For centuries, psychologists and philosophers have debated a central question of human existence: How much of who we are is “fixed”(“nature”)—and how much is the result of learning and socialization (“nurture”)? Last time I looked, the debate was still alive and well and raging in the fields of psychology, genetics, behaviorism, and sociology. But one particular taste that seems to be clearly human, one that is hardwired and arrives full-blown and ready to go from the time we’re born, is the taste for sweetness.
Watch any infant when you put a sweet-tasting substance on their tongue, and it’s hard to debate that their reaction is “learned” behavior. Infants love it. They come out of the box loving it. Current thinking is that from ability to distinguish sweet and bitter is deeply wired in our DNA as a survival trait, allowing us to avaoid poisonous substances in the wild (usually bitter) from ones that are edible. (Though the relationship between bitter and dangerous isn’t perfect, it’s pretty reliable.) Another theory is that humans are one of the few creatures on earth unable to make our own vitamin C; we must obtain it from our diet, and it’s found most abundantly in sweet things such as fruit. Nature, so the theory goes, gave us a sweet tooth so that we would desire the foods without which we wouldn’t survive.
No matter. We humans love sweet things, probably way too much for our own good. In Paleolithic times, a sweet tooth wasn’t much of a problem. (There were no twenty-four-hour supermarkets in the caveman era.) The only sweet thing available was the occasional bees nest of honey, which, if you were lucky enough to come upon it, required you to shimmy up a tree to procure its rewards. The fruits and vegetables of the cavemen era were bitter little things, much different from the specially bred, enormous lush fruits of modern time. And the only sugar our ancestors knew was unrefined sugar that came in the original package—fruits, vegetables, plants, and later, sugarcane. Processed sugar came much later. Processed foods loaded with unspeakable amounts of sugar later still. And high-fructose corn syrup, arguably one of the worst inventions of the food science industry, is even more recent.
So let’s recognize that we are sweet-loving folks. The question then becomes how to appease that taste so it doesn’t destroy us. Or, put differently, how to feed and mollify the craving while doing damage control.
Now don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying we should never have anything with sugar in it. (Though we’d all probably be a lot more healthy if we did that, even though life wouldn’t be as much fun.) I love ice cream as much as anyone on the planet, and life would not be the same without my friend Skye’s brownies, or key lime pie, or chocolate chip cookies. But unfortunately, few of the ingredients in those delicious concoctions—at least few of the sweetening ingredients—have any place on the list of the healthiest foods in the world.
Two sweeteners, however, do belong on the list: Blackstrap molasses and raw, unfiltered honey, which we’ll get to in a minute
There are other great ways to sweeten and do damage control besides using blackstrap molasses or honey. Stevia, for example. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with stevia; in fact, stevoside, one of the sweet compounds in stevia, may help lower high blood pressure. The only problem with stevia—at least, until recently—was the aftertaste, which I personally never liked. Fortunately, since the original publication of this book, there is now an organic, non-GMO stevia product that has zero aftertaste—it’s called Pyure, it’s available everywhere, and it doesn’t cost any more than regular stevia. I make a healthy whipped cream using nothing but real, organic whipping cream and Pyure, blending the two together with an electric hand mixer for about 4 minutes till it turns into the most delicious whipped cream you ever tasted. (I have a video of me making it on my website, www.jonnybowden.com.) I also like xylitol and erythritol (Truvia), but Pyure stevia is my favorite. No calories, and none of the digestive issues that can sometimes arise with sugar alcohols.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t eat sugar, at least not any kind of processed sugar. But this is not a perfect world. The two sweeteners on this list are actual foods, and in my opinion are the best options those who would like additional sweetness in their food.
I’m often asked whether there are any sweeteners that are actually good for you. The two that always come to mind are blackstrap molasses and raw, unfiltered honey (see here). Blackstrap molasses is very much a food. And a nutritional powerhouse to boot.
Molasses is the by-product of sugar refining that contains all the nutrients from the raw sugarcane plant. Because the roots of sugarcane grow very deep, they are able to receive a pretty broad range of minerals and trace elements usually lacking in the topsoil. During the refining of sugarcane, the plants are boiled to a syrup from which the crystals are extracted. Then they’re boiled two more times, both of which produce molasses. Blackstrap molasses, however, comes from the third and final boiling and is essentially the dregs of the barrel. One website innocently described blackstrap molasses as only having commercial value in the manufacture of cattle feed, precisely because it has the least amount of sugar of the three boils.
