Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
9 Apr

On the Question of Sweeteners

An inevitable question surfaced this past week regarding the use of artificial sweeteners. When you adopt a low carb, no or next-to-no sugar diet, it’s almost assured that you’ll come up against the question at some point. There are as many perspectives on this issue as there are foods containing these products. And, these days, we even have several choices if we choose to go the alternative sweetener route.

It’s a question, we think, each person has to answer for him/herself. It’s admittedly tough to wade through the hearsay, personal accounts, discredited studies, conflicts of interest, and industry talk. One less complicated criterion we suggest applying to the issue is this: as you look at an artificially sweetened food/drink, does the item offer any real benefit (physical or otherwise) that you couldn’t get from an unsweetened source? Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no. For example, an artificially sweetened soda might seem a better choice than a regular soda. But the best choice, of course, is to nix the soda order completely. If a recipe calls for sugar, you could substitute, say, Splenda, but you might also consider leaving out the sugar/sweetener ingredient entirely, substituting with fruit puree (still fructose but with nutrients) or finding a different recipe. (Quick aside: you can find some interesting substitutes and familiar but low carb adjusted recipes on paleo diet sites.)

Let’s face it. We live in a world that expects birthday cakes, holiday treats, and traditional foods with deep emotional and cultural associations. Some of us are more successful than others at wholly realigning our lifestyles and convincing or “training” (as in children) those around us to enjoy a life (and birthday/holiday) without sugar and carbs. As it is, the rest of us occasionally hit up against the dreaded wall of compromise. What now? Sure, you can bring a no-crust quiche for the work crowd (just deal, people), but if mom and dad always celebrate each anniversary with cherry pie and you’re throwing their 40th bash, what’s a cook to do?

And, yes, there’s always the answer: well, I’ll make it for them but just won’t eat any. But sometimes that solution just doesn’t cut it. Or, the fact is, we want to make a choice that at least seems like a “better” option for the people we cook for.

For a lot of folks, the sweetener solution is sugar/honey or nothing. We understand the perspective of the all-natural crowd. Yet, we also see the point of those who believe that they’d rather incorporate a bit of the artificial realm to stay on track, so to speak. As Mark has mentioned in the past, “cheating” on a low carb lifestyle is not only a temporary compromise, it sets your body’s “acclimatization back a week.” He reminds us that the changes in biochemical rhythms and energy shift, so to speak, take “about three weeks of steady adherence.” So, when the occasion calls for sweet, here’s a brief primer on a few of the most popular choices.

Saccharine (Sweet ‘n Low):

Saccharine, in terms of the artificial set, was truly an original and has been around since the beginning of the 20th Century. The sweetener is an organic molecule made from petroleum. It was hailed as an important development for those with diabetes and was used without much concern until the 1970s when animal studies indicated that it caused cancer of the bladder, skin, uterus and ovaries, among other organs. The USDA moved to ban saccharine, but a compromise was reached that resulted in a warning label that might look familiar: “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” The warning was removed in 2000. Though the studies were criticized and many claims downshifted in later years, the stigma stuck in many people’s minds. Today the American Medical Association cautions that children and pregnant women should limit their use of the artificial sweetener since not enough information is available to assess risk. Saccharine is known to cross the placenta.

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal):

Famous for their memorable gumball campaign, aspartame added another choice to the sweetener line after some were scared off by the questions surrounding saccharine. The sweetener combines two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid with methanol. Like saccharine, the sweetener has a distinct taste, which some people like and others don’t. The FDA has done some 26 safety evaluations of the sweetener, and their reports show a clean record. Yet, not everyone agrees with this assessment. Aspartame, like MSG, is thought to be an “excitotoxin,” a compound that overstimulates nerve cells in the brain.

One proven concern is the inability of some people to metabolize phenylalanine, a component in aspartame. The problem is seen with people who have the genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) as well as people with liver disease or women who are pregnant and have a high level of phenylalanine in their blood. High phenylalanine levels can result in brain damage, which is why products with aspartame have an FDA-mandated warning regarding their phenylalanine content.

