If there was an award for the most overused food ingredient with the least nutritional value, sugar would win in a cakewalk.
I’m not talking about sugars naturally found in fruits and vegetables. I’m talking about added sugars — mainly plain ol’ white sugar and its troublesome twin, high-fructose corn syrup.
There’s really nothing beneficial about added sugar — besides the temporary pleasure of your taste buds. But most of us eat way more of it than we should.
The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons (around 25 grams) of added sugar per day for women and nine per day (around 36 grams) for men. But the average American consumes 94 grams every day or over 74 pounds per year.
So, what about sugar alternatives?
Sugar substitutes attract consumers because they’re labeled as being naturally derived, calorie-free, or simply because they’re not sugar.
But then, what are different types of alternative sweeteners made of? What are the pros and cons of each? And are certain ones better for you than others?
Breaking It Down: Types of Sugar
First, it helps to understand what sugar is and the different types of sugar you may come across. For the chemistry buffs, here’s a quick bit of context: Sugars are also known as simple carbohydrates. This means they’re digested quickly, releasing sugars rapidly into your bloodstream.
The main types of added sugars you’ll come across are divided into two categories: monosaccharides and disaccharides.
- Glucose is the most rapidly metabolized by the body and can send your blood sugar levels skyrocketing. It has a glycemic index (GI) score of 100, the highest possible number.
- Fructose has no impact on insulin production or blood glucose levels, and it has a relatively low glycemic index score. But it must be metabolized by the liver and is associated with elevated levels of triglycerides, metabolic syndrome, and weight gain.
- Sucrose is mostly sold as crystallized table sugar that’s either derived from sugar beets or sugarcane. It consists of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Sucrose dissolves easily in water and at high temperatures, causing it to caramelize.
- Maltose is also known as malt sugar and is a combination of glucose molecules derived from starches. While it is found in some sugar substitutes, it’s also a product of starch breakdown in the body. While maltose is less sweet than other types of sugar, it still affects blood sugar levels due to the glucose.
The Problem with Sugar for Your Health
Added sugars like the ones above are found in many processed foods — including some that are advertised as healthy, such as cereals, granola bars, crackers, and juices. But as you probably know by now, heavily processed foods are not doing any favors for your health. And added refined sugar is not a health food.
- Consuming excessive sugar is associated with an increased risk of obesity and heart disease.
- Added sugar heightens the risk of type 2 diabetes due to increased inflammation and weight gain.
- Studies indicate that there may be a direct link between added sugar and cancer. Excess sugar consumption has been seen to increase the risk of colon and breast cancer, along with esophageal and many other types of cancer.
- Sugar also increases the risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFD), a disorder that’s part of metabolic syndrome, which can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Even drinking one sugar-sweetened beverage per day can increase your risk of NAFLD.
Yet, despite its health effects, refined sugar is rampant in our food system. And it can be easy to miss on ingredient labels when there are at least 61 different names for sugar — ranging from cane juice to anhydrous dextrose.
Refined sugar isn’t necessary to include in your diet. It doesn’t contain vitamins, minerals, healthy fats, or protein, nor does it have any additional nutritional benefit to the body.
It would do your health no harm (and probably a lot of good, actually) if you never consumed a gram of refined sugar.
So Why Do We Eat Sugar?
Well, for one, it tastes good.
Most of us prefer sweet foods over bitter ones because, in the course of evolution, the human brain learned that sweet things provide a healthy source of rapid energy. When our ancestors scavenged for berries, sour meant “not yet ripe,” and bitter often meant “poisonous.”
But sweet not only tasted pleasurable, it also provided a burst of glucose that led our brains to increase the output of dopamine — a neurotransmitter that makes us feel good. As a result, our brains learned to prefer foods with this taste profile in order to activate our dopamine receptors.
