Everyone knows sugar isn’t good for them, but are artificial sweeteners safe? The sugar replacements on the market can feel incredibly confusing. And marketing tactics just make matters worse! Are you confused over which is best? Stevia? Monk fruit? Xylitol? Erythritol? Aspartame? Agave? And More?? You’re not alone. There are pros and cons to each and every one of these, and the one that's best for YOU may not be the one that is best for someone else. I’m going to break it all down for you here, so you can choose which sweetener will work best for you and your body.
Let’s start with the worst first. Artificial sweeteners like those little pink and blue packets are the absolute worst option. I’m not going to spend too much time on these because by now, most people already know these are terrible for you. These little packets have been linked to metabolic disorder, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Don’t touch them.
Next up is another bad one… yes, really! This one has simply been passed off as healthy: Agave nectar. Unlike table sugar, which has equal ratios of fructose to glucose, agave is up to 90% fructose. That's even more than you'll find in the much-villainized high-fructose corn syrup used in sodas, which is typically a mere 55% fructose accompanied by 45% glucose (need I say more?).
Why does this percentage matter? Glucose can be stored and used as energy in the body by any of your cells. Fructose, however, can only be metabolized by the liver. When fructose intake is too high it causes your liver to become overloaded, which forces the liver to convert fructose into fat. This process results in higher triglyceride levels, increased LDL (or bad cholesterol), excess belly fat accumulation, and can even lead to NAFLD (or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease). Consuming high amounts of fructose can lead to metabolic syndrome, heart disease, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. This, consequently, is the same reason why high fructose corn syrup is so bad for you. It's high in fructose like agave.
The moral of the story here is to stay away from agave nectar (and high fructose corn syrup!). Personally, I wouldn’t touch either with a 10-foot pole.
Stevia is generally a good alternative to sugar but has a few pitfalls to navigate. First of all, a lot of products on the market labeled as "stevia" aren’t just stevia, so make sure you read the fine print on those labels. The stevia base is made from a highly refined stevia leaf extract called rebaudioside A (Reb-A). For example, the product Truvia is a blend of Reb-A and erythritol (a type of sugar alcohol we’ll cover in a minute), and Stevia in The Raw is a blend of Reb-A and dextrose or maltodextrin (neither of these are top choices by the way). Some stevia products also contain “natural flavors” which could mean anything... as this term isn’t regulated by the FDA.
Pure Stevia is typically made out of the stevia plant extract known as Reb-A. According to the FDA, Reb-A is listed as GRAS, or Generally Recognized As Safe. However, a 2019 study reported a possible link between stevia and a disruption in beneficial intestinal flora. If you’ve been following me for a while you know how important I think the gut microbiome is, so this is a bit concerning.
On the flip side, however, stevia has been used to treat patients with Lyme disease by Dr. Klinghardt, and a 2012 study using a glycoside byproduct of stevia called stevioside found that stevia helps boost cancer cell death in several types of cancers.
The bottom line? I personally use stevia, though I use only pure stevia, and stay away from stevia-based products that may be cut with maltodextrin, dextrose, or anything else. Not to mention I use it only occasionally and in moderation, not in and on everything I eat.
Sugar alcohols are anything that ends in -TOL like xylitol, erythritol, or mannitol. These are beloved by low carb and keto enthusiasts alike, but they can be disastrous for anyone with gut issues. Some of these pass through the gut without being absorbed or utilized and therefore cause damage to the gut lining. Some are even known to feed pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria.
Additionally, sugar alcohols are a type of FODMAP, which is something you want to avoid if you have SIBO because FODMAPs feed the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestines. Not sure what SIBO is?
Check out my video on SIBO (Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth) and what to do about it↓
Often with SIBO, the end result for people is gas, pain, bloating, and diarrhea. Now, this isn’t the end result for everyone, (some people tolerate sugar alcohols just fine) but if you’ve been using a lot of sugar alcohols and noticing a lot of gut issues... there may be a correlation between the two. My take on sugar alcohols? I do use these from time to time but in small amounts and not very regularly.
Monk fruit is actually my favorite sugar replacement. Although there haven’t been a lot of long term studies done on this sweetener, and new information could pop up at any time, so far there seems to be no side effect to using monk fruit. And being able to say that is a stark contrast to the issues with all the other sugar replacements I just covered.
More reasons to love monk fruit: In 2011, a study showed monk fruit could relieve soreness of the throat, and reduce the production of phlegm. Make sure you read the labels though. I’ve seen many brands of monk fruit sold at grocery stores that are really just a little bit of monk fruit blended with a whole lot of sugar alcohols to keep prices low. If you’re trying monk fruit because sugar alcohols bother you, be warned that there are many imposters out there. Many brands advertise "monk fruit" on the front of their packaging, and it isn’t until you turn it over to the backside that you realize there are other ingredients in there. Always read the full ingredient labels!
So there you have it. A rundown of sugar replacements from worst to best. I hope you found that helpful, and maybe even a little bit... sweet! For more helpful health tips, tricks, and tools, make sure you sign up for my weekly newsletter here!