Sweeteners: Trash and Treasure

Ever wondered if that low-calorie artificial sweetener is really better for you? Or if it’s even safe?

Looking for a zero-calorie alternative that’s not synthetic?

Let’s explore some of the options!

For the purposes of this post, least safe sweeteners = “trash” and the safest or most beneficial sweeteners = “treasure”. 😉 We’ll also look at some “questionable” options.



Often touted as a low-calorie sweetener and a “safer” alternative to table sugar, Splenda has enjoyed substantial consumer acceptance in the United States. According to Statista, retail sales of Splenda in 2015 surpassed 215 million U.S. dollars. This is actually a significant decrease from six years earlier, when retail sales of Splenda topped 385 million USD.

Although 215 million USD in revenue is still nothing to sneeze at, this appreciable sales decline in recent years suggests that some Americans may be educating themselves about the health risks of Splenda.

Health Risks Associated with Sucralose

CSPI Downgrades Splenda From “Safe” to “Caution”

According to Dr. Mercola:

The catchy slogan “Made from sugar so it tastes like sugar” has fooled many, but chemically, Splenda is actually more similar to DDT than sugar.

Sucralose starts off with a sugar molecule, yes, but that’s where the similarity ends. (A sucrose molecule is a disaccharide that contains two single sugars bound together, i.e. glucose and fructose.) Then, in a five-step patented process, three chlorine molecules are added to that sucrose (sugar) molecule.

This process converts the sugar molecule to a fructo-galactose molecule.

So the next time you’re about to add a “soft six-pack” of bubbles to your shopping cart, check the label. If you catch Splenda or sucralose lurking in the nutrition facts, just envision the word “Pesticide” plastered boldly across the label. Set it back on the shelf, and NEVER LOOK BACK! 😉

OK. Enough of the dramatized imagery. Now on to a Spartan tame.

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)

Although this has long been a topic of dispute, it does appear that there are, at the very least, some correlations between aspartame and epilepsy:

Aspartame and Seizures – NCBI

Aspartame: By Far the Most Dangerous Substance Added to Most Foods Today – Dr. Mercola

According to Dani Veracity on Natural News:

In 1987, scientists and aspartame-sensitive seizure patients made the government aware of the link between the consumption of aspartame and the onset of seizures and convulsions, reports Dr. H.J. Roberts in Aspartame (NutraSweet): Is It Safe. On November 3, 1987, the U.S. Senate held a hearing entitled “‘NutraSweet’ — Health and Safety Concerns.” In this hearing, people from a wide variety of occupations, including an Air Force pilot, told the Senate about their aspartame-induced grand mal seizures. These individuals reported that their seizures disappeared after abstaining from aspartame consumption.

By all ethical standards, the testimonials provided during this 1987 hearing — combined with the strong scientific evidence demonstrating the health dangers of aspartame — should have led to the banishment of aspartame-sweetened products from grocery shelves forever; yet, aspartame products are still abundant in our grocery stores and restaurants.

Cane/Beet Sugar

In general, refined sugars are highly inflammatory, and provide little to no health or nutritional benefit (besides, perhaps, soothing an upset stomach). Beet sugar may be even worse than cane sugar, because most sugar beets are now genetically modified. (For more resources and information on GM foods, please check out my Resources page.)

From How Sweet It Isn’t! Cutting Through the Hype and Deception – ANH-USA:

Sugar is an ingredient in 70% of manufactured food, according to The Economist. But sugar and simple carbs (refined grains, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.) may adversely affect blood lipids, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, increasing your risk for heart disease and stroke through fat accumulation, metabolic syndrome, obesity, premature aging, and type 2 diabetes. Sugar molecules bond with proteins to create AGEs (advanced glycation end-products)—which can wreak havoc on blood vessels, including those of the heart and kidneys. AGEs appear to be responsible for many of the long-term complications of diabetes.

Dr. David Williams again: “There is no ‘maybe’ about the connection between sugar and heart disease. I can’t put it more plainly: sugar kills.” (Alternatives, June 2010)


Maltodextrin is often derived from wheat or corn, and could cause problems for those with celiac or wheat/corn allergies. Although maltodextrin itself is a sugar and technically devoid of any protein, it is still possible that trace amounts of corn or the gluten protein may be present from processing or cross-contamination.

