There are a lot of alternative sweeteners on the market today. It has become common knowledge that refined sugar is unhealthy so people are turning to all sorts of natural and artificial alternatives. The truth is that high amounts of refined sugar in your diet is bad for your health, but replacing it with large quantities of something else isn’t the best way to deal with your habit. Nonetheless, there are alternatives to refined sugar that are much better for your health when eaten in moderation. However, not every sugar alternative is healthy and some of them are even worse for your health than refined sugar itself. In this article we will explore the best and worst sugar alternatives.
The best sugar alternatives are sweet foods that also contain nutrients, also called nutritive sweeteners. They still contain calories (because food should contain calories), and still contain sugar. But most of these sweeteners are metabolised differently than refined sugar and won’t spike blood sugar as much. Keep in mind that even the best alternatives will spike your blood sugar if eaten in excess; these alternatives are most healthful when enjoyed in moderation.
1. Whole Foods
Whole food such as ripe bananas, yams, dried fruit (dates, apricots, raisins), and apples are the best sugar alternative you can use because their sugars come with fiber, water, and nutrients in tact. Not only will you satisfy your sweet tooth, you will satisfy your bodies nutritional requirements at the same time. You can also buy ‘date sugar’ which is dates that are dried and ground into a powder. Date sugar can be used in baking but isn’t soluble in water so is not suitable for sweetening teas or other liquids. You can replace sugar in recipes with mashed banana or yam, apple sauce, or pureed dried fruit. To get started, try this chocolate coconut banana muffin recipe that is only sweetened with mashed banana.
Honey contains the simple sugars fructose and glucose, but it also contains antioxidants and has antimicrobial properties (source). The problem is that pasteurized honey that you would buy in a department store has been processed in such a way to remove most of its beneficial properties; rendering those honeys no better than corn syrup. Buy raw, unpasteurized honey when possible. For a more in depth look at honey, read my article on honey here. Honey is twice as sweet as sugar so if you are going to substitute it into food you will want to use less. Honey can be substituted for sugar in recipes but it is a liquid so it can make recipes more moist. My favourite way to use honey is in my cup of tea.
Molasses are the nutrients that are extracted from sugar cane while it is being refined into white sugar. Instead of eating the nutrient void sugar, you could try this nutrient dense extract instead. Molasses contains iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, vitamins, and other trace minerals. In fact, you should try to include molasses in your diet if you are anemic, menstruating, pregnant, vegan, or at risk for low iron levels. Molasses has a strong flavour so it can’t be used for every sugar replacement but it can be used in some baking such as the ginger snaps pictured above, and you can also make it into a hot drink (check out the recipe here).
4. Real Maple Syrup
Like molasses, maple syrup contains trace minerals, most notably potassium and manganese. It is also high in antioxidants. Be sure to buy the darker grade B maple syrup as is more rich in nutrients than the lighter ones, and make sure its real maple syrup and not “maple flavoured syrup”. Maple syrup can be used similarly to honey in baking, in drinks, and, of course, on pancakes, yum!
5. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is an earthy brown powdered sugar that comes from coconuts. It has a low glycemic index compared to most other sweeteners because it contains a type of prebiotic fiber called inulin. It also contains the trace minerals iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, as well as some short chain fatty acids, and antioxidants (Source). Coconut sugar can be used in a similar fashion as refined sugar in baking and drinks, but it doesn’t taste quite as sweet.
These sweeteners are not the best but are still healthy if used in moderation.
Sucanat is a brown powdered sugar made from unrefined sugar cane. The molasses and nutrient content is left in tact in this sugar, so it isn’t nutrient void like refined sugar and has a similar nutritional profile to molasses, but sucanat is sweeter than molasses. As the molasses are left in tact it also retains its molasses taste, so it may not be suitable for all types of baking. It can be used as a ‘cup for cup’ replacement for sugar.
7. Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is a liquid sweetener made by culturing cooked rice with enzymes to break down the starches into its sugar components. It does have a higher glycemic index than table sugar, however most of the sweetness comes from glucose; not fructose. This is a good thing because fructose in its refined state is actually toxic to the body; this is why high fructose corn syrup is so unhealthy. When we eat fruit or other foods that naturally contain fructose it is in much smaller amounts and also comes along with fiber and vitamins which makes it much easier for our body to process. If you would like to read further on why fructose is not healthy, check this article out. Brown rice syrup is not a paleo sweetener as it is made from grain, however, some people recognize it as a safer choice than high fructose sweeteners. If you are sensitive to brown rice this might not be the sweetener for you as it most likely contains other components of brown rice as well. Brown rice syrup contains hardly any nutrients or antioxidants except for a minute amount of calcium. It is only half as sweet as table sugar so you may need to use more of it for desired sweetness. Lastly, I wouldn’t recommend using brown rice syrup excessively as it has been found to be high in arsenic.
