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167: Healthy Sweetener Alternatives For The Holidays

If you’ve ever wondered how you can mindfully reduce your sugar intake, this episode is right up your alley!

We know that sugar can trigger skin rash flares, gut problems, and increase inflammation in the body (aside from contributing to blood sugar and hormone issues).

While there are a lot of people that would swear to you that sugar is the devil and you should avoid it at all costs, I like to take a more pragmatic approach.

We all live in the real world and have to take steps that are practical and sustainable over idealistic (that can lead some on the path to disordered eating).

Sugar is all around us… and rather than fearing it, let’s talk about some better options!

Options that could reduce sugar intake within your home that won’t have you (or family members) dumping treats in the trash because they taste like artificial chemicals.

Nor leave you afraid to eat (which is an unfortunate common problem in our community).

Here’s my advice on healthy sweetener alternatives that I often share with my nutrition clients!

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In this episode:

  • Why I encourage my nutrition clients to avoid trying to go entirely sugar-free
  • My top 4 recommended low or no-calorie alternative sweeteners
  • Pros + cons of specific alternative sweeteners (some can trigger rashes!)
  • Tips for finding lower sugar recipes for treats (so you can enjoy the holidays)
  • Favorite companies that make or use alternative sweeteners

Quotes:

Food is one of life’s great pleasures and is meant to be enjoyed! Doing so mindfully can make all the difference between throwing in the towel versus staying on track.

Certain alternative sweeteners can potentially trigger rashes in some (that look like eczema) or unpleasant gut symptoms like gas or bloating.

Christmas tree cupcakes

Healthy Sweetener Alternatives For The Holidays (FULL TRANSCRIPT)

Welcome back to episode #167 of the Healthy Skin Show!

In today’s episode, I want to talk about sweetener alternatives that could be a good fit to play with as the holidays roll around. While you might be used to more hard-hitting topics, I’m often asked this by clients.

Sugar can be a trigger for skin (and even gut) issues because of its impact on your microbiome. As you’ve heard me discuss many times, gut dysbiosis (or imbalances in your gut flora) can trigger flares and other symptoms.

Often, the unfriendly “bugs” end up enjoying the sugar at your expense!

And you also shouldn’t discount the impact of poor blood sugar regulation on your hormones and ultimately skin.

That’s why this is the perfect time before the holidays role in to test out new sweeteners so that you can still indulge without a flare (from too much sugar).

If we were in a perfect world, we’d all be low or no-sugar, but that’s just simply not the reality for most. Rather than spend time shaming anyone about this (because I frankly don’t think doing so is helpful), I’d prefer to encourage you to try some different options to expand your horizons!

No one wants to feel left out which can make it even harder to stick to the things that help you feel well. It’s my hope that these healthy sweetener options will allow you to enjoy the holidays!

Little gingerbread houses

Healthy Sweetener Option #1 – Stevia

Stevia comes from a plant with leaves that taste sweet. While originally from South America, you can purchase the plant at local greenhouses in the early summer.(1)

Typically the leaves are dried and the extracts you have seen in products are created. They can be listed as stevia leaf extract or Stevia Rebaudiana, or even Rebaudioside A. It’s considered a zero-calorie sweetener since most of what’s metabolized in the gut ends up passing through the body to be excreted through urine.(1)

You can purchase stevia in powdered or liquid form. I personally prefer liquid extracts as I find that the aftertaste is less present, but then again, I like stevia.

For those who don’t like it, stevia can have a really strong aftertaste so don’t feel bad if stevia isn’t right for you. And there are some things that I find stevia just doesn’t always compliment well — hot chocolate is one of them, in my opinion.

It also can’t make up the bulk of what’s missing from sugar if you’re baking. There is an art to subbing out sugar in recipes. I’d recommend doing your research and testing things out before diving head in.

One other thing — stevia is in the ragweed family. If you have a strong ragweed allergy, it is possible that your body reacts to stevia for this reason triggering higher histamine levels, itchiness and even a rash.

CLICK HERE to better understand the issue with this particular ragweed-stevia cross-reactive allergy.

My favorite two brands are NuNaturals and Sweetleaf. They both offer flavored options that can make recipes even more fun!

Assorted Christmas Cookies

Healthy Sweetener Option #2 – Monk fruit

Monk fruit is more formally known as luo han guo. It was traditionally used as an herb in Chinese medicine before becoming the sweetener many of us are familiar with.

According to experts, monk fruit is considered to be a zero-calorie sweetener that will not spike blood sugar. It certainly packs a sweet punch being that monk fruit is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. (2)

Like stevia, it can have an off-putting aftertaste. Though when blended with other sweeteners, you might find that it’s not all that noticeable.

One thing to keep in mind is that in some people, monk fruit can actually trigger an eczema-like rash. This is because monk fruit is in the gourd family along with “pumpkins, squash, cucumbers + melons.” (3)

I spoke with one woman who developed a bad rash after reducing processed sugar in her diet and switching mostly to monk fruit. So if you try this option and find that your skin gets worse, this could explain why.

The only brand I can honestly say I’ve tried is Lakanto which seems to have cornered the market. They have all sorts of mixes available in addition to both liquid and granulated “sugar” products.

Just be aware that the granulated cup-for-cup sugar products also contain erythritol (a FODMAP sugar alcohol) that may not work for you if you struggle with bloating + gas.

I’ve just stuck with their liquid monk fruit to play around with things (like hot chocolate) that doesn’t mix too well on my palette with stevia.