Maltodextrin is a processed starch made from things like corn, rice, potato or wheat. So it may contain gluten and is therefore best avoided. – David Perlmutter, MD

Food allergy concerns aside, maltodextrin may pose other health risks, including causing blood sugar spikes and suppressing the growth of probiotics in the gut.

Possible Side Effects of Maltodextrin and Sucralose

Sweet’n Low (Saccharin)

But you say you can give up diet drinks whenever you want? Don’t be so sure. Animal studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may be addictive. In studies of rats who were exposed to cocaine, then given a choice between intravenous cocaine or oral saccharine, most chose saccharin. – Holly Strawbridge – former editor from Harvard Health, in Artificial sweeteners: sugar-free, but at what cost?

According to Dr. Axe:

In the 1970s, saccharin and other sulfa-based sweeteners were believed to possibly cause bladder cancer, and it was required to carry the following warning label: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” (13)

The FDA removed this warning, but many studies continue to link saccharin to serious health conditions. Sadly, it’s the primary sweetener for children’s medications, including chewable aspirin, cough syrup, and other over-the-counter and prescription medications. It’s believed that saccharin contributes to photosensitivity, nausea, digestive upset, tachycardia and some types of cancer.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

There appears to be a link between high-fructose corn syrup and diabetes.

Study Links High-Fructose Corn Syrup to Diabetes

High Fructose Corn Syrup Fueling Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic


Maltitol is a sugar alcohol, and may be problematic for those with a sensitivity to FODMAPs.

According to Jamie Simpson on livestrong.com:

The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that maltitol is associated with stomach and abdominal pain in adults. A placebo controlled, double-blind study on health volunteers showed that consuming levels as low as 40 g of maltitol daily would trigger side effects of abdominal pain.


Please note: While I refer to these sweeteners as “questionable”, that is actually a very generous description for some of them. A few of these likely belong in the trash bin/category. 🙂


Although it can be found in most health food stores today, agave is higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, and may increase insulin resistance.

Yet it remains one of the most-recommended sweeteners for those with diabetes.

If you knew the truth about what’s really in it, you’d be dumping it down the drain — and that would certainly be bad for sales.

Most agave “nectar” or agave “syrup” is nothing more than a laboratory-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value, and offering you metabolic misfortune in its place.

Unfortunately, masterful marketing has resulted in the astronomical popularity of agave syrup among people who believe they are doing their health a favor by avoiding refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, and dangerous artificial sweeteners.

And if you’re diabetic, you’ve been especially targeted and told this is simply the best thing for you since locally grown organic lettuce, that it’s “diabetic friendly,” has a “low glycemic index” and doesn’t spike your blood sugar.

While agave syrup does have a low-glycemic index, so does antifreeze — that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

Most agave syrup has higher fructose content than any commercial sweetener — ranging from 70 to 97 percent, depending on the brand, which is FAR HIGHER than high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which averages 55 percent.

This makes agave actually WORSE than HFCS.

It is important to understand that fructose does not increase insulin levels, which is not necessarily good as what it does do is radically increase insulin resistance, which is FAR more dangerous. You see, it’s okay for your insulin levels to rise, that is normal. You just don’t want these insulin levels to remain elevated, which is what insulin resistance causes….

…In addition to insulin resistance, your risk of liver damage increases, along with triglycerides and a whole host of other health problems, as discussed in this CBC News video about the newly discovered dangers of high fructose corn syrup. The study discussed in this news report is about HFCS, however. It’s well worth remembering that agave contains MORE fructose than HFCS, and in all likelihood, it’s the FRUCTOSE that is causing these severe liver problems.

Dr. Mercola

And from ANH (Alliance for Natural Health)-USA:

Agave, which is derived from the agave cactus (which also produces tequila), sounds like an ideal alternative, but some health advocates like Dr. Joseph Mercola have some serious concerns about it, and say its acceptance is the result of deceptive marketing. They say that most of the agave sweeteners you find on supermarket shelves are not natural products and are not organic. What is clear is that it is not low-calorie and does not have a low glycemic index. It is 50% to 90% fructose.

