Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t eat sugar. Other than naturally occurring complex sugars found in native fruits, honey, and grains—as well as glyconutrients in aloe vera and agave, mushrooms, seeds, tree saps, and herbs—they didn’t use concentrated fruit syrups or make sugar.
Native complex sugars and glyconutrients, sugar molecules important in biology and medicine that support life, are healing sugars. Refined white sugar and concentrated syrups derived from plants, like high fructose corn syrup, are certainly unhealthy and may be toxic to genes and cells.
Refined “white” sugar and high fructose corn syrup have no nutritional value. Our ancestors didn’t have refined sugar, and our body’s sole hormone that controls glucose levels (insulin) is under attack by sugar and syrups.
Gang of 10 High Calorie Sugars
- Agave syrup
- Barley malt syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High fructose corn syrup
- Refined beet sugar
- Refined pasteurized honey
- Sugar cane crystals
All processed sugars and syrups—including agave, honey, molasses, maple, sugar cane crystals, barley malt, rice, corn, evaporated cane juice, dried cane juice, date palm sugar, and all sugar products such as sucrose, dextrose, glucose, fructose, and levulose—should be avoided completely.
I’ve learned from clinical experience that some people have less tolerance for sugar than others. These folks, myself included, cannot eat any refined sugar products. My patients with fatty liver disease, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome with high triglycerides, and cancer are advised to remove all sweets from their diet. For these patients, even fresh fruits are restricted because of their high fructose content.
Some people seem to be able to tolerate infrequent, small amounts of sweeteners. If you are one of these lucky folks, keep sugar use low: consume no more than one teaspoon at a time, once a day. Sounds very restrictive, I know, but we don’t need any added sugar because our bodies can’t utilize it all, and the rests turns to triglycerides and fat, disrupts our energy cycle, and may even promote tumor growth.
Okay when used infrequently, and in small amounts or as medicine:
- Blackstrap molasses: remainder from sugar processing; has iron and potassium and other minerals; glycemic index 54
- Brown rice syrup: trace amounts of vitamins and minerals; glycemic index 25
- Coconut palm sugar: high in potassium; trace amounts of vitamins and minerals; glycemic index 35
- Maple syrup: more minerals than honey; glycemic index 54
- Raw honey: has trace amounts of nutrients; glycemic index 55
- Unrefined cane sugar: 96 percent sucrose/2 percent fructose; glycemic index 55
Our distant ancestors would be totally unfamiliar with fine white sugar crystals. Any kind of natural sweetener was rare and precious, and less sweet than modern sugary products. For example, raw wild honey is not as sweet as the modern forms, including organic ones bought in health food stores. Back then, even common fruits that we eat today, like apples, were tart and tiny. The sole ancestor of modern sweet apples (Malus sieversii) is native to Central Asia and Western China, and it’s not sweet like a Red Delicious or Fuji apple.
Paleolithic people—and even modern cultures with roots to their ancestral past, like traditional Chinese—don’t add sugar or syrups to foods. Our bodies are not biologically designed to utilize excess sugar. We need essential fatty acids, carbohydrates, and protein, as well as a wide range of nutrients found in natural foods.
We don’t need sugar. It’s a dispensable source of energy. And, too much sugar has caused a worldwide disease epidemic of obesity and diabetes. This global problem is now in the hands of the World Health Organization and it looks like they will issue a report recommending that people consume less than 5 percent of their total daily calories from sugar.
The World Health Organization recommends people get 5% or less of their calories from sugars. For someone watching their weight consuming 1,500 calories per day, that’s 75 calories. 1 gram of sugar has 4 calories. That means your daily allowance of sugar (including sucrose and fructose) is 18.75 grams.
What are Americans, who love sweets, to do? Are paleo sweeteners any good? For one, they don’t taste as sweet as sugar, or even like refined agave syrup or honey, but are they okay to eat? And after you eliminate or limit the sugars from the lists above, what’s left? Not much, but here are a few to consider used in small amounts.
