Let’s talk about something that you really need to let go of if you want to heal your skin condition: sugar. Why? Quite simply, sugar kills the good bugs in your microbiome.
Professor Cynthia Kenyon from the University of California, one of the world’s top researchers in the field of aging, experimented with giving glucose to worms, and found that it shortened their life spans dramatically. She claims that if you’d seen what she has seen, in terms of what sugar does to living organisms, you would never eat sugar again. She doesn’t.1 Sugar is death to your microbiome. Just say no to sugar.
So what can you use as an alternative to sugar, something that’s kinder to your skin and gut? I only allow one kind of sweetener on the farm: stevia. Stevia is brilliant stuff: it’s made from the leaves of a plant, is low-GI, has zero calories, and is safe for diabetics. In fact, stevia is not actually a sweetener at all – it just stimulates the sweet tastebuds on your tongue, so that you have the sensation of sweetness.
Stevia has been used for centuries as a bio-sweetener and a traditional treatment for diabetics – and studies show it may actually improve blood sugar control.2 Stevia also appears to have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial properties.3 Researchers particularly recommend its use for those diabetes patients, those wishing to lose weight, and children.4
The sugar folks fought long and hard to keep stevia out of the UK and off the shelves – and who can blame them! You would too, if faced with an alternative to your product that had zero calories and actual health benefits.
Ways to use stevia
The sugar barons lost the fight, though, and had to adopt a ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ approach, so stevia can now be found on in many supermarkets. A word of advice, though: carefully check the label on the stevia you find in the supermarket, because many types of stevia have been layered onto a dextrose base to give it extra bulk – and dextrose is a form of glucose (sugar) derived from starches.
I recommend using completely pure stevia, which comes in crystals, drops, and clickers that you can pop straight into coffee and tea. I usually order mine online, or get it from a health food store. Pure stevia is a bit expensive, but as it is roughly 30 times as sweet as sugar, one small bag will last for a long time. I like stevia clickers for coffee and tea; I don’t like the drops, as I find them fiddly and I’m generally in a hurry – but that’s just purely personal preference. You might find they work very well for you.
The only downside to stevia that I’ve found is that it’s hard to bake with. It has an odd, fluffy texture that can’t match the lovely grainy quality that sugar gives a cake. If you find a good way to bake with it, please do let me know, and we’ll go into business together!
There is a baking version of stevia that has erythritol added for bulk. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that is made by fermenting glucose. Like stevia, it does not raise your blood sugar, so is microbiome-safe. The advantages of erythritol is that it creates the same shiny effect in low-calorie chocolate, adds bulk to dairy products, and improves the shelf life of baked goods. Stevia and erythritol work for home baking because they’re both heat-stable. It’s safe enough, but I’m still not crazy about the results.
For baking, I prefer to sweeten with whole, blended-up fruit and veg, like bananas and carrots, or dried fruit. Dried fruit tends to have a similar glycemic index to its non-dried counterpart. So it’s safe to use sparingly as a natural sweetener – because it still has its fiber, the sugar goes into your bloodstream more slowly. Dried apples, apricots, peaches, and plums are all low GI and nice to work with. If you need to increase sweetness levels, you can top up with stevia until it’s sweet enough for your taste.
What about other natural sweeteners?
You may be wondering about the effect of other natural sweeteners on the microbiome. Honey, for example. Well, honey is brilliant stuff – but I treat it as medicine. Honey is very high on the glycemic index – almost as high as pure glucose – so don’t use it as an everyday sweetener, as it will damage your microbiome.
Honey is a natural antibiotic. If we have coughs or colds, we make a mix of honey, lemon and ginger and drink it down. We also apply sterile dressings that have been surgically infused with honey to wounds, in order to promote rapid healing and prevent infection. I used these surgical honey dressings on Rich’s wound when he had MRSA, and I always keep a few spare in my farmhouse first aid kit – they’re brilliant to have around.5
Honey should not be mixed with kefir, though, because honey’s naturally antibiotic action will kill off the kefir probiotics that you’re trying to get into your system.
We don’t bother with manuka honey – apparently, three times more manuka honey is on the shelves than is actually produced in New Zealand, so the chances are good that you’re being overcharged for fake manuka.6
When we need medical honey on the farm, we use heather honey – the honey that most beekeepers choose to eat. It’s a little more expensive than regular honey, but nowhere near as pricey as manuka! It’s a mono-honey (made from only one plant) that has been shown to be just as anti-bacterially effective as manuka.7 It’s a UK-made product too, which is something we like to support.
How about maple syrup or agave syrup? I don’t use them as daily sweeteners, although I do treat myself to real maple syrup on pancakes for special occasions. Maple syrup is even higher on the glycemic index than honey, so it’s no good for your microbiome either. And please do not use agave syrup! Agave nectar is about 85 per cent fructose, which is much higher than plain sugar, and can contribute to insulin resistance when consumed in large amounts.
I don’t approve of artificial sweeteners, so we don’t use them on the farm. I do chew xylitol gum, though, because it has been shown to promote dental health. But stevia is the only thing that goes onto my farmhouse kitchen table, or into my Nutribullet to mix with my kefir.
Note: Pregnant or nursing women shouldn’t use stevia. Whole stevia leaves were also traditionally used as a contraceptive by the Guarani Indians in Paraguay. Those on blood pressure or diabetes medications should check with their doctor before using stevia-based products, as they may interact with these medications. People allergic to ragweed may be allergic to stevia as well.
- Stevia is a safe, natural sweetener that doesn’t harm the microbiome.
- Honey has natural antibiotics that impair the action of probiotics, so it’s not an appropriate sweetener for kefir.
- Agave syrup and maple syrup are both high-GI sweeteners that can harm microbiome.