Agave Nectar: Worse Than We Thought – The Weston A. Price Foundation


Although a naturally-occurring sugar, fructose may contribute to weight gain and steal ATP from the liver.

Because it is metabolized by the liver, fructose does not cause the pancreas to release insulin the way it normally does. Fructose converts to fat more than any other sugar. This may be one of the reasons Americans continue to get fatter. Fructose raises serum triglycerides significantly. As a left-handed sugar, fructose digestion is very low. For complete internal conversion of fructose into glucose and acetates, it must rob ATP energy stores from the liver. – Bill Sanda, WAPF – The Double Danger of High Fructose Corn Syrup


…both high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and fruit contain fructose, but their effects in the body are different. HFCS is essentially a simple fructose delivery system – there’s nothing else to it, while fruit contains additional nutrients along with fibre, which affect digestion and absorption of the fructose. Plus, the amount of fructose in the average apple is much less than, say, the average can of soda.

All About Fructose – Precision Nutrition

In short, most of us may be able to consume fructose in moderation in its “natural habitat” – fruit.

However, consuming concentrated, isolated, “pure” fructose is likely to wreak havoc on the liver and deplete the body’s energy reserves.


Whether or not Stevia may have a contraceptive effect has been a topic of debate for several years now.

If Stevia does not pose a threat to fertility, it certainly would serve as a convenient, low-calorie sweetener.

According to Stevia.com, the crude Stevia leaves and the green herbal powder are 10 to 15 times sweeter than table sugar. The white powder sold more commercially is a more refined product and it is much sweeter. In fact, this purified and concentrated white powder has been recorded to be 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar. Stevia can be somewhat bitter to some people, however, and others believe that it tastes similar to licorice. Stevia has no calories and, according to the Mayo Clinic, research appears to demonstrate that Stevia does not raise blood glucose levels in sensitive people….

…There has been some concern about minor GI effects, headaches and dizziness with Stevia. In addition, some studies have commented about purity and toxicity concerns. Mixing Stevia with sugar alcohols may have a laxative effect. Pregnant women, diabetics and those with high blood pressure should avoid using Stevia due to possible side effects. While the Japanese have studied Stevia and consider it a safe product for the general population, caution regarding frequency of use for certain populations should be considered.

LIVESTRONG – Stevia Leaf Powder Vs. Leaf Extract


Erythritol is a sugar alcohol like xylitol that I’ve spoken about before in my article titled “The 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners.” A lot of people think it’s awesome because it decreases the amount of sugar and calories in what they’re consuming. You’ll commonly find it as an ingredient in low-sugar and sugar-free foods, but there are some very concerning and common erythritol side effects — even when it’s used in low amounts, erythritol consumption can cause diarrhea, stomachache and headache.

The reason why it doesn’t provide calories or sugar to its consumer is because the body actually can’t break it down! That’s right — even though erythritol travels through your body, it doesn’t get metabolized. (1)

Is erythritol a safe and smart substitute for sugar? If it’s made from GMO cornstarch, then absolutely not. I definitely don’t recommend it, especially when there are healthier, safer options readily available. If you’re talking about non-GMO erythritol, then it can be a better choice than some other artificial sweeteners, but I still think there are better options out there.

 Erythritol: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly with this Common Sweetener – Dr. Axe

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup may not be the safest for those with diabetes or blood sugar issues.

The Effects of Brown Rice Syrup on Blood Sugar

Additionally, brown rice syrup sometimes contains barley – a gluten-containing grain.

Hidden Gluten

Gluten-Free Living:

Brown rice syrup is a sweetener made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes to disintegrate the starch content, according to manufacturer AG Commodities Inc. Then the fermented liquid is strained and cooked until it becomes syrup. The enzymes are the key to whether the brown rice syrup is gluten free. Barley enzymes, which are often used, make brown rice syrup that is not gluten free. However, if fungal enzymes are used, then the brown rice syrup is gluten free. Several brands are labeled gluten free, including Lundberg Farms’ Sweet Dream, Nature’s Flavors’ organic brown rice syrup and Suzanne’s Specialties’ Genmai organic brown rice nectar. Lundberg Farms purposely switched from a cereal enzyme to a fungal enzyme to make their brown rice syrup gluten free.

