In pursuit of sweetness

In our wheat-free lifestyle, having an occasional sweet indulgence can be nice. Recipes such as cheesecake or cookies, for instance, require some amount of sweetener. So how can we choose our sweetener and minimize adverse physiologic consequences? Understanding the use of these benign sweeteners can be especially helpful for holiday cooking, entertaining family and friends, and an occasional indulgence. (Surely you’ve tried my Pecan Streusel Coffee Cake!)

Pick sucrose and we are exposed to the 50% fructose contained in the glucose:fructose molecule. Fructose is so awful at so many points in metabolism that it is worth absolutely minimizing.

There are several good choices but navigating among them is often confusing. Be aware that non-nutritive sweeteners, due to their sweetness, have the potential to increase appetite. Use these sweeteners sparingly, adding only enough to make your recipe slightly and pleasantly sweet. Thankfully, the majority of people who are wheat-free experience heightened sensitivity to sweetness and the need for sweeteners of any sort diminishes over time.

While stevia has been around in the U.S. for decades as a “nutritional supplement,” it recently received a boost into mainstream use with the FDA’s “Generally Recognized As Safe,” or GRAS, designation in 2008 for its rebaudioside component, also known as rebiana. Agribusiness giant Cargill (yeah, yeah: I know!) launched its Truvía brand, which contains erythritol with rebiana, while PepsiCo launched PureVia, a combination of erythritol, rebiana, and a small quantity of the sugar isomaltulose.

Stevia plants are naturally sweet, often called “sweet leaf.” Some people grow the plants and chew the leaves for their sweetness or add the leaves to recipes.

Stevia is also widely available as powdered and liquid extracts that, in addition to the rebiana, have the other sweet components of the stevia leaf. Many of the powdered extracts are made with maltodextrin, erythritol, xylitol, or inulin to add volume or to mimic the look and feel of sugar. Maltodextrin is a polymer of glucose produced from corn or wheat. The maltodextrin may therefore represent a potential source of wheat gluten exposure for people who are extremely sensitive. Maltodextrin is also a source of calories, since it is essentially a chain of glucose molecules. While glucose provides 16 calories per level teaspoon, maltodextrin is digested less efficiently, it provides less than this but is variable depending on the length of the glucose chain. Stevia in the Raw brand made with maltodextrin and rebiana therefore lists less than two calories per teaspoon on its nutritional composition. Note that two calories per teaspoon equates to 96 calories per cup, or a total of up to 24 grams carbohydrates per cup. Carbohydrate exposure is therefore a concern when large quantities are used. Ideally, use the stevia extracts that are pure stevia or made with inulin, e.g., Trader Joes, SweetLeaf brand. Maria Emmerich advises me that the stevia glycerite form is less bitter for many people.

Liquid stevia extracts are highly concentrated with little else but stevia and water. The quantity required to equal the sweetness of sugar varies from brand to brand. The SweetLeaf brand, for instance, claims that two drops of their Stevia Clear extract equals one teaspoon of sugar, while some other brands require five drops for equivalent sweetness.

Because of the variety of ways stevia is purified and packaged, you will need to adjust the volume of powder or liquid used depending on the preparation. Most preparations will provide advice on what quantity matches the sweetness of sugar. Also, the presence of other ingredients like erythritol or maltodextrin can influence how various recipes respond; some experimentation may therefore be necessary, especially when trying a new brand of sweetener in a recipe. For instance, erythritol combined with stevia, e.g., Truvía, may not hold up as well in baking and can acquire a slightly bitter taste.

Xylitol is a form of “sugar alcohol,” i.e., a carbohydrate with an OH group attached, thus the term “alcohol,” a confusing designation as it contains no ethanol (the alcohol in a martini or glass of wine) nor shares physiologic effects of ethanol. Xylitol is found naturally in fruits and vegetables. It is also produced by the human body as part of normal metabolism.

