isn’t a traditional product. Here’s an article about it. Moreover, it seems that when you tap a palm tree for its nectar, it no longer is capable of producing coconuts, which to me seems like a big waste of a tree. In any case, it easily could have been harvested by hunter gatherers…

Anyway, there’s evidence that plenty of hunter gatherers consume(d) sweeteners without developing obesity, diabetes, neurological damage, inflammation, etc. So the sweeteners themselves are not necessarily the problem. In my opinion, it’s that we’re over-consuming them, and we’re eating them in conjunction with inflammatory foods (grains, pasteurized dairy, seed oils), and causing some serious hormonal imbalances (insulin, leptin, cortisol, etc).

Who Should Not Eat Sweeteners?

So if sweeteners are eaten in moderation within a balanced Paleo diet, plenty of people will do quite well. No, someone with type 2 diabetes should not be eating Paleo muffins made with honey every day. No ma’am. And someone who’s trying to lose weight should probably not be having Paleo pancakes with maple syrup on them every morning. Each person, whether they’re overweight or diabetic or not, will have a different reaction to these sweeteners, so ultimately it’s your responsibility to listen to your body and act accordingly. Everyone is different.

Glycemic Loads of Sweeteners and Other Foods

Let’s look at the sweetener options and discuss their glycemic loads to really get a good idea of how they compare with other foods. The glycemic load (GL) is an accurate–more accurate than the glycemic index–way of describing how a certain serving of a food will affect your blood sugar levels. A food with a “low” GL is 10 or lower. A “medium” GL is 11-20, and a “high” GL is anything above 20, or so say the people who created the GL in the first place. In any case, here’s how some common sweeteners stack up.

  • 1 Tbs raw honey – 10
  • 1 Tbs refined honey (not raw) – 10
  • 1 Tbs agave – 3 (it’s mostly fructose so it doesn’t elicit a huge blood glucose response)
  • 1 Tbs pure maple syrup – 8
  • 1 Tbs fake maple syrup (made with high fructose corn syrup) – 8
  • 1 Tbs table sugar (sucrose) – about 10
  • 1 Tbs high fructose corn syrup – 8
  • 1 Tbs molasses – 9
  • stevia – 0

And here are some other foods to compare the sweeteners with…

  • medium banana – 10
  • PowerBar (sports bar) – 24
  • Snickers bar (regular size) – 23
  • 1 cup Baked sweet potato in skin – 17
  • 1 slice white bread – 9
  • 1 cup cooked lentils – 13
  • 1 cup Cheerios – 12
  • 1 cup Lucky Charms – 19
  • McDonald’s Cheeseburger – 17
  • 1 packet instant oatmeal – 11
  • 2 fried eggs – 0
  • 1 cup boiled broccoli – 4
  • 1 cup raw kale – 3
  • 1 medium apple – 5
  • 1 cup raw sliced mango – 8
  • 1 cup orange juice (unsweetened) – 8
  • 1 piece chocolate cake with chocolate frosting – 19
  • almond butter (any amount) – 0
  • chicken (or any meat in any amount) – 0

You can find out what the glycemic load is of most foods at www.nutritiondata.self.com. I also used this document from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition to find info.

What have we learned here? While sweeteners have a higher GL than vegetables in general, they’re not much higher than fruits, even though fruits have all that fiber to slow down the sugar load (or so we’ve been told). And they have about the same amount of carbs as fruit, too. A medium apple and a medium banana each contain about 25 grams of carbs, and a tablespoon of honey contains about 17 grams of carbs. All sweeteners are going to be about the same in that regard. So if you don’t overdo the sweetener, it’s very similar to eating a piece of fruit.

Sweeteners in A Nutshell

The reason I choose to use raw honey, coconut sap, molasses, and grade B maple syrup in my own life is that they’re highest in minerals and vitamins. They’re all “processed” in some way, so there’s really no getting around that. Bees use enzymes to make honey out of nectar, just as we use heat and sometimes enzymes to process maple syrup, agave, coconut sap, and molasses. They’re not quite as refined as white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but as we’ve seen, that doesn’t actually make a huge difference when it comes to their glycemic load. It just means that they still have some nutritional value left in them.