In addition to the concern of gluten contamination in some brown rice syrup, there is the concern about arsenic levels:

Experts say regularly eating foods that use organic brown rice syrup as a main ingredient could expose a person to more arsenic than the government allows in drinking water, raising the risks for cancer and heart disease. In young children, chronic arsenic exposure has been linked to lower IQs and poorer intellectual function.

A Common Organic Sweetener May Boost Arsenic Levels in Foods – WebMD

Coconut sugar

Coconut is popular among health-conscious groups. We (though not I personally) use coconut oil, coconut milk, coconut flour…and coconut sugar.

I am sensitive to the lectins, sulfur, and possibly also to the lauric acid in coconut. So I stay away from anything coconutty. (Read my health story in #myjourneytorecovery.)

But the question remains: for those who can tolerate coconut, are all coconut products beneficial? Or at least “safe”?

The fructose content of coconut sugar is approximately 38-48.5%, or close to the fructose content of table sugar.

11 Amazing Coconut Sugar Benefits and Uses – Organic Facts:

There are a number of potentially dangerous side effects to excessive consumption of coconut sugar, including problems with diabetes, cardiovascular complications, a lowered metabolism, weight gain and chronic inflammation.

5 Not-So-Sweet Facts About Coconut Sugar – Bulletproof:

According to the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute, coconut sugar has nutrients like iron, zinc and calcium, but not much — you’d have to eat a ton of coconut sugar to get them in meaningful amounts. You’d be better off getting these nutrients from real foods.

Dave Asprey from Bulletproof goes on to say:

Coconut sugar is lower than table sugar on the Glycemic Index (GI), which ranks carbs on how they affect your blood sugar (glucose). The GI doesn’t directly apply to sweeteners because it doesn’t measure fructose, the main component of coconut sugar. Fructose ranks low on the GI because the body can’t immediately use it for energy, so it doesn’t affect blood sugar, but it’s still kryptonite. When you eat lots of fructose it goes straight to your liver, and your liver tries to metabolize it into a useful form before it causes damage (fructose is toxic in large amounts).


Companies have made coconut sugar popular in a short time by advertising it as a lower-glycemic alternative to table sugar. This marketing approach is the exact same trick that fructose marketers use to promote damaging high-fructose foods. It’s true that fructose doesn’t raise insulin as quickly as regular sugar does, but that certainly doesn’t make it healthy. It’s toxic to your liver and it messes with your hormones. The same is true of coconut sugar.

Is Coconut Sugar Bad For You?


I moved molasses “down” to the “Questionable” category because, despite its nutritional benefits, it is often derived from sugar beets – over 95% of which are genetically modified – or from sugarcane. For this reason, it is important to buy GMO-free/organic molasses, or to ask about the source before purchasing.

While molasses may not be quite as sugary as the sugarcane or sugar beets from which it is derived (it is the product resulting from the extraction of some of the sugary crystals), it’s probably best for those sensitive to sugarcane to avoid it altogether (as beet sugar molasses probably isn’t an optimal alternative).

Molasses: It’s Still Just Sugar – Berkeley Wellness

Blackstrap molasses is likely to offer more nutritional value than other types of molasses, and to be less sweet.

I recommend purchasing the unsulphured kind, which has not been treated with sulfur dioxide.

Molasses contains a number of essential minerals such as calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorous, chromium, cobalt, and sodium. It is a good source of energy and carbohydrates and it contains sugars as well. In addition to this, it offers various vitamins such as niacin (vitamin B-3), vitamin B-6, thiamine, and riboflavin. It is very low in both fat and fiber.

Organic Facts – 19 Impressive Molasses Benefits

While the high carbohydrate content could be problematic for some, the wealth of micronutrients in molasses is quite impressive.