This is a natural non-nutritive sweetener. While it isn’t artificial, it still does not contribute any nutrients to your diet. It has a very distinct taste which most people report as unpleasant. If you are diabetic and/or sensitive to any type of sugar, stevia might be an acceptable alternative for you. However, an issue with zero calorie sweeteners is that it confuses your body because your body expects to receive glucose when you have tasted something sweet, but instead it receives nothing. The body then releases stress hormones which put stress on the adrenals which can lead to adrenal fatigue if zero calorie sweeteners are used frequently. Using zero calorie sweeteners can actually make you gain weight because of this. Read here for more reasons why stevia may not be a great choice. Stevia is a lot sweeter than sugar so cannot be used as a direct substitution unless you purchase a stevia that is cut with filler to make it a cup for cup replacement to sugar. The best way to use stevia is to replace some of the sugar with stevia and then also add a healthy sweetener such as whole food or honey. This will cut the strong taste of stevia in your recipe and it also won’t be as stressful on the body when used in conjunction with real sugars. If you wish to use stevia in your diet, try to use only occasionally to avoid making it a dietary staple.
9. Sugar Alcohols
These are natural non-nutritive sweeteners that taste fairly similar to sugar and are often found in breath mints, gum, and sugar-free candy. They include xylitol, sorbitol, malitol, erythritol, and most other sugar substitutes that end with “-ol”. Sugar alcohols occur naturally in small amounts in fruit and some vegetables, and they are generally used because they don’t have much effect on blood sugar. The body can’t break down sugar alcohols very easy which results in them having less calories per gram than sugar. However, they cause intestinal distress and a laxative effect when eaten in large amounts. If you have IBS, IBD, or any other intestinal condition you should avoid all sugar alcohols as they will aggravate your condition. Erythritol is probably the best sugar alcohol to use as it is the least likely to cause intestinal distress as it is absorbed in the blood. Using sugar alcohols in large amounts is not a good idea, however chewing gum sweetened with xylitol is a much healthier alternative than gum sweetened with artificial sweeteners. Similar to stevia, xylitol is best used in moderation or in combination with another sweetener.
These alternatives are best used only occasionally, or ideally not at all.
10. Agave Nectar
You will find this sweetener right along side the honey and maple syrup in the health food store, but this sweetener is actually worse for your health than refined sugar. Why? Agave nectar is extremely high in fructose; it can be up to 92% (source). This is higher than high fructose corn syrup! In addition agave nectar contains hardly any antioxidants or other nutrients. This study put agave nectar in the same category as corn syrup and refined sugar in regards to antioxidant content. This sweetener is a vegan favourite but whole fruits, maple syrup, molasses, coconut sugar, sucanat, and brown rice syrup are also vegan and much healthier. Agave nectar should be avoided whenever possible.
11. Artificial Sweeteners
These are synthetic non-nutritive sweeteners that are completely void of micronutrients. These include aspartame, sucralose, cyclamate, saccharin, and acesulfame potassium. You can find these sweeteners in diet pop, splenda, equal, and other diet foods such as sugar-free yogurts, candies, and chocolates. These sweeteners are without a doubt worse for your health than eating the refined sugar itself. As mentioned above with stevia, they can actually make you gain weight as they put stress on your adrenal glands as well as the rest of your body. Avoid these sweeteners like the plague.
12. High Fructose Corn Syrup
This is a liquid syrup used is most sodas, candies, and other junk foods. This syrup is not healthy and should be avoided at all costs. As corn is one of the largest GMO crops, you can be fairly certain HFCS comes from GMO corn, unless stated otherwise. In Canada, it is also called glucose-fructose, or isoglucose which can trick people into thinking there isn’t HFCS in the ingredients. As mentioned above with agave syrup, high levels of refined fructose are toxic to the body which is why high fructose corn syrup is unhealthy. It is also void of nutrients and antioxidants which can create nutritional deficiencies in the body when eaten on a regular basis. HFCS should be avoided as much as possible.
For myself I stick mostly to whole foods and raw honey as my sugar alternatives of choice. It is great we have so many healthy alternatives because everybody has different taste. For example some people don’t like the taste of honey and might prefer coconut sugar or sucanat instead. Pick a healthy sweetener that you enjoy and aren’t just eating for the sole purpose of it being healthier than sugar. Lastly, don’t forget that moderation is the key to great health!