Teaspoon for teaspoon, xylitol is equivalent in sweetness to sucrose. It yields two thirds of the calories of sucrose and, because digestion occurs in the small intestine rather than the stomach, triggers a slower and less sharp rise in blood glucose than sucrose. Most people experience minimal rise in blood glucose with xylitol. In one study of slender young volunteers, for instance, six teaspoons of sucrose increased blood sugar by 36 mg/dl, while xylitol increased it 6 mg/dl. Interestingly, several studies have demonstrated positive health effects, including prevention of tooth decay and ear infections in children, both due to xylitol’s effects on inhibiting bacterial growth in the mouth.

Xylitol can be used interchangeably with sugar in recipes. It also has the least effect on changing baking characteristics. While traditionally produced from birch trees, more recent large scale production uses corn as its source. (While I am no fan of corn, particularly genetically-modified corn, the purified xylitol is likely not a substantial exposure to anything but the xylitol.)

Erythritol, like xylitol, is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, i.e., a carbohydrate with an OH group attached and thereby labeled an alcohol, though it has nothing to do with ethanol. It is found in gram quantities in fruit. In commercial production, erythritol is produced from glucose with a process using yeast. Also like xylitol, osmotic gas and bloating generally does not occur as it does with common sugar alcohols mannitol and sorbitol.

Over 80% of ingested erythritol is excreted in the urine, the remaining 20% metabolized by bacteria in the colon. For this reason, it yields no increase in blood sugar even with a “dose” of 15 teaspoons all at once. There are less than 1.6 calories per teaspoon in erythritol. Limited studies have demonstrated modest reductions blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c (a reflection of the previous 60 days’ blood sugar) in people with diabetes who use erythritol.

Erythritol is somewhat less sweet than table sugar. It also has a unique “cooling” sensation, similar to that of peppermint, though less intense. It may therefore confer a cooling sensation to your baked products. It also does not hold up in baking quite as well as stevia. When Truvía was used in testing the Wheat Belly bread recipes, it had a slightly bitter taste. Swerve is a commercial product that is useful for baking, a combination of erythritol and inulin.

Sucralose is manufactured from glucose by adding chlorine atoms. It has become the most popular artificial sweetener in the world, known to most Americans as Splenda.

Sucralose is very baking compatible, not changing in taste or texture with baking. The various forms of sucralose are usually combined with maltodextrin, such as in Granulated Splenda, and therefore pose some of the concerns listed above, including occasional abdominal complaints like bloating and gas and potential carbohydrate exposure of 0.5 grams carbohydrate per level teaspoon or 24 grams per cup, yielding up to 96 calories per cup. Carbohydrate content is therefore a potential issue only when large quantities are used. Like stevia, sucralose is also available as a liquid without maltodextrin.

Although sucralose has proven safe in worldwide consumption, there have been scattered reports of potential adverse effects. There’s the theoretical effect from the chlorine molecules contained within the sucralose molecule (since sucralose is glucose with added chlorine atoms, just as table salt is a sodium atom with a chlorine atom). However, there is no formal evidence that this has resulted in undesirable human effects. Limited animal evidence suggests alteration of bowel microorganisms; this has not been reproduced in humans.

Sweeteners to not use
Then there are the sweeteners that truly do have problems outside of potential appetite/insulin triggering. The sweeteners to avoid include sugar alcohols sorbitol, maltitol, and mannitol; they cause vigorous rises in blood sugar and provocation of small LDL particles, not to mention gas and diarrhea (unless, of course, you are not fond of your mother-in-law and would like to be entertained one evening). Avoid fructose sources, especially agave nectar, followed by maple syrup (real or high-fructose corn syrup-based), honey, and, of course, high-fructose corn syrup. (Yes, while honey has some good things in it, it is too rich in fructose. If you insist on using it, use the darkest honeys and use sparingly.) Beware of the “natural” sugars that are increasingly appearing on the market made from coconut and other plants; they are usually just sucrose or fructose.

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134 Responses to In pursuit of sweetness

  1. LorLor says:

    Chemistry question for someone out there – I’ve been experimenting with sweetener combinations in baked goods, as I don’t like the bitter aftertaste of stevia and larger quantities of xylitol upset my stomach in much the same way as the more sinister sugar alcohols.

    Most recently I used 75% Sweetleaf stevia and 25% xylitol, combined to be the equivalent of one cup of sugar. The uncooked dough still had the bitter aftertaste of stevia but the finished product did not, it had the right amount of sweetness and no aftertaste.