Excess refined sugar hacks our brain’s reward system. And repeated activation of this pathway allows a sort of tolerance to develop. Not only does our need for dopamine increase, but it affects leptin levels as well. Leptin is a hormone that tells us when we’re full. But with higher dopamine levels, leptin release is suppressed, causing us to overeat.
Instead of sugar being a rare treat as it once was to our ancestors, our modern food system has stuck sugar in practically everything. Many people are driven, even subconsciously, by a desire or craving for sugar, as a side effect of the brain’s desire to feel good with repeated behaviors.
Because of these effects, some researchers have even determined that sugar is actually addictive and affects the brain in a similar way as drug or alcohol addictions.
The Pros and Cons of 18 Sugar Alternatives
So if table sugar is addictive and associated with harmful health effects, what about all the other sweeteners and sugar substitutes? Are these sweet foods better or worse for you?
The Worst Sugar Substitutes
#1 — High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is derived from corn starch and used in many processed foods, like baked goods, candy, soda, juices, and commercial bread. Despite its name, the most common form of HFCS consists of either 42% or 55% fructose and the rest glucose — a similar combination as table sugar.
Pros: It’s cheap in the US (thanks to government subsidies) and more shelf-stable than sucrose when added to foods.
Cons: Even though we know the percentage of fructose to glucose in HFCS, it’s impossible to know exactly how much of each is found in the HFCS that ends up in food and beverages.
There’s also a consensus among researchers that the consumption of HFCS contributes to a number of health issues. When compared to sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup was found to cause an increased CRP level, a biomarker for inflammation. Associations have also been made between HFCS and metabolic syndrome, obesity, and insulin resistance leading to type 2 diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
#2 — Brown Rice Syrup
Made by heating brown rice and breaking down the starches with enzymes, this sugar substitute is often considered a “healthier” alternative to high-fructose corn syrup. But is it? Many organic and natural foods may contain brown rice syrup, including toddler formula, snacks, and granola bars. It’s also used frequently in Chinese cooking.
Pros: Brown rice syrup contains glucose, not fructose. The advantage of this is that glucose appears to have a less damaging effect on your liver than fructose.
Cons: Because it’s essentially glucose, rice syrup has a very high glycemic index of 98 — higher than any other type of sugar (table sugar is 60–70). Brown rice syrup is also prone to arsenic contamination.
#3 — Agave Nectar
Agave nectar is often touted as a natural, healthy sugar alternative derived from the agave plant. Interestingly, tequila is made by fermenting the blue agave plant. Agave is sometimes offered as an alternative sweetener at coffee shops like Starbucks.
Pros: Agave has a very low glycemic index score, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar nearly as much as table sugar. It also has prebiotic potential in the form of fructans, as well as bioactive compounds like flavonoids and some micronutrients — although amounts vary.
Cons: Agave has a low GI score because it can contain nearly 90% fructose, which, as we’ve discussed, could lead to weight gain, NAFLD, and elevated blood triglyceride levels. It’s also 1.5 times sweeter tasting than table sugar and contains more calories and total grams of sugar.
#4 — No-Calorie or Artificial Sweeteners
You’re probably familiar with these sweeteners as the pink, blue, or yellow packets you find on restaurant tables. You’ll also find these types of sugar in diet drinks, zero-calorie sodas, and sugar-free or “light” foods.
These sugar substitutes are considered no-calorie sweeteners because they are not metabolized and turned into energy in the body — hence they have no caloric value.
No-calorie sweeteners are synthetic, made in a lab, and are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter tasting than table sugar. Six artificial sweeteners have FDA approval for use as food (and beverage) additives: saccharin, acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, sucralose, and advantame. Popular artificial sweetener brands you may have seen include Equal, Nutrasweet, Splenda, and Sweet’N Low.
Pros: Because they’re sugar-free, these sweeteners don’t raise blood glucose levels and are considered suitable for people with diabetes.