Making Christmas Cookies

Healthy Sweetener Option #3 – Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols have also become all the rage because of the demand for lower carb sweeteners. While not entirely sugar-free, the amount of sugar they add is considerably lower and will be listed on nutrition labels.(4)

Naturally occurring in fruit and other sources, these sweeteners are part of the FODMAP group of foods (specifically they are polyols). They are fermentable starches that can help feed gut flora in your microbiome without contributing to dental carries. (4,5,6)

The only issue is if you struggle with SIBO or symptoms like gas and bloating. These sweeteners may make your symptoms worse. If that’s the case, sugar alcohols should be minimized until the gut issues are resolved.

The most common of the sugar alcohols that you’ll see in products on store shelves is Erythritol since it tends to have the least GI impact.

Other sugar alcohols include Isomalt, Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, and Xylitol.

Granulated and powdered sugar alcohol products often are made to be swapped out in baking recipes one-for-one. And they may be added to other natural sweeteners like Monk fruit and Allulose.

Swerve is probably one of the most well-known companies for popularizing this sugar replacement.

Christmas Stollen

Healthy Sweetener Option #4 – Allulose

Allulose is a simple sugar that occurs in nature that’s not fully metabolized by your body. It’s also more formally called “D-Psicose, or even D-allulose”. You can find allulose in foods like raisins, maple syrup, and wheat.(7)

It doesn’t seem to impact blood sugar levels and as a result, it is currently not counted in the “added sugar” nor “sugar” categories on a food label.(8)

As with most alternative sweeteners, the dose can definitely make a difference between enjoying your treat versus running to the bathroom. There is some limited research out there that very high intake of allulose can trigger diarrhea, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. Chances are that you probably won’t eat enough Allulose to even get to this point if you’re mindfully indulging.(9)

Since I’ve never tried Allulose, I reached out to a good friend of mine — Heather K. Terry, co-founder + CEO of Good Sam Foods — who uses it in their keto-friendly chocolate products which are launching on Thrive Market mid-November 2020.

When asked what allulose tastes like, Heather shared that “it tastes a lot like cane sugar, but it’s only about 70% as sweet. As a result, most people can’t tell that it’s an alternative sweetener since it doesn’t have a weird aftertaste that detracts from the product.”

If you’re looking to grab a bag of allulose, you can find them here.

Traditional Christmas fruit cake

Honorable Mention + A Couple Of Tips

Before I wrap up, I wanted to share a few other thoughts.

There are certainly other healthy sweeteners out there to try that are helpful especially for those who have certain allergies and sensitivities.

While these aren’t all necessarily sugar-free, they might be right up your alley:

  1. Date Syrup – A flavorful alternative that can be added to different recipes
  2. Maple Syrup + Sugar – My personal fav is The Maple Guide which offers by far the best maple syrups (with varying flavors) that I’ve ever tasted.
  3. Coconut sugar – Another wonderful mineral-rich sugar made from the sap of flowering coconut palm trees (not from the coconuts themselves).
  4. Mesquite powder – My good friend Ambra Torelli at Little Bites Of Beauty recently reminded me of this caramel-flavored sweetener/superfood. You can check out some options here and she has a wonderful selection of recipes with Mesquite!

Also, Ambra shared some tips with me that could reduce your need for sweetener — use flours that are naturally sweet! She recommends using flours like tigernut or chestnut. She said that chestnut flour is traditionally used in some Italian recipes like Castagnaccio.

Aside from Ambra’s website which is a wealth of knowledge for gluten + dairy-free recipes that are often also AIP-compliant, you can search for keto versions of your favorite desserts.

My friend Brittnay Angell has an entire section on her website dedicated to keto recipes (with many amazing desserts) along with her beautiful book Ultimate Keto. This incredible trove of recipes has lots of desserts that fit into a low-sugar lifestyle utilizing alternative sweeteners.

My main objective here is to encourage you to make mindful choices that also honor the holidays and allow for enjoyment that each one of us gets from food.

The holidays (especially in colder, drier climates) can be very depressing depending on where you are on your skin rash journey. Depriving yourself of everything that brings you joy can be really hard on your mental state.

I learned from visiting Italy many times that food is one of life’s great pleasures and is meant to be enjoyed! Doing so mindfully may make all the difference between you throwing in the towel and staying on track.

From my clinical experience, excessive restriction often drives disordered eating that can hijack your relationship with food. Developing food fear because you feel like you react to everything or you’re just afraid to eat things because of information overload is a serious problem in our community (and may require help to get you back on track).

So if you’ve been hoping to enjoy a few indulgences over the holiday season (or even outside of that), these suggestions could be just what you need!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these sweeteners or any others that you’d recommend that have worked for you in the comments below.

And I encourage you to share this episode with anyone who is looking to reduce sugar! Especially since the concern over sugar intake (and the inflammation that results from it) goes far beyond just skin issues. Everyone can benefit from knowing that there are cup-for-cup alternatives out there that could reduce their sugar intake.

Thank you so much for turning in and I look forward to seeing you in the next episode!

Woman reading reference books in library

REFERENCES

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4890837/
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322769#monk-fruit
  3. https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/monk-fruit-health-benefits#allergies
  4. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/sugar-alcohols.cfm
  5. https://med.virginia.edu/ginutrition/wp-content/uploads/sites/199/2018/05/Low_FODMAP_Diet_12.16.pdf
  6. https://decisionsindentistry.com/article/update-sugar-alcohols-role-caries-prevention/
  7. https://allulose.org/allulose-info/about-allulose/
  8. https://allulose.org/allulose-the-new-nutrition-facts-label/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6315886/

Food is one of life’s great pleasures and is meant to be enjoyed! Doing so mindfully can make all the difference between throwing in the towel versus staying on track.


Jennifer Fugo, MS, CNS

Jennifer Fugo, MS, CNS is an integrative Clinical Nutritionist and the founder of Skinterrupt. She works with women who are fed up with chronic gut and skin rash issues discover the root causes and create a plan to get them back to a fuller, richer life.


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