Sucralose (Splenda, etc.):

Approved by the FDA in 1998, sucralose indeed starts out as sugar but is then chemically adjusted by swapping three hydrogen-oxygen groups with three chlorine molecules. The process makes it into a non-caloric sweetener because we’re unable to metabolize this new form. By most reports, sucralose doesn’t have that artificial aftertaste the earlier substitutes had, although baking results vary considerably despite the sugar cookie and cupcake strewn ads. And don’t let the small box fool you: sucralose has 600 times the sweetening kick that sugar does.

Most researchers, practitioners and other experts suggest that they haven’t seen the same kinds of problems with sucralose that they have with previous artificial sweeteners. It’s true that sucralose is relatively new on the scene, and many are watching for signs of problems past. Nonetheless, in the interest of equal time, we’ll mention a brief caution that is based on a collection of personal accounts rather than scientific evidence. It appears that a small number of people do have experiences resembling allergic reactions to the sweetener. Although we couldn’t find reliable human studies that measured or confirmed these symptoms’ relation to sucralose, there are probably enough stories out there to suggest that people play it safe and “test” their reaction to the sweetener with small doses initially. Also, as we said earlier, if the food or drink isn’t something that offers a real benefit to your body, you’re probably better off finding an alternative.


Stevia is an herb-based non-caloric sweetener that is available in the U.S. as a dietary supplement. Native to Paraguay, you can buy stevia in whole-leaf form or as a powder extract that you dissolve in water. The pull of this “alternative” sweetener is that it’s not part of the artificial crowd. It’s used in many corners of the globe and is considered safe for diabetics. Like sucralose, it packs a powerful punch. A few drops of the liquid have about the same sweetening power as an entire cup of sugar. Also like sucralose, it can be used for baking. The biggest drawback of stevia: many complain that it has a very defined and unappealing underlying flavor. Some say it’s an acquired taste. Others say it’s a taste not worth acquiring.

Ah, to each, his or her own! Meanwhile, anything you can do to wean yourself off that generic craving for sweetness is probably a good thing.

Care to share your thoughts and tips? Pull up a chair and type away, we say.

TheeErin, mgus, canonsnapper, original Mikz Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

8 “Health Foods” That Contain HFCS

A Cranky Crab Confesses: Yes, I Use Splenda!

FitSugar: Artificial Sweeteners Explained

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I recently read an article on Agave Syrup being worse than High Fructose Corn Syrup from Dr. Mercola
    He always has controversial info, but as well useful information. I bought Wholesome Organic Agave. I would like to know if anyone has positive or negative comments on this. Thanks!

    Ale wrote on March 31st, 2010
    • Dr Group disagrees with Mercola on this issue. I have used Dr Group’s products and like him a lot. His OxyPowder saved me from an Appendectomy as well as I did colon hydrotherapy. The gallbladder cleanse was noticeably beneficial as well.

      Kate wrote on July 13th, 2012
  2. i don’t buy the story that honey sourced from a farmer’s market is automatically high quality, or even local.

    Alan wrote on April 2nd, 2010
  3. maybe aphex twin isn’t helping, but i have teeth that crave sweet and salty. Oh, my brain also craves my favorite vegetables, tobacco and corn. Also, I’m still in HS, so I can’t really control what I eat because I pay for none of it.
    I read SuseM: “I suffered scalp rash, horrible joint pain and weakness ( only today am I beginning to walk without a cane after it crippled my left side for the last couple weeks)”
    I agree. I have changed my habits recently by eating less and exercising more (and I was already quite active to begin with), but I still feel that nothing I find in a chain-store is even remotely appetizing anymore. oh, and i’m dead broke.

    circle "a" wrote on April 10th, 2010
  4. Does anyone know how much fructose is in Coconut sugar? with a low glycemic index, i would assume there would be a lot but this website seems to indicate otherwise:

    I have fructose malabsorbtion and get quite sick if I eat foods with a higher concentration of fructose to glucose (glucose helps to absorb fructose). I have some Coconut sugar on hand and want to use it to make a ‘cheat’ desert (haven’t cheated since I started eating primally 5 wks ago!), but I don’t want to get sick from it.