Cons: There is strong evidence that artificial sweeteners may lead to a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. In a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa, 60,000 women were tracked over 10 years. The researchers found that women who drank two or more diet drinks per day had a 30% higher risk of a cardiovascular disease event, and were 50% more likely to die from the disease.
And, as counterintuitive as it may seem, studies tell us that people who drink diet sodas are actually more likely to gain weight. In one study, participants who started out at a normal weight and drank 21 diet sodas per week were twice as likely to be overweight or obese eight years later as their non-diet-soda-drinking peers. Some researchers believe this is because the no-calorie sweeteners in diet sodas trick the brain into expecting a “sugar hit.” When the sugar doesn’t come, the brain is stimulated to crave food, thus contributing to overeating and weight gain.
The “Less Worse” Sweeteners
#5 — Brown Sugar
Brown sugar is just white sugar with some molasses remaining in it or added back after processing (white sugar has had all of its molasses removed through the refining process). Yep, it’s that simple!
And the difference between light and dark brown sugar? The amount of molasses they contain. Molasses is also what makes brown sugar softer and moister than conventional table sugar. Turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice are essentially less processed versions of brown sugar.
Pros: Because of the molasses, brown sugar offers more nutrients than white sugar, including small amounts of calcium, potassium, and magnesium.
Cons: The nutrients in brown sugar aren’t enough to write home about. One ounce contains 0.2 mg of iron, whereas the RDA of iron for the average person is at least 8 mg per day. It also has almost all the negatives associated with white table sugar.
#6 — Barley Malt
Barley malt is an unrefined sweetener that’s made from sprouted barley. It has a similar flavor to molasses and usually comes in syrup or extract form. It’s primarily made of maltose, with some glucose and sucrose and a small amount of fructose.
Pros: Barley malt isn’t as sweet as many other sweeteners. It’s about 30–50% the sweetness of white sugar. It also contains a small number of antioxidants, protein, and potassium.
Cons: Since it’s high in maltose, barley malt can contribute to rapid blood sugar spikes. Also, barley contains gluten, making barley malt inappropriate for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Because it’s less sweet, more may be used to achieve a level of sweetness equivalent to regular sugar. However, barley malt contains more calories than white sugar — about 60 per tablespoon.
#7 — Maple Syrup
Best known as a pancake topper, maple syrup is a thick, dark sweetener made by boiling down maple tree sap. When the sap comes out of the tree it’s only about 1–4% sugar. But after it’s boiled down into a syrup, it’s about 33% water and 67% sugar.
Pros: Maple syrup contains over 20 antioxidants and nutrients such as zinc, manganese, calcium, and potassium. A handful of studies have also suggested potential breast and colon cancer-fighting properties in maple syrup polyphenols. Maple syrup also has a slightly lower GI score than table sugar.
In terms of sustainability, maple trees can produce sap for over 100 years if tended to well. Collecting maple sap is a traditional practice among many Indigenous tribes in North America. And many Indigenous-owned maple syrup companies are emerging in Canada using both traditional and contemporary techniques.
#8 — Coconut Sugar
Not surprisingly, coconut sugar comes from the coconut palm tree. It’s sometimes called palm sugar and looks similar to brown sugar, though it feels a little bit drier and has smaller granules. It’s also similar to Indian jaggery, although that type of sugar can also be made from sugarcane.
Pros: Coconut sugar doesn’t go through as much processing as other more refined granular sugars, so it does retain many nutrients. It contains a fiber called inulin, which may help stabilize blood sugar and is necessary for short-chain fatty acid production.
Palm trees also don’t need to be cut down to produce this sugar. They can produce sap for 20 years without using a lot of natural resources.
Cons: Coconut sugar still contains a lot of sugar. Its nutritional profile consists of around 70–80% sucrose.
#9 — Stevia
Stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana bush, native to South America. Stevia leaves have been used by Indigenous peoples in Paraguay and Brazil to sweeten beverages, include in medicines, or chew on like gum. These days, commercial stevia is processed into a white powder or can be found in liquid drops. It’s frequently added to some sodas and sports drinks.