To be honest, when you look at the USDA food database at the amounts of manganese, zinc, potassium, and other nutrients in all of these sweeteners, they’re really not that high in any of them. That’s partly due to the fact that you’re not going to be eating a cup of honey in a sitting (or will you?), so any food in such small amounts is going to be “low” in nutrients. But at least you can be assured by their dark color (the darker the better usually) that they do contain SOME nutrients, as opposed to white sugar or clear corn syrup.

Oh, and I almost forgot about stevia!!

Here’s my opinion of stevia. It’s awesome! The plant has been used for centuries as a sweetener, and it’s calorie and sugar free naturally. It has a weird bitter aftertaste in my opinion, and that’s likely why many of the stevia products contain corn sugar (maltodextrin, etc.) or sugar alcohols to even out the flavor. But that seems really counterproductive in my opinion – to put corn sugar in a sugar-free sweetener. Plus it’s corn, and likely GMO corn, both of which we’re trying to avoid.

So I’d suggest getting the purest stevia product you can find. The ones that are in glycerin seem pure, like this NuNaturals brand I just found online. Just look out for maltodextrin or other ingredients like erythritol in other products. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol and it can cause gas and diarrhea in some people, so if you have a bad digestive reaction to your stevia product, it may just be the fillers – not the actual stevia. You can actually buy stevia plants and seeds online (here), too, and just use the leaves of the plant to sweeten teas and other foods.

So That’s It

As always with Paleo, if you’re going to eat sweeteners, choose the sweetener that’s available in your area, that contains the fewest toxic chemicals, and that contains the most nutrients possible. In other words, buy local (that’ll likely be honey or maple syrup in the U.S.), buy organic, and choose raw honey, grade B maple syrup (grade B because the darker it is the more nutrient dense it is), molasses, stevia, or agave. And again, you can read more about agave here and coconut sap here. I’d personally opt for local raw honey and local grade B maple syrup. If you’re going to choose agave, please choose Madhava or another reputable brand that doesn’t overcook their products.

And eat them all responsibly, of course!

I’d love to know your own thoughts on sweeteners, and how they fit into your own Paleo life!

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21 Comments

  1. Thanks for the great info. I am going to save this one in my favorites.

  2. I’ve heard that stevia becomes bitter in baking if too much is used. If more sweetening is required, perhaps top-up with a bit of honey rather than more stevia. I haven’t used it so I don’t know personally. I’d certainly experiment anyway. We go for days without sugar and when we do, it’s never much. You don’t really miss it after a while.

  3. Catherine

    What about the sugar alcohols…… erythritol and xylitol?

    • Catherine – I should’ve talked more about those – sorry about that! I mention erythritol in the stevia section, saying that it’s found in some stevia products and it can cause gastrointestinal distress. The same goes for any of the sugar alcohols, but other than that, I don’t see any problem with them.

  4. Margaret Evelyn

    I am a 73year old who has been eating Paleo for about 3 months.Without trying to lose weight(I still eat potato) I have gone from 63kgs to a steady 56 kgs.I have 2 almond milk lattes a day and I have either 1/4tsp raw honey or 1/4 tsp coconut sugar as a sweetener along with a good tsp of cinnamon. I have no desire to have a “cheat” meal having read Grain Brain by David Perlmutter! There’s no way I will go back to crap food but I’m finding it definitely more expensive.

  5. Carole Wethern

    You don’t mention Just Like Sugar (made from chicory root). You might want to look it up. No aftertaste. Zero carbs, zero sugars. I do not work for them, just sayin’. :0) Jane Barthelemy mentions it in her Paleo Desserts cookbook.

  6. Christine N

    I like my coffee in the morning, what is a good (Paleo) approved that I can put in my coffee. Milk/Sugar.