    By the way, for all those who convert to primal and are finding they have probs with an upset stomach, bloating, gas, ibs-type symptoms, it would be worth looking into fructose malabsorbtion. It doesn’t mean you need to give up all fruits, just consume those with more glucose than fructose. A few veggies also have fructose/fructins too so avoiding these may cause much relief.

    Just wanted to get the word out there as I’d never heard of it when I was diagnosed (and I’m a nurse). I thought I was eating healthy by incorporating lots of fruit and veg in my diet, but I was only feeling sicker. Studies have shown that a high portion of those with IBS are actually undiagnosed fructose malabsorbers. Hope this helps a few people out there!

    Bern wrote on May 5th, 2010
  5. This post appears to tip-toe around the shocking truth about artificial sweeteners — perhaps to avoid offending anyone fighting a sugar addiction.

    Peter wrote on May 6th, 2010
    • Please shock us with some facts on particular artificial sweeteners.

      Then anyone with addictive or other problems with sugars can make a personal judgment on balancing these risks with respect to their own situation.

      LeonRover wrote on May 8th, 2010
  6. What sweeteners should I avoid with having been diagnosed with Hep. C.?

    wiseguy wrote on May 8th, 2010
  7. There is not a single artificial sweetener that does not give me an intense prolonged headache. It was not always this way but I have since developed a chemical sensitivity that makes these substances toxic to me. Made the connection when chewing sugarless gum.

    LanceThruster wrote on May 13th, 2010
  8. I am 99% certain that sucralose (the sweetener in my ex-favorite-protein-powder)is what was triggering my severe migraines – lasting 3 days with visuals (sparkling geometric rainbows), vision loss, nausea – up to twice a month. I also had mild migraine-like headaches much of the time, even when not suffering an acute migraine attack. I threw out the protein powder a few months ago and I haven’t had a problem.

    Dawn wrote on September 8th, 2010
  9. I once watched a pregnant lady dump, not kidding, 15+ Sweet’n’Low packets into her coffee…I shutter to think what that would do to her unborn. I wondered how often she drank coffee like that.

    Dana wrote on December 25th, 2010
  10. Hi
    This is all very interesting and troublesome. I’ve recently taken on a primal lifestyle and i have a severe sugar tooth. I have been replacing sugar in my coffe with an artificial sweetner. Is this going to effect my success or weight lose? Or is this one of the situations where its a compromise. The lesser of two evils if you will.

    Lindsey wrote on January 13th, 2011
  11. Aspartame is poison clear and simple. Banned in Romania and would be banned everywhere else if not for political pressure and the underlying agenda of the FDA (Fraud and Death Association). Dr. Coldwell introduced in his book ‘The Only Answer to Cancer’. It is worth looking at as an alternative to sugar which feeds candida and cancer cells and synthetics like Aspartame, cousin of MSG, which is a brain tumor causing excito-toxin.

    Wayne Nash wrote on March 6th, 2011
  12. Your discussion of aspartame is misleading, because you didn’t mention that the FDA banned it for many years, until Donald Rumsfeld, one of the directors of the company that made it, when he was on the Reagan transition team got a new FDA commissioner to reverse the ban. Blatant corruption and abuse of the public trust. It’s unsafe, period.

    Ari Goldberg wrote on May 8th, 2011
  13. Stevia also has an odor and a strong aftertaste.

    The Bobster wrote on May 9th, 2011
    • Certain brands of stevia do have a bad aftertaste. However, I’ve been using NuNatural’s brand and it is absolutely awesome! No strange flavors or aftertastes, sweetens with just a pinch, it’s just wonderful :) I use the super concentrated powder, not the maltodextrin diluted stuff.

      Marie wrote on May 9th, 2011
  14. Statistically, we all live to be about 75 years old and then die. I prefer to enjoy the variety of life during those 75 years. You only live once. I’ll be no Ewel Gibbons nor a cave man.

