Added sugar may be sweet, but its impact on your gut and health at large can make you feel otherwise. “When it comes to added sugar and gut health, there’s still a lot we don’t know. But scientific studies do suggest that it promotes an inflammatory profile in the gut and damages the microbiome,” gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz, MD, previously told Well+Good.
And while it’s important to consume added and refined sugars in moderation, this neither means that you must nor should rid your diet of *all* sources of sweetness for good. In fact, Dr. Bulsiewicz himself recently shared his top picks for gut-friendly sweeteners on Instagram… with a caveat that moderation is key. “This is NOT to pretend that I never consume sugar or non-nutritive sweetener containing products… I definitely do. But whenever possible, I am preferentially targeting the upper parts of this list,” his caption reads.
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All said, you can very well satisfy your sweet tooth while being a bit friendlier to your gut. To see why these gastro-approved picks get the green light, we asked Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, of Real Nutrition in New York City, for some additional insights.
The best gut-friendly sweeteners, according to a gastroenterologist and a dietitian
1. Fresh or frozen whole fruit
If you want to satisfy your craving for something sweet, whole fruit is the number-one way to go. Whether fresh or frozen, fruit in its original form offers fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which are highly beneficial for your gut and well-being. “Fiber interacts directly with gut microbes, which is essential to maintain gut microbiota diversity,” Shapiro says. “The healthy balance of microbes in the gut helps to prevent development of chronic inflammatory diseases.” All the while, micronutrients support everything from metabolism and immunity, as “antioxidants remove free radicals that predispose humans to [premature] aging and chronic diseases.”
Whether fresh or frozen, fruit in its original form offers fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which are highly beneficial for your gut and well-being.
Enjoy whole fruit on its own or integrate it into a bigger snack like yogurt. “Yogurt is a probiotic food that works perfectly with prebiotics in fruit to see the beneficial health effects,” Shapiro notes. Another super sweet, gut-friendly hack: Muddle fruit in a glass and add sparkling water for a delicious DIY tonic.
2. No sweetener at all
Used to adding a dash (or heavy pour) of sugar in items like coffee or tea? It may be hard to break the habit, but it could very well be worth doing so, even if you taper off slowly. “Sugar appears to tip the microbiome bacteria away from health support and more towards non-beneficial bacteria growth in the gut,” says Shapiro. Moreover, while your body needs carbohydrates to facilitate bodily functions and everyday activities, she says that sweeteners aren’t the right type of fuel to get the job done.
3. Applesauce or whole dates
Applesauce is minimally processed and whole dates are fruit in their original form, which makes them healthier alternatives for refined sugars, syrups, and artificial sweeteners. “Both ingredients retain the gut-health benefits of prebiotic fibers, vitamins, and minerals—and their original fruity flavors,” Shapiro explains. “Whole dates also contain proteins in forms of essential amino acids that are generally absent in popular fruits and support metabolic functions.” She deems the two to be ideal for cooking and baking in particular. Note: She advises opting for unsweetened varieties of applesauce, as many contain high-fructose corn syrup.
4. Maple syrup or honey
Yes, maple syrup and honey both pack a relatively hefty dose of sugar—about 12 grams and 17 grams per tablespoon, respectively—so you’ll need to be mindful of your intake. Yet Shapiro says that their phenolic compounds still make both options adequate substitutes for refined sugar. “The phenolic constituents give these two natural sweeteners their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they aid in reducing free radicals from metabolic processes in the human body,” she shares.
When you reduce oxidative stress, you lower your risk of developing inflammatory conditions and diseases—with Shapiro citing metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders among them. But it bears repeating that a little dab will do you if you’re committed to reducing your overall sugar intake to benefit your gut and greater health.
5. Stevia, monk fruit, or fruit juice
Dr. Bulsiewicz includes these three items at the end of his list and suggests using them sparingly. “Due to the naturally intense sweetness of stevia and monk fruit, only a very small amount is required to reach the same sweet level as refined sugar,” Shapiro explains. “Small amounts of these natural, zero-calorie sweeteners can induce a lower blood sugar spike after consumption [compared to refined sugar],” she adds. (However, some research on non-nutritive sweeteners demonstrates gut microbiome disruptions in mice, though further studies in human participants are necessary.)
“Due to the naturally intense sweetness of stevia and monk fruit, only a very small amount is required to reach the same sweet level as refined sugar,” Shapiro explains.
Finally, a small amount of fruit juice can help you satisfy your fix for something sweet. “Fruit juice still retains its vitamins and minerals, but it is processed and may be deprived of the gut-beneficial fibers,” Shapiro explains. For this reason, whole fruits still reign supreme to maximize the gut-boosting benefits.