  7. Leslie Ann Braun

    What is your assessment on coconut milk, coconut butter and coconut oil, just out of curiosity? I have been using them to make Paleo desserts, along with Just Like Sugar. Are you familiar with Just Like Sugar? If not, you need to be. It’s marvelous and has no carbs, fats, or calories, yet makes wonderful “sugar-free, guilt-free” desserts.

    • Leslie Ann Braun – I think coconut products are amazing. And thanks for letting me know about Just Like Sugar! It looks great.

  8. Lisa Dempsey

    Do you have an opinion Lo Han Guo? I eat Quest protien bars (not Paleo) a few times a week and it’s an ingredient in most of the bars.

    • Lisa Dempsey – I can’t find anything negative about it. Sounds good to me :)

  9. Hi, Neely, good info. I recently read that the coconut trees used to make sap are either elderly trees (like 50 yrs+) or ones that are near dwellings where falling coconuts are a danger to locals.

    I am on more of a keto than paleo so when I have sweetener I use Xylitol.

    Do you like the taste of stevia? I find it overwhelmingly “artificial” tasting.

  10. Thanks for the great info! I didn’t realize molasses was Paleo!! You have just broadened my baking spectrum, I will now head to the kitchen to perfect a great gingerbread cookie! Thanks!! :)

  11. So great to read this. I have been using raw honey and pure maple syrup on my (new) paleo walk but have been wondering about all the sweeteners out there and why some are in paleo recipes or not. Any thoughts on coconut sugar?
    Thanks for the information!

  12. I use blue agave nectar instead of honey sometimes. I have read that it is rich in magnesium, potassium, iron and calcium, though my nutrition label doesn’t mention them. It is 1.5 times sweeter than honey, so you don’t need to use as much and it has a low-glycemic index, lower than maple syrup, and does’t spike blood-sugar levels or stimulate insulin response, so its great for diabetics. There are other types of agave nectar, so there is also a variety of flavors. I use blue agave because it has a mild sweet taste and is great for drinks, baking or wherever you’d use table sugar.

  13. Jessica

    What about Monk Fruit sweeteners? I have tried it in the peach packets and it tastes better than Stevia to me. I don’t know how it works with glycemic load though. Does anyone out there know?

  14. And consider using blackstrap molasses versus plain molasses — it has tons of calcium.

    I didn’t understand the difference at first, but noticed that some bottles of molasses listed calcium and other didn’t. I found this explainer:http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/types-molasses-2894.html

    Anyway, blackstrap is delicious in coffee, giving it a nice mellow sweetness. And when I eliminated coffee, I made started adding a tablespoon of blackstrap to my hot ginger/lemon tea and whaddya know, it’s a little like coffee. Well not so much, but tastes really nice I think.

  15. Very interesting and informative article! Do you know about Lakanto? It’s from Japan and is made erythritol and monk fruit extract. I found it on the Body Ecology site. I use it in my food all the time. 0 calories and 0 sugars but it doesn’t have that bad aftertaste of stevia. I have MS and follow a Paleo diet but cannot eat any type of sugar because it brings on symptoms. I do occasionalyeat apples and add a little banana to grain free baked goods. I don’t know why we can’t buy Lakanto here and it’s $34 for 2 lbs. No one knows about it. Ivied tried straight Eryrithritol it’s terrible. We need to get it here to the US. Maybe you could check that out! It’s an amazing sugar substitute and I’ve read the Asians use it like we use those yucky sub sweeteners like sucralouse etc… That stuff can kill you! You can buy Lakanto on Amazon!

    • Sally Barden Johnson

      Hi Mariann. Thanks for your comment. Lakanto is a processed sugar substitute made from erythritol, a sugar alcohol, and the luo han guo fruit. Erythritol is derived from a fermentation process using non-GMO corn and is only 60% to 70% as sweet as sugar. Combining it with the fruit, makes it sweeter. Lakanto has neither calories nor glycemic effect, but it is a highly processed sugar substitute and we just don’t know that much about it. I would use sparingly.

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