When following a Paleo diet, the spotlight often falls on sweeteners and how they fit into this template. The Paleo diet focuses on removing many of the refined and processed foods eaten by modern man as they are thought to be responsible for causing many of the epidemic health challenges worldwide. By following a more hunter-gatherer type diet, many have restored health and balance in their bodies.
True Paleo sweeteners are hunt-and-gather foods. Ancient man enjoyed sweets prepared from plants or harvested from hives using their hands and stone tools. Some preparation and fermentation may have been possible; however, it would have been very simple.
Choosing A Sweetener
When choosing a sweetener, it is still important to reflect on some of the foundational principles of the Paleo template regarding the foods available to us today. While all caloric sweeteners have the same number of calories (16 per teaspoon), evaluating their place in your diet may be done by considering a few factors.
The more highly refined a sweetener is, the worse it is for your body. For example, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and artificial sweeteners are all very modern, factory made products. Honey, maple syrup, green leaf stevia and molasses are all much less processed and have been made and used for centuries. In the case of honey, almost no processing is necessary.
When looking at packaged foods, even those labeled as ‘Paleo’ the ingredient list is often a harsh reality check. It becomes obvious how many manufacturers use highly-refined, low-quality sweeteners. Many foods that have been made low or non-fat have added sweeteners or artificial sweeteners—avoid these products!
Your body actually does not metabolize all sugar the same way. Interestingly enough, sweeteners like HFCS and agave nectar were viewed as better options for diabetics for quite some time since the high fructose content of both requires processing by the liver rather than the sugar immediately flowing into the blood stream. This yielded a seemingly favorable result on blood sugar levels after consumption. However, it’s now understood that isolated fructose metabolism is a complicated issue and that taxing the liver excessively with such sweeteners can be quite harmful to your health. Fructose is the primary sugar in all fruit. When eating whole fruit, the micronutrients and fiber content of the fruit actually support proper metabolism and assimilation of the fruit sugar.
If you have no weight concerns, are healthy and feel like indulging, limited quantities of a few special, Paleo friendly sweeteners which can be mindfully (and sparingly) consumed with a totally clear conscience. These few make up for their effects on your blood sugar by healing your body in powerful ways. Take a closer look at a few popular favorites and how you can add a little sweetness into your culinary adventures.
Ancient healers considered honey a medicinal food, and modern science has proven this. Honey has been shown to:
- Inhibit inflammation.
- Help fight cancer.
- Have powerful antibacterial properties.
- Be a rich source of antioxidants.
- Help heal your gut. One study even found that honey promotes the growth of good gut bacteria and helps protect against damage caused by dangerous mycotoxins.
Honey can heal you on the outside as well as the inside. Hospitals are starting to use one type of honey, Manuka honey, to treat everything from diabetic ulcers to the super-bug MRSA.
Our good friends over at Paleo Treats, only use honey to sweeten their products. If you're looking to indulge but still stay within the Paleo and even Keto lines, this is a safe option.
A few cautions:
Never give honey to a baby. It can contain botulinum spores that are harmless to older people but can endanger infants.
Much of what’s labeled as honey is in fact not. Shop for honey at your local farmers’ markets, contact beekeepers directly, or order raw honey online.
Maple syrup is purported to contain 54 different beneficial compounds, five of which apparently are exclusive to maple syrup and do not exist in any other foods. As with most paleo sweeteners, it is extremely important to be sure that you are purchasing 100% pure maple syrup that hasn’t gone through an extensive pasteurization process. Choose the darker, less processed, more flavorful B-Grade or No. 2.
Molasses is the by-product left over from the sugar cane refining process. Eating the dregs is far better than eating the sugar!
Molasses contain the nutrients stripped out of the sugar cane. It is rich in copper, iron, calcium, vitamin B6, and magnesium. In addition, molasses has a significantly lesser effect on blood glucose levels than sugar.
When buying molasses, source out blackstrap molasses. This form contains more nutrients than the other forms.
Prunes, dates, bananas, pumpkin, and unsweetened applesauce are all fabulous sweeteners. Along with a burst of natural sugar, they give you a big dose of fiber and nutrients.
They can replace some or all of the refined sugars in most recipes with a little tweaking and add flavour and added nuances to cooking rather than just the taste of sweet.
Use this coconut-based sugar when other sweeteners are not ideal replacements or substitutes. Coconut sugar contains some important nutrients including potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and vitamin C and it has a lesser effect on your blood glucose than table sugar does.
There are two supposedly healthy sweeteners that you may have noticed did not make my list. Use one of these with with extreme caution (to the source and type), while the other should be avoided at all costs. Neither is, however, ideal
Agave syrup has a higher fructose content than high-fructose corn syrup. It is very heavily processed and one of the furthest things from ‘natural’. This ‘natural’ sweetener should be avoided when following a Paleo diet. If you are choosing to eat fructose, eat it in forms that provide powerful nutrition, vitamins, nutrients and fiber. Get your fructose in the form of fruits, berries, and the healthier alternatives laid out previously.
Stevia is a double-edged sword. Some studies have linked stevia consumption to increased insulin sensitivity. This is a good thing. It has also been shown that non-caloric sweeteners confuse your body, which is a bad thing. If you find yourself using large amounts of stevia because it’s calorie-free, you are still encouraging and habituating your body to expect too much sweetness, and you will struggle to free yourself from your reliance on sweet tasting foods. Choose stevia only when other healthful sweeteners are unable to do the job. If you do choose to consume it, buy pure stevia rather than brands that contain other additives.
Who Should Avoid Sweeteners
If sweeteners are eaten in moderation within a balanced Paleo diet, plenty of people will do quite well. Those struggling with type 2 diabetes should not be eating muffins made Paleo friendly ingredients and sweetened with honey every day. If fat loss is your goal, banana-nut Paleo friendly pancakes drizzled with maple syrup may not be your ideal choice. As with all other foods, whether technically permitted on the Paleo diet or not, it is up to each person to listen your body and act accordingly. Everyone is different and choosing to add sweeteners to your Paleo plan is ultimately up to you.
For some nutrient dense meal options so good there is no need for added sweetness, delivered right to your door, check out Pete’s Paleo weekly menu
Choosing to occasionally, carefully and mindfully indulge in a Paleo friendly, naturally-derived sweetener can form a solid part of your lifestyle plan. Use the best - your health and nutrition deserve nothing less!! Take time and experiment with using honey, maple syrup, molasses, mashed fruits, and coconut sugar when your sweet tooth needs a little placating and notice for yourself how a little sweet with some nourishing benefits is really able to satisfy your need for a treat.