Real Trumps Fake, Especially for Sweeteners

Real Trumps Fake, Especially for Sweeteners

In the nation’s quest to nourish its citizens with real, natural, unadulterated food, there is an increasing stream of thought around the return to “primal” roots. One nutritional shortcoming, debated often amid continuing massive consumption, is the issue of sweeteners.

Blackberry Pancakes with honey
Honey is a wonderful sweetener for pancakes

Coffee or Tea? Real or Fake Sweetener?

Even those who have embraced natural, organic eating regimens can come up short when it comes to the “sweet stuff.” When people come to my house, I always offer coffee, tea, or water. That’s usually all I have to offer. The real moment of truth is when I ask, “How do you take that?” Sometimes, when I care about the person, I may talk (too much) about how bad it is to use fake sweeteners. Recently a fancy rabbi visited from Miami, and I offered him coffee or tea, and he said, “diet soda. I only drink diet Coke.”

Diet soda looks better than it is for you

I told him that diet Coke was against the “dietary laws in our home.” He didn’t get the sarcastic reference. Artificial sweeteners, especially in soft drinks, do not contribute dietary calories, but they increase insulin production and ramp up a hunger, eating, and obesity.

I wondered about the fancy rabbi’s health.

If you feel like going on a journey to learn more about aspartame (a/k/a NutraSweet), just Google the question “How bad is aspartame for you?” and you will find plenty of rants on its ill effects.

Aspartame, a dangerous sweetener, may cause weight gain, headaches, and other ill effects.

And the trend seems to move from one artificial sweetener to the next. First came saccharin. Then, aspartame entered the scene. Currently, “sucralose” (a/k/a Splenda) has risen to the top the totem pole of artificial sweeteners—despite evidence piling up about the debilitating effects of these fake sweeteners.

Blueberry honey with blueberries, bleu cheese and raw cashews for snacking

Of course, trying to follow the “real” path can feel confusing and frustrating as well.

Cane sugar, damned for years as the bane of our healthy existence, has made a comeback as the “real” sweetener vis a vis the previous “real” choice, fructose (as in “high fructose corn syrup”). High fructose corn syrup has now been banished to the nutritional dungeon by many health authorities.

Picture of a bowl and scoop full of natural sugar

Common sense has always told me to go for whole foods—the stuff that comes from the ground...Unless it’s poison ivy.

As with anything, moderation is key.

The benefits of using raw honey as a sweetener over any of the fake sweeteners involve the vitamins, enzymes, phytonutrients, and antimicrobial benefits. It also helps build immunity. When used moderately, honey comes packaged with natural health benefits. If you are going to use a sweetener, then why not use one that contributes to, rather than detracts from, your health?

Blueberry honey-sweetened iced tea

The Best Natural Sweeteners

Agave nectar

is plant-based sweetener from the juice of the agave cactus that’s raised some controversy recently. It may have the same ramifications as high fructose corn syrup, which many a naturalist blame as the source for early-onset diabetes in children and the obesity problem in America today. Others tout its use because of its relatively low effect on blood glucose levels.


Another plant-based sweetener that Dr. Oz noted in You on a Diet as “a non-caloric natural herb.” He says the taste isn’t ideal, and stevia seems to lower sperm counts in some studies.

Birch Sugar

Also referred to as xylitol, this natural sugar substitute derived from birch tree fiber. There have been many reported benefits of xylitol, including tooth decay prevention and bone density improvement. Xylitol is considered safe for people with diabetes because it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels. However, as with most sugar alcohols, consumption may result in bloating, diarrhea, and gas.

Extremely up close with honeycomb
Honeycomb close-up Poto by Melina Madara


This sugar alcohol is a sweetener available in a powdered form. It is formed from the breaking down, fermenting, and filtering of sugar cane or corn starch. It has a cool taste that works well in coffee and tea. Erythritol doesn’t affect your blood sugar or cause tooth decay, but as with xylitol, it may cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea if consumed in excess.


One of the oldest natural sweeteners, honey is sweeter than sugar. Depending on the plant source, honey can have a range of flavors, from dark and strongly flavored, to light and mildly flavored. Raw honey contains small amounts of enzymes, minerals, and vitamins. Consuming local honey may also boost your immune system against pollen allergens.