    Does stevia change during the cooking process?

  2. Izzy says:

    Hey Dr. Davis!
    I’m wondering if Starbucks’ Sugar Free Vanilla Syrup is alright to use in drinks, baking, etc. or will it prevent me from losing weight?

  3. Shirley says:

    I am so confused about the sweeteners to use. I just bought pure via but now am thinking that it is not the right one to use? What are some good powdered forms to use? The liquids are crazy high in price. Thanks!

    • Vinessa says:

      The liquid does seem like it’s expensive, but since it literally only uses 1-5 drops, it lasts a long time! you could use it for 2 months more or less, depending on how often you are using it.

  4. Janet says:

    Hi Dr. Davis!

    I eat what you recommend…EXCEPT for breakfast. For a million reasons I need a fast and portable way to eat in the morning.

    I’ve been searching for a protein bar that doesn’t have too much junk in it. The latest one I’m trying has these ingredients:
    -Whey Protein Isolate
    -Milk Protein Isolate
    -Isomalto-Oligosaccharide (IMO)
    -Natural Peanut and Almond Butters
    -Peanuts, Almonds and Cashews
    -Sea Salt and Natural Flavors
    -Lo Han Guo
    -Stevia, Erythritol

    Can you give me your opinion please?


    • Dr. Davis says:

      Well, if you must, Janet!

      This bar seems like a reasonable compromise, with no truly unhealthy ingredients.

      But here’s a novel thought: Why not eat real, whole foods like eggs, olives, kale, or Brazil nuts?

      • Trina says:

        I guess I should ask since I posted how great Larabars are. Are they ok?
        Peanut butter cookie flavor ingredients:
        Dates, peanuts, sea salt
        Lemon Bar
        Dates, cashews, almonds, lemon juice concentrate, natural lemon flavor

        Seem great to me but you are the expert.

    • Boundless says:

      I’m going to guess, the from the ingredient list, that those are Quest bars (or clones thereof). Dr. Davis has previously recommended Quest, with reservations about some risk of gas. They seem to be the nearest thing to an acceptable snack bar on the market, although they are way too low in fat. They are also expensive, yet no one can keep them in stock. There’s apparently a real market opportunity for a WB-friendly snack bar.

      • Janet says:

        Thanks for taking the time to give me your opinion Dr. Davis! Very Appreciated.

        Why not eat real, whole foods in the morning? One reason is they seem to turn my stomach until I’ve been awake a couple of hours. If I didn’t have to take my supplements/medications with food, I would just have a cup of coffee and wait a couple of hours to eat.

        I also don’t want to make a lot of noise cooking/preparing food just because I’m up at 4-5am! As sweet as my family is, they would not appreciate it.

        Are there things I can make ahead of time for breakfast? What are your go-to’s? :-)

        Boundless- you’re right, they are Quest bars. Yes, a WB-friendly snack bar would be great!

        • Tanya says:

          How about a big quiche with veggies? I made one yesterday with 8 eggs, some green beans, a tomato, fresh parsley, and garlic, and it is yummy! So easy and fast to slice up a wedge of that for a quick (and quiet!) breakfast!

        • Dr. Davis says:

          See the recipes on this Blog, Janet, or in the Wheat Belly book or the new Cookbook. ALL the recipes are appropriate for breakfast!

          I made a delicious wheat-, sugar-, and dairy-free strawberry cake for my wife for her birthday this past weekend. (She is miserably dairy-intolerant.) I had leftover birthday cake for breakfast the next two mornings! Because we have removed all unhealthy ingredients, foods like birthday cake, brownies, and muffins are now healthy choices for breakfast.

        • Vinessa says:

          Making up your scrambled eggs the day before works good, MIM’s work great ot make the night before and have with your meds/coffee

    • Trina says:

      LARABAR… yummy and are made with dates for the “glue”. U have to be careful with some as they have sugar in them but most do not. peanut butter cookie, blueberry muffin, lemon and banana bread ones are fantastic!!!!!!!!!