    Rex wrote on May 9th, 2011
    • It’s a question of how you live those 75 years: at odds with your biological systems, or aligned with them.

      You want to do whatever you feel like in the moment, and spend decades with chronic illness, you are free to do that. Others will sadly also have to pay the price. But society gives you the freedom to suck down toxins and make yourself ill.

      Quality of life isn’t just about the ability to snort sucralose till your eyes spin.

      Farmer Pat wrote on January 3rd, 2012
  15. If I combine stevia with xylitol it seems to get rid of the bitterness and aftertaste that each of them seems to have on their own.

    I use erythritol occassionally because Kat James says its fine.

    Now I just have to shoot for 3 straight weeks of no sugar, no grains in order to find my “rhythm”! ugh.

    Dawyn wrote on May 9th, 2011
  16. The artificial sweetners act on me like a 6 pack of beer. A chain restaurant switched their normal over sweetened coke for diet coke. I got lost walking 1/2 block back to my office and couldn’t drive for a couple of hours. I have tried all of them and all do the same thing. Stevia is alright, although it still hase sugar in it (according to the package). I wish that the manufacturers would just cut the amout of sugar by 75%. That would solve most of the problems.

    Pete0097 wrote on May 11th, 2011
  17. Has anyone ever heard of coconut nectar? The wife and I have been on the PB for about a mont and love it. If nothing else no more joint pains for me. Any way the nectar….. made from raw coconut tree sap. They claim to have much lower glycemic level than Agave(which we never use any more due to the high fructose level and questionable processing methods). total carbs per table spoon 13G. It is made by Coconut Secret.

    Mike wrote on June 19th, 2011
  18. Xylitol not only has a low glycemic index, it helps stop cavities and stops bacteria build up in your mouth which is the real cause of tooth decay. Dr. Ellie Phyllips, promotes xylitol for brushing teeth and preventing dental problems. She has a book, “Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye”.

    I personally believe that we need to beware of any sweetener that is processed, including stevia and truvia. However, most of our processed foods have sugar in them so it won’t be easy to wean ourselves of that sweet tooth. The purer the sweetener, the better. Sugar from fruit is not the same as the other sugars but like anything else…always moderation is the best policy.

    Susan Gilbert wrote on September 26th, 2011
  19. Xylitol causes diarrhea. Aspartame, Splenda, Saccharine all are dangerous.

    I use sucanat or rapidura, very similar to LoGiCane. It is less sweet and is workable in all drinks and baking so it was a bridge for me when going from processed sugar to no sugar.

    Weston A Price Foundation and it’s health bible: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon talk about using artificial sweeteners.

    If you are a sugar addict, my suggestion is this: where you are using white sugar add smaller amounts and use honey and sucanat or other natural sweeteners.

    Oh and Fructose, without the accompanying fiber and other nutrients is WORSE than using natural sugar.

    Here is a good video/web page that explains it:

    Annie Sires wrote on October 5th, 2011
  20. ugh, such an old post, but hopefully someone will see and offer a solution…So, I currently (and for the past 7 years) drink 2 24 oz. iced coffees a day. This is the only thing I ever drink other than water. In the coffee :( ~ 2 splenda (occassionally 1) and a serving of coffee mate sugarfree hazlenut non-dairy creamer. I love the hazlenut, so I have contemplated switching to flavored coffee. I do well on dairy, so would probably use a shot of heavy cream or whipping cream – but where will I get the “sweetness”!! Refuse to do any sugar, and I don’t necessarily think my coffee consumption causes issues for me, but if there is a primal alternative (other than none), would love to hear such a thing….I know the coffeemate is baaaadddddddd! But it tastes oh-so-good, that my husband, non-primal, likes to refer to it as a 24oz. cup of pure pleasure, and I wholeheartedly agree…

    lisa wrote on October 11th, 2011
    • HAHAHA!!! How things change! Have since quit the coffee mate and the splenda! Now I drink my iced coffee unsweetened, with heavy whipping cream, and a sprinkle of cinnamon (an antioxidant-go me), tastes like an iced cappuccino all day! For a treat, I sprinkle ghirardelli unsweetened baking cocoa on there instead.

