Answering Your Sugar and Sweetener Questions

Last Friday, I wrote that you should stay away from sugar and artificial sweeteners. Within hours, my inbox was flooded with reader questions. So today, I want to answer some of your questions (and share a couple of your tips).

Before I get into the Q&A, I want to mention that even through our years of writing about sugar and sugar alternatives, we haven't come close to covering everything. And there's still a lot that has yet to be proven regarding the safety of popular sugar alternatives.

We're waiting on the "Holy Grail" sugar substitute. But we'll keep our eyes on the latest research and keep you up to date.

In the meantime, please keep sending us your comments, questions, and yes, even criticisms on this and other topics. While we can't respond to every e-mail, we do read every single one... [email protected].

Q: Doc, what about real maple syrup? We have always had it around, don't use it often, but a genuine treat.

Thanks for your Health and Wealth Bulletins, always a good read. – W.B.

A: Real maple syrup does have benefits cane sugar doesn't, including nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc. But it's still mostly sugar, and there are much healthier food sources for those nutrients.

Maple syrup also ranks lower on the glycemic index, so it won't raise your blood sugar as much as other sweeteners. So while it's a slight improvement on white sugar, make sure – as with all sweeteners – you're limiting how much you use.

If you like to use maple syrup occasionally, make sure it actually is real. There are lots of syrups – the stuff sold at your local grocery store – that are pasteurized, overprocessed, and not natural. In fact, it may even contain high-fructose corn syrup. If you must have it, go local, natural, and as unprocessed as you can find.

Q: Concerning your article about sugars, we use xylitol. It's plant-based and tastes great. Just thought I'd add this in! Thanks! – D.P.

A: Xylitol is a type of sugar alcohol (and a common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gum). Sugar alcohols are partially broken-down carbohydrates. They taste sweet, but our small intestine can't absorb them well. That means they generally pass through our bodies without disturbing much. No studies point to increased blood sugar or higher insulin levels, for instance.

However, some folks report diarrhea, nausea, and similar bowel issues when eating large amounts of sugar alcohols. Researchers believe the inability of our intestines to absorb the sugar substitute means it passes through too quickly, which leads to loose stools. And any symptoms also depend on an individual's tolerance.

Also, make sure to keep foods containing xylitol away from your pets. Xylitol is toxic to dogs and, depending on the brand, as few as 10 pieces of gum can cause acute liver failure in a dog.

Q: What would you say about monk fruit as a sweetener? – M.B.

A: Monk fruit is a more natural form of sweetener. That's because, similar to stevia, it's an extract derived from a plant. But we don't know much about what monk fruit as a sweetener does to your health. We do know that it won't cause your blood sugar to spike, and some research points to potential antioxidant properties. The fact is, it's just not that well-researched yet.

Also, depending on the type you buy, it could be blended with a sweetener, dextrose, that does cause a spike in blood sugar. We should also mention that monk fruit sweetener isn't cheap and can be difficult to find. Some of our colleagues say it also has an unpleasant aftertaste, but others don't mind it.

Until we've seen more research on the benefits of monk fruit – and its safety – we can't give it our stamp of approval. But we'll keep an eye on it.

Q: Thank you for the above article that provides valuable insight into various sweeteners. But how about brown sugar? Is it equally as bad as white sugar and sweeteners? – B.P.

A: This is a popular question – is brown sugar better than white sugar? The answer is no. Brown sugar is nothing more than white, processed sugar with molasses added back to it. And even though molasses contains some beneficial nutrients (like potassium), the amounts you'd get are so small, they're negligible.

Q: Hurray for honey! As a hobby beekeeper, let me add some color here.

If at all possible, buy your honey locally. It not only supports your local beekeeper but also provides local pollen and other allergens that help your immune system.

Secondly, if you look at the label for commercial honey, you will see it comes from all over the world. Worse yet, the honey gets homogenized – cooked and blended before bottling. Your local beekeeper will do little more than filter the raw honey and bottle same, which is much better for you.

(PS: don't forget you can't give honey to children under a year old! We put that label on all our honey bottles.) – D.C.

A: Thanks for sharing, D.C. And you're absolutely right... As we said regarding maple syrup, buy your honey from local producers. That way, you know you're getting real honey (and you also know where it comes from).

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 16, 2021