Pros: Farmers in South America have been producing stevia sustainably for decades. Researchers in the European Union have found stevia has only about 5–10% of the environmental impact of sugar beets or cane sugar. Some stevia brands are also Non-GMO Project Verified or organic.
Stevia may also have disease-preventing potential. A 2017 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food suggests that it could prevent metabolic syndrome and related conditions. It may also help lower high blood pressure.
In addition, stevia can possibly lower blood pressure too much. And it may interact with certain medications. It’s also 200 times sweeter tasting than sugar. Although it is a zero-calorie sweetener, it may still cause a delayed spike in blood sugar and contribute to weight gain.
Better Sugar Options
#10 — Honey
Honey is a fascinating substance, made by hardworking honeybees. The bees make honey from the nectar they get as they fly from flower to flower. Honey is used to sweeten and flavor many packaged foods. And it’s also popular for home use in things like tea or baking.
Pros: Honey contains flavonoid antioxidants. It also offers some copper, manganese, and B vitamins. Honey also has antimicrobial properties, which is why it’s often recommended as a home remedy for coughs and colds. Some people believe locally sourced raw honey can alleviate certain allergy symptoms, too, though the research is mixed.
Cons: Honey is still high in sugar content, and its antioxidant and nutritional values depend on the type of flowers the bees use as their nectar source. There are also debated ethical concerns around eating honey, especially when it comes from industrialized bee farms — for instance, concerns around what bees are fed, how the queen is treated, and the role of these farms in colony collapse disorder.
Honey should never be given to children under one year old due to its potential for harboring bacteria that cause botulism.
Why Sourcing Matters: Finding purely organic, mass-produced honey is nearly impossible. But many small-scale local beekeepers contribute to pollination and a healthier ecosystem.
Raw honey typically undergoes minimal processing, mainly straining, ensuring that it preserves most of its naturally occurring nutrients and antioxidants. On the other hand, conventional honey is often subjected to various processing steps that can eliminate valuable nutrients such as pollen and decrease its antioxidant content.
#11 — Erythritol
Erythritol is a no-calorie sweetener and sugar alcohol used in chewing gum, beverages, desserts, and other foods. Some erythritol is created naturally in the body. But commercial production happens by fermenting yeast or other fungi.
Pros: Similar to artificial no-calorie sweeteners, erythritol won’t spike your blood sugar after eating. Erythritol is about 60–80% of the sweetness of pure sugar. It’s also generally free of the gastrointestinal effects of other sugar alcohols. And, similarly to xylitol, it may be beneficial for dental health.
Cons: Studies on health benefits and effects are still lacking. However, in 2023, research emerged linking erythritol and cardiovascular disease risk. Studies showed that the use of the sweetener was associated with major cardiovascular events like heart attack and stroke and may increase the risk of thrombosis (blood clots) in the heart.
Erythritol production is also a complicated and energy-intensive process.
#12 — Xylitol
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol often used as a low-calorie sweetener for gums, mints, candy, and even some toothpaste. It’s similar in sweetness to sucrose.
Pros: Xylitol has a very low GI (around 7, compared to 60–70 of table sugar). It can prevent tooth decay, reduce infections, and potentially benefit gut health. Other health benefits may include immunity, blood sugar control, and osteoporosis prevention.
Cons: Sugar alcohols pull water into your intestine and, when consumed in excess, can act as a laxative, causing diarrhea, bloating, and gas. Also, some xylitol is made from sugarcane or corn, the latter of which could be genetically modified. To be safe, look for non-GMO or organic labeling, or xylitol that’s made from birch.
