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!

About Neely Quinn, Nutrition Therapist

I am a Certified Integrative Clinical Nutrition Therapist living in Boulder, Colorado. My role at Paleo Plan involves blogging and writing other educational content, seeing clients as a Personal Paleo Coach, and answering readers’ and members’ questions. I love my job, and I truly believe that eating Paleo allows most people to thrive. I started eating Paleo in 2009 after I realized my body didn’t tolerate grains or legumes very well, and it was the best dietary choice I’ve ever made (and I have experimented a LOT).

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Disclaimer

This article is for informational purposes only, and is educational in nature. Statements made here have not been evaluated by the FDA. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Please discuss with your own, qualified health care provider before adding in supplements or making any changes in your diet.