  5. Karen says:

    Hi Dr Davis,
    What are your thoughts on molasses? I would like to come up with a Wheat belly version of my moms brown molasses bread that I grew on and absolutely love. I’m known as ‘Bread Mouth’ by my closest friends and family…..from ever since….it’s a passion….but I want to give this a go.

    What on your thoughts?
    Many thanks!

  6. Sherry says:

    Does any know where I can a equivalent chart for all the different sugar substitutes? ESP a substitute amount if a gluten free recipe calls for agave nectar and say I want to use stevia?.Sherry

    • Dr. Davis says:

      There is really no truly reliable conversion chart, as each brand differs. One liquid stevia extract, for instance, might say use 5 drops to substitute for a teaspoon of sugar, while another will say use 3 or 9. The same applies to many other sweeteners. A good start is to consult the label of the brand you purchase.

      Choose your sweetener, get familiar with its properties, and ALWAYS taste your batter.

  7. Donna says:

    I was wondering if the sweetener called Swerve is acceptable to use instead of xylitol. It apparently claims that it does not affect blood glucose or insulin levels. There is no aftertaste and does not upset the stomach.
    what do you think?

  8. Diane Lee says:

    I have a question regarding cooking with white sugar. I do not have diabetes, and am aware of the negative spikes in blood glucose with the use of sugar (sucrose)……I do have sensitivities to many of these “sugar-substitutes” and in all honestly, would prefer not to use them at all, instead, I’d rather use traditional white sugar(sucrose) in a baking recipe from the Wheat Belly Cookbook. I don’t plan to eat a lot of “desserts” so I am thinking it won’t be quite so bad for me to occasionally, enjoy regular sugar in a wheatless baked treat.

    The question is, how do I substitute regular sugar for the listed sugar-substitutes in these Wheat Belly Recipes ? would it affect the outcome of that recipe ? I would appreciate a reference to a conversion chart if anyone or Dr. Davis might know of one ?

    Thank you so much, I am looking forward to my new journey toward resolving some nasty health issues with the wheatless lifestyle.

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Estimate, then taste your batter, Diane.

      But I think that using sucrose is a VERY bad idea. The use of sweeteners like stevia may not be absolutely perfect. But it is miles preferable to the cataracts, arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, dementia, and cancer that develop with use of sucrose.

      • Lindsay says:

        I’m no doctor, but I’m guessing that ingesting a limited amount of table sugar, pure maple syrup or honey once a month in one dessert probably won’t kill you. Stevia makes me dizzy. Upon discovering this, I googled it, and found many other people noting the same effect.

        • Boundless says:

          What’s a “limited amount”? It doesn’t take much sugar to blow your carb budget for the entire day. And the effects linger.

          It’s all a matter of choices and outcomes. Guessing that it’s not a problem doesn’t make it not a problem.

          The ideal solution to the sweetener dilemma is apt to be phasing them out of the diet altogether.

          • Lindsay says:

            By “limited amount ” I was thinking like, once a month, eating 2 cookies with your coffee. For sure that will affect your blood sugar, and “ruin” your squeaky clean eating for the day. Of course just never eating any sugar would be ideal healthwise. But there are cultural considerations…indulging in nostalgia. Never driving a car would also be safer – you could bus everywhere instead and minimalize the risk of injuring your body. If you were fortunate enough not to have grown up with specific cake/cookie recipes that became ritualized in your family life, then I’m sure it would be much easier to just say good bye forever. And the crazy thing is I don’t even see myself as a traditionalist! But if I lost all the recipes I grew up with in a fire, it would be akin to losing all the family photos. Actually, it would be much worse, since looking at old photos isn’t something I would do on a monthly basis. I guess the danger is, there aren’t many alcoholics who can just have one shot of tequila a month. But hey, everyone’s different.

      • diane lee says:

        Thank you Dr. Davis, I will try your recommendations……..I do agree that the constant spiking of blood glucose has a long term negative effect, I will try the alternatives you recommended, just use less, “taste the batter” and see how it makes me feel after I eat it. For some strange reason, the past year or so, so many things seem to bother me when I eat them. That was my fear with these substitutes, things such as aspartame trigger migraines in me, and stevia tasted rather bitter to me…….hence my “hope” that plain old sucrose would be ok in limited amounts.