Like maltitol, xylitol may be problematic for those with a sensitivity to FODMAPs. And as with most sweeteners, the safety of xylitol is a subject of debate. Xylitol appears to offer benefits for dental/oral health. However, whether xylitol is safe for consumption as a food is another question.

Xylitol: Is it Healthy or Safe?

Xylitol Side Effects: Safe or Dangerous?

Xylitol, Isomalt, and Diarrhea


Raw Unfiltered Honey

If you suffer from diabetes or have blood sugar problems, it’s probably best to keep honey consumption to a minimum – or stay away from it altogether.

Raw honey poses some dangers – especially for young infants – but also offers myriad health benefits:

The Dangers and Benefits of Raw Honey

Antifungal activity of four honeys of different types from Algeria against pathogenic yeast: Candida albicans and Rhodotorula sp.

Benefits of Local Raw Honey

Maple syrup

Maple syrup is another sweetener which may not be the safest for those with diabetes or unstable blood sugar levels.

Glycemic Index of Honey vs. Maple Syrup

Carbohydrate/sugar concerns aside, maple syrup does offer some nutritional benefits, including a generous supply of certain minerals.

One tablespoon of maple syrup contains approximately:

  • 0.7 milligrams manganese (33 percent Recommended Daily Value, or DV)
  • 0.8 milligrams zinc (6 percent DV)
  • 13.4 milligrams calcium (1 percent DV)
  • 40.8 milligrams potassium (1 percent DV)
  • 0.2 milligrams iron (1 percent DV)
  • 2.8 milligrams magnesium (1 percent DV)

Maple Syrup Nutrition Benefits + Recipes – Dr. Axe

Monk fruit

This powerful superfruit offers many health benefits, and is keto-friendly. Monk fruit is a zero-calorie sweetener, but tastes very, very sweet (so you only need a little!). 🙂

8 Health Benefits of Monk Fruit – Dr. Jockers

Here is the monk fruit powder I use. (There may be better prices/brands out there – so I encourage you to research further to find what works best for you – but I like this one a lot.) 🙂

I sometimes enjoy a glass of water with lime juice and a pinch of monk fruit. Very refreshing. 🙂

Applesauce and Apple Juice

For those who are not sensitive to apples (the lectins or something else), applesauce and apple juice make excellent alternative sweetener choices – at least, for certain dishes. (There are some foods that just aren’t meant to be mixed with apple – and especially not with mushy applesauce! 😛 )

Again, if you have a health condition (such as diabetes) that requires you to closely monitor your sugar intake, appley sweeteners (especially apple juice) may not be the best option for you.

The Glycemic Index of Apples

The Glycemic Index of Applesauce

Juices With the Highest Sugar Content

Is Apple Juice Good for Diabetics?

To some degree, the sweeteners which work for you will depend on your individual health needs, genetics, and digestive capabilities.

However, there are some sweeteners which really don’t offer any benefit to anyone, and from which we would all do well to steer clear!

What’s your favorite sweetener to use, and why? Ever had any noticeable reactions to any sweeteners?

For more info on food and supplements I use, check out the Resources page.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, dietitian, or other health or fitness professional. Please do not treat any of this information as medical advice. While I do attempt to present all information as accurately as possible, please do not treat any information on this blog as fact. For all health needs, concerns, and dietary choices, please seek the advice and guidance of a health professional.


© 2018 Kate Richardson All Rights Reserved

6 thoughts on “Sweeteners: Trash and Treasure

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  2. Millennial Monk

    Wow, as always, you offer such incredibly content rich posts Kate! I feel the wealth of information compiled here would likely get stretched out into multiple posts elsewhere.

    Saccharin producers ought to adopt a new slogan – more addictive than cocaine!

    So many reasons to be thankful of shedding or weening down the sweet tooth. Monk fruit appears to be quite the miracle substance, however. I’ll have to try it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Millennial Monk! 🙂 Ha! That is a great idea for a saccharin slogan. 😀 And yes, monk fruit is definitely a miracle substance! I didn’t know that such a keto/low-carb-diet-friendly, nutritious sweetener existed until just last year. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂


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