Blackstrap molasses is very dark and has a robust, somewhat bitter-tart flavor. It’s used in a variety of baked goods, particularly meat and vegetable dishes, as a sweetener and coloring agent. It is also widely accepted as a health food. It can be used in any number of recipes and is particularly suitable for gingersnaps, soy-based sauces, licorice, canned baked beans, and fermentation systems.
One of the reasons I like it so much is precisely because it has a low amount of sugar and a high amount of nutrients. As the only product from the third and final boil, blackstrap molasses contains the lowest sugar content of the different types, but many more of the vitamins, minerals, and trace elements found naturally in the sugarcane plant, making it more nutritious than most other sweeteners.
Blackstrap molasses is a good source of iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, and it is an excellent source of manganese and copper. It also contains a small amount of the cancer-fighting mineral selenium. There are all sorts of claims for the health benefits of taking blackstrap molasses as a nutritional supplement to the tune of a couple of tablespoons (40 g) a day. Some of the claims are probably far-fetched, but where there’s that much smoke there’s probably a fire somewhere. To my taste buds, blackstrap molasses is completely delicious, and a nutrient-dense sweetener that I wholeheartedly recommend. Best bet: Look for unsulfured blackstrap molasses from organic sugar.
Honey is pure alchemy. And it’s precious stuff. One little bee, foraging for nectar over an entire bee-lifetime only produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. Bees collect the nectar from flowers; the nectar mixes with enzymes in the bees’ saliva; then they carry it back to the hive, and voilà, they make a deposit. Multiply that process by a few hundred bees and before you know it you’ve got a honeycomb.
Now here’s the rub. The stuff you’d find in that hive, if you put your finger in and tasted it, is not the same food you find in a little plastic squeezy bear in the supermarket. Not even close. The honey I’m talking about here is similar—if not identical—to the real, raw, unprocessed, unheated, unfiltered kind you’d get if you took that honeycomb home and ate the contents with a spoon. That’s a real food.
This is a very important distinction. Many of the phytonutrients and enzymes that are found in honey are destroyed by pasteurization and high-heat processing. According to some natural foods experts, the best honey has not been heated to temperatures higher than 105°F (41°C), and according to many others, the best honey has not been heated at all. The process of heating and straining the honey makes it look clearer, but also removes a lot of the nutrients and the bee pollen. Some companies—for example, Really Raw Honey—sell unprocessed honey with the bee pollen and part of the comb right in the jar.
The type of plants bees forage on determines the color of the honey, the level of nutrients, the fragrance, and the taste. Honey from extremely cold regions is lighter in color than honey from the tropics. According to the website of Tropical Traditions, one reliable company that I particularly like, the strength of crystallization (hardness) determines the level of live-state nutrients and heat-sensitive enzymes. The harder the honey, the better.
Honey contains several members of a class of plant polyphenols called flavonoids, which are mentioned throughout this book and are frequently found in fruits and vegetables. (If you’re interested, the specific flavonoids found in honey are flavanones, flavones, and flavonols.) Flavonoids are known for their antioxidant activity and are important for human health. At least one study supports the folk wisdom of having some honey in a hot drink when you’re sick: A study in the Journal of Medicinal Food suggested that honey may stimulate antibody production during primary and secondary immune responses.
We’ve known for a while that honey is helpful for when you’re coming down with an illness, probably because of the polyphenols in raw honey that may have immune-stimulating properties, not to mention the ability of honey to soothe and coat the throat. New research is uncovering yet another benefit of this food: a probiotic that’s endemic to honeybees.
According to an article in GreenMedInfo, bees produce the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus kunkeei, which has been shown to stimulate the immune system. Remember, that these delicate bacteria are killed when the honey is heated to high temperatures, which is what happens when it is processed. Another reason to consume only raw, cold-processed honey.
In a talk at the 2017 Scripps Conference on Evidence-Based Supplements, Elizabeth Lipski, Ph.D.—an expert on digestive health and the author of Digestive Wellness—listed honey as one of the ten best foods for a healthy microbiome.
Honey is still sugar, if you’ve got blood sugar issues, proceed with caution. However, because it’s a real food and contains nutrients, it’s one of the best sweeteners to use, provided you use it judiciously. For the record, one study did show that natural honey lowered blood sugar as well as C-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation) and homocysteine (a risk factor for heart disease) in both healthy and diabetic subjects.