        I do love your cookbook, I just bought it, initially got it from the library, but it was just so fabulous, I had to HAVE it!! :) Thanks for all the support you give us, if only the news media would take this issue more seriously and not allow big agra and big pharma to “rule the world” ……imagine a world with truly healthy and the resulting happy people ? (as I just got a health mailer from some medical clinic with their diet coaches saying “eat more WHOLE WHEAT” ! Now, when I see this sort of advice, it makes me cringe. Thank you again.

  9. Brenda says:

    First, I want to thank you so much for first writing both Wheat Belly Book and Cookbook and having this blog so I can keep learning more information about how my husband and I should be eating. We both are losing weight, feeling better, blood pressure going down so much that I’m going to my doctor tomorrow to have him check my meds as a couple of days ago I began feeling light headed because of “low blood pressure”. I couldn’t believe how low it got.
    Well to my question…I’ve been looking for Wheat Free Worcestershire Sauce and have been unsuccessful thus far. I have found one on the internet so far, Wan Ja Shan Organic Gluten Free Worcestershire Sauce 10 oz., and it’s ingredients are: Organic Vinegar, Organic Wheat-Free Tamari Soy Sauce (Water, Organic Soybeans, and Salt), Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Salt, and Organic Spices They all seem fine except I was concerned about the Evaporated Cane Juice. Is that ok?
    Do you have a suggestion what store may have it. I’ve checked 2 organic stores here in Clearwater, FL and local grocery store chains.
    LOVE your website; all the helpful comments and questions on the blog; comments and suggestions re recipes. I made the chili tonight off the blog using the “chili seasoning” recipe. I read the turkey chili in the cookbook and decided to make it more carb friendly and combined the 2. I used only 1 can of organic pinto beans and 1 cubed zucchini and also added 1 can of tomato sauce. It was delicious.
    I’ve been telling everyone about Wheat Belly Diet that will listen. It is the best that I have felt in years! Aches and pains are going away, blood pressure going down, waistline going down, clothes fitting better, a HUGE smile on my face, and I feel blessed. I thank God for putting you in my life. May He bless you and your family abundantly.
    Hoping you have a helpful tip on Wheat Free Worcestershire Sauce. Thanks again!

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Great, Brenda!

      About the worcestershire sauce you found. Provided the carbohydrate content per serving is reasonable (e.g., <5-6 grams “net” carbs, i.e., total carbs – fiber), you are safe.

      People who experienced marked drops in blood pressure also do better by adding salt–yes, ADDING salt!

      • Brenda says:

        Thanks so much for the information!
        I was doing some research tonight online and found a GF recipe on for a homemade GF worcestershire sauce … the ingredients are as follows: 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons GF soy sauce, 2 tablespoons water, 1 tablespoon brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard, 1/4 teaspoon onion powder, 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder, 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon pepper, Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan and stir thoroughly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Simmer 1 minute. Cool. Store in the refrigerator. Shake well before using. Makes about 3/4 cup.
        There weren’t any nutrients listed on the recipe to check. Sure there must be a way to figure it out. hmmmm
        as you see, 1 tbsp of brown sugar is in the only ingredient that doesn’t fit with the plan. I
        Do you think this would be ok–1 tbsp of brown sugar versus 3/4 cup sauce?
        If so, i think this recipe could help a lot of people still looking for Wheat Free Worcestershire Sauce as I was and won’t have to order it. I have an old bottle that I had Worcestershire Sauce with Wheat in that I can wash up and put the GF sauce in and keep in the refrigerator. I’m sure hoping your answer will be yes, but I’ll order the other one if you say no.
        I don’t know if Splenda makes the artificial brown sugar replacement that could b used…not sure if it would “cook” well though, but it may be better than real brown sugar. What’s your thoughts on a replacement for the brown sugar, if it is a problem?
        Also thanks for the suggestion of adding salt if that “extra low blood pressure” happens again! Always learning … hope I never stop.
        I’m also going to check the “net carbs” on the online WS if it is listed.
        Thanks again!