- Unrefined (raw) cane sugar
Panela and Raw Cane Sugar
Sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum) is ancient. It belongs to the grass family and native to Southeast Asia. In Latin America, panela is the word for unrefined whole cane sugar. It comes in dark brown blocks used in baking, making wine and vinegar, and as medicine. It’s not loaded into foods and drinks, but a little makes bitter herbal teas go down better. No, it’s not caveman sugar because they didn’t have sugar, so not really true paleo, but it’s close.
Commercial organic cane sugar is more refined than panela, but it still has some molasses left in the crystals. It’s marketed as organic whole cane sugar or turbinado sugar. Because it’s less processed, it retains minerals like potassium and magnesium. However, raw cane sugar has a glycemic index of 65, which is lower than white sugar, but it’s still too high for regular consumption.
Dates and Date Sugar
Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) are native to the Middle East and India, and have been used as food for thousands of years. When ripe, they are very sweet and can be eaten out-of-hand as snacks. Dates are high in essential nutrients, have fiber and are a good source of potassium.
A cup of dates has about 400 calories, or 23 calories per date. Date sugar paste is made from dried dates. It’s not easy to use in cooking and doesn’t dissolve well in tea, but can be used in baking. The glycemic index of dates varies among different species with an average index of 38, which make it a good choice when you have a sweet craving. However, a few dates go a long ways because of they are calorie dense, so don’t eat too many.
Yacón syrup is making headlines. It contains 14 grams of sugar, the equivalent of about 40 calories for two tablespoons. That’s much less than agave, however it’s not as sweet, so less desirable in foods or drinks. Actually, it tastes and looks more like molasses than honey or agave syrup. Despite the taste, yacón is helping women loss weight and trim off belly fat.
Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius) is native to the Andes with most commercial production coming from Peru. The large tuberous roots are processed into powder or juice, and then filtered and concentrated by cooking. Because yacón has a very low glycemic index, between 1 and 5 depending on the source, it prevents glucose spikes in the blood. It’s also a good medicine.
The powdered root and syrup improve intestinal health, lower glucose and may reduce cholesterol levels. It has a positive effect on testosterone metabolism, improves insulin sensitivity, and supports the immune system. It may have help prevent colon cancer. And, it’s being used for weight loss. The health-promoting ingredient is a kind of prebiotic.
The roots contain inulin, a type of fructan. The syrup contains 50% fructooligosaccharides (FOS), an important prebiotic that supports healthy intestinal flora. FOS does not raise blood glucose making yacón useful in the management of type II diabetes or for people with sugar cravings, and those trying to loose weight. However, since it’s 35% fructose, I still consider it a sugar, and consumption should be minimal.
My Final Recommendations
Taking It Home: Our bodies were not engineered for any type of added sugar. What’s the solution?
Obviously, you shouldn’t eat any white sugar or consume any product containing high fructose corn syrup. Never drink sodas. Don’t use commercially packaged foods. And read labels. Even the more healthy pasta sauces can have as much as 90 calories from sugars.
One bottled superfood smoothie I recently looked at in a Whole Foods Market had insignificant amounts of fiber and protein, and no essential fatty acids, but 37 grams of sugar—twice the allowed daily amount. In a recent blog, I also warned about natural syrup like agave (http://renegadehealth.com/blog/2014/01/24/is-agave-syrup-good-for-you). A common agave nectar found in health food stores has no fiber, protein, or essential fatty acids, but 4.7 grams of sugar, mainly fructose, per teaspoon.
Though there are no true paleo sweeteners, panela, dates, and yacón are close. Perhaps instead of looking for ancestral sweets, we’ll have to live closer to nature. Perhaps we could start a garden or raise a few trees in pots, shop for fresh produce, cook more at home, avoid deserts and sweet treats, and drink coffee black and herbal teas without honey.
I know. It’s all so very un-American.