Raw honey doesn’t spoil. The nectar that the bees bring to the hive is about 60 percent water, and the bees “cure” it to about 18 to 19 percent water. At this level of water and with a pH of 3 or 4, the honey is very stable and can last for centuries. (It was found in Egyptian tombs.) Of course, if it is left exposed to air, it will eventually ferment and develop an unpalatable taste. The bees prevent the fermentation by sealing the honey in the honeycomb. Pretty cool, huh?
A particular type of honey that’s prized among health connoisseurs is manuka honey from New Zealand. Here’s why.
All honey—at least the cold, raw, organic kind we’re talking about—offers protection against damage caused by bacteria. Some stimulate the production of special cells that can help repair infection-damaged tissue. Honey is also anti-inflammatory when applied to the skin. A component of honey—hydrogen peroxide—gives honey a lot of its antibiotic power.
But not all honey is created equal, and some kinds may be way more potent than others.
Manuka honey has additional components that are antibacterial, such as methylglyoxal (MG). A compound in manuka honey called 5.8-kDa stimulates the immune cells such as TNF-alpha. Honey producers have a scale, the purpose of which is to rate the potency of manuka honey, called UMF for Unique Manuka Factor. The UMF rating corresponds to the level of antibacterial factors in the honey. To be considered potent enough to be therapeutic, the honey needs to have at least a rating of 10 UMF. It can then be marketed as either UMF Manuka Honey or Active Manuka Honey.
Manuka honey is delicious, but it’s also very expensive. Remember, the main medical use for it as an antibacterial compound is externally—on top of a wound or burn. Though manuka honey is frequently marketed for all kinds of other conditions (from diabetes to cancer), we don’t have a lot of evidence either for or against using it for those conditions. For nutrition purposes only, you’re probably just as well off with a high-quality, cold-pressed, organic, locally grown honey. It’ll still be more expensive than the processed stuff that comes in a squeezy bear, but not be nearly as expensive as manuka.
Jeff Volek is one of the world’s most respected researchers in the field of low-carb diets. He is a professor in the department of human sciences at Ohio State University, and the author of five books—including the New York Times bestseller, The Art and Science of Low-Carb Living—and more than 280 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts.
1. Whole eggs: One of the most nutrient-dense foods, meaning it provides a relatively high proportion of essential nutrients per calorie. Egg yolks also contain choline, an important substance necessary for fat breakdown, the membranes of nearly every cell in the body, and production of neurotransmitters.
2. Salmon: Salmon is a high-quality source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
3. Yogurt: An excellent source of high-quality, easily absorbed protein. It has all the nutritional value of milk but with several advantages for individuals with lactose intolerance. Yogurt also boosts the immune system, maintains a healthy gut, and has anticancer effects. Try to find those with the least amount of sugar.
4. Nuts: Increasing nut consumption has been associated with reduced risk for heart disease. Nuts also contain about 2 to 3 g of dietary fiber per ounce and several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E.
5. Beef: Beef is an excellent source of biologically available protein and also contains significant amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, including niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, pyridoxine, biotin, folic acid, and vitamin B12. It’s also an excellent source of heme iron and zinc.
6. Olive oil: Olive oil contains primarily monounsaturated fat, and it is a staple in the diet of individuals living in the Mediterranean region who demonstrate very low rates of chronic disease. When olive oil is the predominant source of lipids, fat intakes greater than 40 percent of total energy are compatible with good health and are associated with no adverse effects.
7. Water: Water is second to oxygen in maintaining life. Even minimal changes in body water can impair performance.
8. Sweet potatoes: One baked sweet potato provides more than 8,800 IUs of vitamin A, yet it contains only 141 calories. This nutritious vegetable also provides about half your requirement for vitamin C, in addition to smaller amounts of calcium, iron, and thiamine. It is low in sodium and is a good source of fiber and other important vitamins and minerals.
9. Grapes: Perhaps the greatest value of grapes is their abundant content of various antioxidants that can help fight free radicals. Grapes are a good source of several natural antioxidants, including vitamin C, as well as phytochemicals and flavonoids, which also offer protection against heart disease and various cancers.
10. Coffee: Coffee is full of healthy phytonutrients. Despite popular opinion, overwhelming research suggests that moderate coffee and caffeine consumption causes no adverse health effects.