        • Brenda says:

          Ooops! I forgot to tell you the great news! My doctor took me off of 2 of the 3 blood pressure meds that I was on! Working on the final one! I was so happy. I took my WB books to show him what I am doing and he had a visiting doctor with him so I educated them both on it. He was pleased and got no negative feedback! Yeah! I’m telling just about everyone I talk to about your books and am introducing them to this information website to check it out for themselves. BTW, loved the video on today’s homepage. What a great way of introducing people from his perspective how life changing can be.

  10. Vicki says:

    Looking for information on raw coconut nectar as a sweetner. Bottle states gluten free and low glycemic (GI 35). Is this a good WB alternative? If so, any suggestions how to use it?

    • Dr. Davis says:

      No, it is not, Vicki. It is among the new but sugar-containing sweeteners that are not healthy replacements.

    • Boundless says:

      If this is the same as coconut palm sugar, the topic came up back in 2012-11, at:

      A GI of 35 is not low enough, plus, exactly what saccharide is this? What are its metabolic effects other than blood sugar effects? Does it have similar side effects to fructose?

      GI numbers are being gamed by purveyors of processed foods, who may or may not even be aware of what the real issues are. “Low GI” needs to be treated as just as much of a warning as “Gluten Free”, until a close examination proves otherwise.

  11. Rebecca Ruediger says:

    I’ve used stevia for years and have recently started using TruVia. Is the sweetener “Swerve”safe to use? I have both of your books and love the cookbook.

  12. jenni k. says:

    What is the big deal about using 1/8-1/4 tsp. of raw honey on my quinoa/flaxseed hot cereal? If I’m only having 1/4 tsp. every other day, surely that’s OK?

    After all, even God told the Israelites that they would find a land “flowing with milk and honey”….not “mild and Stevia!” :)

  13. Pat says:

    I was wondering if I could supplement my wheat free diet by using Sensa? It contains maltodextrin, tricalcium phosphate and silica. Also, I have been using raw, unprocessed, unfiltered honey since I have a lot of problems with artificial sweetners, is this OK?

    Thank you!

  14. Dee says:

    How about coconut sugar?

  15. the coconut says:

    Dear Dr. Davis,

    How is it that coconut flour is ok to use in recipes but not coconut sugar? Isn’t the flour derived from exactly the same source as the sugar, the coconut? I am referring to coconut sugar made only from the coconut without anything else added.


    • Dr. Davis says:

      Yes, but the sugar is concentrated sugar, rather than the much “diluted” quantity in the coconut flour or other coconut products made from the “meat.”

  16. tj says:

    I do my best to avoid msg and artifical sweeteners, including so called “natural” sweeteners containing erythritol and rebiana or monk fruit (which I suspect is similar to rebiana being marketed as stevia) . I have found all of these to cause eye migraines. I have had major health improvements after removing gluten from my diet, but will always take raw honey over any of these sweeteners.

  17. Anne-marie says:

    I want to make the Grainless Granola but I’m unsure what sweetner to use. The recipe asks for 1/4 cup sugar-free hazelnut syrup or sweetner equivalent to 1/2 cup of sugar. Starbucks has a sugar-free hazelnut syrup. These are the ingredients: WATER, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, MALTODEXTRIN, CELLULOSE GUM (E466), CITRIC ACID (E330), SUCRALOSE (E955), PRESERVATIVE: SODIUM BENZOATE (E211).
    Is the sucralose ok? Or what would be a different sweetener I could use (and how much) other than the hazelnut syrup?

  18. Shorey says:

    What about the sugar alcohol lactictol? I don’t see any mention of that in the post (unless I missed it?)

    • Dr. Davis says:

      Go very lightly with lactitol, maltitol, sorbitol, and mannitol: They cause gas and cramps and do provoke the phenomena of sucrose.

      There are better choices, such as stevia in its various forms, erythritol, and xylitol.

    • Boundless says:

      > … sugar alcohol …
      In addition to Dr.D’s cautions, also treat these saccharides as 50% net carb, irrespective of the optimistic claims on the package.

  19. Chris Johnson says:

    curious about rice malt and black-strap molasses, I have been using molasses and real maple syrup in my coffee under the assumption its better then sugar.

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