In the past, I’ve warned against using sweeteners of any kind — even natural sweeteners — because I don’t think that making foods more hyperpalatable is a smart idea.
One reason people tend to have an aversion to “healthy” foods and struggle to make lasting change is because real food is a bit blander and doesn’t have the crazy combination of sugar, salt, and fat that processed foods have.
When you’re making a transition, such as during Total Body Reboot, I feel that it’s important to recalibrate your taste buds and remind your brain what real food tastes like. That means no sweeteners.
But after the recalibration period I don’t see a problem with adding in sweeteners at times, provided that they’re smart sweeteners.
Below are the natural sweeteners that I suggest, in order from best to worst. Then I’ll cover the sweeteners that I recommend you hide yo’ kids and hide yo’ wife from.
Whenever I’m looking to sweeten something I reach for stevia first. It’s a natural, zero calorie, plant-based sweetener that has no effect on blood sugar.
Currently, the only thing I use stevia in is herbal tea and only because I want the health benefits of the tea but don’t particularly love the taste.
The reason I give stevia the winning nod is because it has some other benefits as well; a big one being it’s helpfulness in blood sugar regulation. Of course, blood sugar and hormone regulation is one of the five pillars of health.
There’s also the potential that stevia reduces blood pressure, has anti-inflammatory properties, is anti-tumor, and can help modulate the immune system (*). Of course, most of those findings are from animal studies so take all of that with a grain of salt.
One downside of stevia is that is has a unique flavor that might take some getting used to. It’s not bad by any means, but don’t expect it to taste like table sugar. And caution: many brands of stevia are cut with other sweeteners and fillers. The best brands are organic and only contain stevia, inulin (a fiber), and other natural ingredients like silica. (Truvia is an example of an illegitimate brand of stevia).
Preferred Brand: Onnit Organic Stevia
Runner Up: Xylitol
A second sweetener that I’ve turned to is xylitol, an ultra low calorie sugar alcohol that also has no noticeable effect on blood sugar. And like stevia, xylitol was chosen because of some bonuses that come along with it.
My favorite xylitol bonus is the dental health benefits: a reduction in the risk for cavities and dental decay.
There are also some studies that show improvement in bone density, but let’s keep in mind that we’re not using large amounts of this stuff (hopefully) so I’m not sure how significant this finding is.
Xylitol tastes more like real sugar than stevia does, which makes it my go to sweetener for cooking applications. And when I see it as an ingredient in things like protein powders, I don’t shy away.
Caution: A lot of xylitol is made from corn and imported from China, which often means it’s GMO (plus we’re not big fans of corn). Better xylitol is made from birch, which is never GMO.
Preferred Brand: Health Garden Kosher Xylitol (from birch)
Other Contenders: Honey, Maple Syrup, coconut sugar, palm sugar, erythritol.
The reason most of these don’t make the cut is because they behave too much like actual sugar, meaning they tend to disorder hormones when used on a regular basis.
I’m not afraid of sugar every now and again, but I staunchly warn against believing that you’re doing yourself a favor by switching from sweetening everything with table sugar to sweetening everything with honey or maple syrup.
As far as your hormones are concerned, that’s not a legitimate switch. Yes, these natural sugars come with some potential nutrition (unlike table sugar) but it’s just not worth the overall sugar load in my opinion.
Honey, for example, is 80% sugar by weight. We’re talking 17 grams in a single tablespoon.
If you’re going to use this stuff it’s not going to kill you, but it can make it very difficult to reach fat loss goals (if that’s what you’re going for) and may quickly re-trigger sugar addictions if that’s something you’ve struggled with in the past.
Lastly, let’s not pretend that conventional honey and maple syrup brands are anywhere close to the real thing. Aunt Jemima must have been a horrible cook because she doesn’t even know what maple syrup is supposed to look like.
The first ingredient in her “maple syrup” is corn syrup. The second is high fructose corn syrup. The third is water. Oh wait, there isn’t actually any maple syrup in her maple syrup!
I think that’s called fraud.
I never use honey unless it’s local and pure. And I only buy grade B maple syrup. Even still, I use these things very sparingly. We have to be extra careful in modern society because you can eat gobs of honey and maple syrup and other sweeteners day in and day out, no gathering effort needed. It’s simply too easy to over-consume.
So with all that settled, let’s focus on the really unhelpful (and for some of these that’s putting it kindly) stuff.
In no particular order, I recommend avoiding: Sucralose, aspartame, agave nectar, sucrose/table sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, acesulfame potassium, neotame, and saccharin.
Some of these sweeteners are deadly (as far as I’m concerned) chemical concoctions and some are more on the natural side. I’m not making the case that table sugar and aspartame are equally poor options, I’m simply telling you what sweeteners I avoid.
Someone is likely going to chime in and ask why agave nectar is on the list because most health conscious people recommend agave as an alternative sweetener. I don’t, because it’s way too high in fructose for my liking.
Others will chime in and make the case that sugar isn’t really that bad for you and table sugar, fruit juice, etc. may even be good for you. Or they might say that a long time ago there was a caveman person who didn’t have access to stevia and therefore we shouldn’t consume it either.
Here’s the deal: life is about choices. I’ve weighed the options and made my choices for specific reasons that I’ve outlined here. If you agree with my reasoning, follow my recommendations. If you don’t, you’re free to do whatever you’d like — I certainly won’t look down on you.
What are your thoughts on sweeteners? Do you use them or avoid them? And which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.