      lisa wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  21. Only one person mentioned this… honey! Nature’s natural sweetener. Honey was HIGHLY prized by hunter-gatherers due to it’s high calorie content and great taste. I live in the outback where some Aboriginals still practice their skills. Things they go after are ‘sugarbags’ (native bee honey, lerp on plants (insect honeydew) and ‘Honeypot Ants’. Youtube the ants, it will blow your mind haha. I was privileged enough to have eaten some collected by the women and it tastes even better than regular honey.

    jimmy wrote on December 30th, 2011
  22. I find myself gravitating to honey. I noted elsewhere my love affair with coffee and its good effects on me. I was in my early 20s when I figured out that putting table sugar in coffee made me seriously ill. I switched to honey then. One tablespoon in my usual 40-oz mug of strong black organic coffee with heavy organic cream. I’ve drunk this for 30 years. Getting honey in cafes used to be like asking for a volume of Karl Marx in Texas…but it’s more normalized now.

    Tried agave. It made me jaggy and farty. Just like HFCS (which I’ve banned forever, but sometimes you end up ingesting it at a social or business occasion).

    My palate needs very little sugar. Boreal indigenous people just don’t need it. Honey comes at the end of summer, and you store and eat it before and into winter. But during the spring, summer, and fall there are so many other things to eat. But remember that honeybees are not native to the New World. We Asian/Uralic genome people probably tolerate it better.

    Farmer Pat wrote on January 3rd, 2012
    • HIt send too soon. Honeybees are native to southern and SE Asia.

      Farmer Pat wrote on January 3rd, 2012
  23. I love Xylitol. It’s actually made from birch sap wich is collected and crystallised. It doesn’t raise blood sugar levels and is insulin neutral. I bake with it no problem. As to causing diarrhea, you’d have to use a lot to suffer this effect. I would have thought, given that migratory North American Indians used to collect birch sap together with Maple sap, Xylitol might fit in quite well with the Paleo idea? What do you think?

    Marion wrote on January 17th, 2012
  24. I swear by Xylitol. I have no adverse effects whatsoever (ie: weight gain, headaches, crashes) I know this because I’ve been using it for as long as I’ve been Primal (about 6 months)
    Liquid Stevia extract also has never given me an issue, but it’s just not suited for certain endeavors. Yuck!

    Mande P wrote on January 30th, 2012
  25. This is so confusing,I though Stevie may be a pure,so I can use it but to read all that I am not sure to use it it’s better to use regular sugar as less as I can .

    Rosy wrote on April 20th, 2012
  26. I’ve personally used Stevia for over 12 years now, I prefer the liquid Extract and have used KAL or NOW Foods Better Stevia. I do not experience that weird after taste with either one and no odd side effects. A couple drops in a glass of water with half a lemon…best lemonaide.

    Also just learned about Just Like Sugar which is made here in Nevada. All natural, sold at Whole Foods I believe and online. I have not tried it yet. Some say it isn’t as sweet as sugar…ok, that’s a good thing though right? It’s low glycemic and used in 90 countries. Their website is and also Nice folks, I’ve spoken to them personally in doing some other research. I have no involvemet w/their company. A WF just opened here so I may be able to try it now.

    Kate wrote on July 13th, 2012
  27. i tried aspartarme for a month. don’t. this stuff is poison; makes you gain weight AND depression.

    dill wrote on August 7th, 2012
  28. I’m starting to use palm (coconut) sugar which seems to be a nice natural substitute that’s supposed to be nicer on the system. Any comments?

    Claire wrote on March 10th, 2013
  29. Took me about a month to get used to the aftertaste of stevia. But I’m sure glad I invested in it! I only use it for coffee though. So in the end it’s better to just train your appetite for sweets to fruit.

    Nathan wrote on April 19th, 2013

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