Important: Xylitol is toxic to dogs, with potentially serious, even life-threatening, results. Dogs that ingest even small amounts of xylitol (often from gum, candy, and toothpaste) are at risk of developing hypoglycemia and acute liver failure. Per the FDA, “If you think your dog has eaten xylitol, take him to your vet or an emergency animal hospital immediately;” see symptoms of xylitol poisoning in dogs from the FDA here. Read this article from PetMD.com for more info. (Xylitol does not appear to be toxic in cats.)
#13 — Molasses, Treacle, and Golden Syrup
Ever tried to pour molasses out of its bottle? Dark, thick, and slow-moving, molasses is made by boiling down sugarcane. After the sucrose is crystallized, the remaining liquid is preserved as a syrup. Molasses and treacle are sometimes used interchangeably and are both by-products of the sugar industry. But molasses is obtained by a longer boiling time. Similarly, golden syrup is obtained by an even shorter boiling time than either molasses or treacle, but is also inverted with the use of citric acid. These types of sugarcane syrups are used to flavor things like commercial bread, gingerbread cookies, desserts, candy, sauces, and marinades.
Pros: Molasses, particularly blackstrap, contains antioxidants and several nutrients, including iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. It’s sometimes suggested as a treatment for iron deficiency anemia.
Cons: Molasses, treacle, and golden syrup are all still relatively high in sugar. They also have fewer consumer uses due to their distinct taste — which is great for gingerbread cookies and certain confectionaries, but not for a wide range of foods and beverages.
#14 — Allulose
Allulose is a relatively new sweetener that’s a derivative of fructose and occurs naturally in different types of fruit. However, it’s known as a “rare sugar” because it occurs much less frequently than other types of sugar in nature. As a sugar alternative, it’s artificially created from fructose.
Pros: Allulose’s main claim to fame is that it does not act like sugar in the body. It leaves the body very quickly, without impact on blood sugar, and is very low in calories. It’s also not fermented in the gut, so it doesn’t cause digestive upset like many no-calorie sweeteners do. Unlike many other types of sugar or sugar alternatives, allulose also doesn’t cause cavities.
Additionally, you can bake with it like sugar, adding about 50% more to get to the same level of sweetness, and the taste is quite similar.
Cons: Some allulose in the US is produced from corn, which may be genetically modified. And although it’s approved by the FDA and is on the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, it’s still considered a novel food and is not allowed in either Canada or the EU. Because it’s so new and hasn’t been studied much, it might turn out to have some problems we don’t know about yet.
#15 — Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup comes from the yacon plant, native to the Andes. It resembles the sweet potato in its whole form. The manufacturing process for yacon syrup is similar to that of maple syrup. Sugars are extracted from the plant’s roots, filtered, and evaporated into a sweet syrup.
Pros: Yacon syrup may be beneficial for lowering blood sugar and has a potential application as a laxative. It contains the prebiotic fiber inulin, which is good for gut health. It also has one of the lowest amounts of calories of caloric sweeteners, with just 20 calories per tablespoon.
Cons: Regular use can change your bowel habits, which may or may not be something you want. People with FODMAP sensitivity may not tolerate yacon syrup because of its fructan content. Yacon syrup is also a less common sweetener with fewer tried-and-true applications at home. And it’s more pricey than most other conventional sweeteners.
Best Sugar Substitutes: Whole-Food Sweeteners
#16 — Lucuma Powder
Made from a fruit indigenous to the Andes, lucuma powder is a low-calorie and low-sugar sweetener that’s been used for thousands of years. Its flavor is said to resemble sweet potatoes, but is fruitier and with maple or butterscotch undertones. You can use it to replace sugar in recipes on a 2:1 basis (2 parts lucuma for every 1 part sugar).
Pros: Because the fruit’s flesh is dry and starchy, not pulpy, it’s easily made into a whole-food sweetener. It contains insoluble fiber and may contain up to 40% dry weight in fiber. Some brands of lucuma powder may also contain a small amount of vitamin C, potassium, and carotenoids.
Cons: Although there’s some research on lucuma fruits, the powder is not well studied. It also tends to be more expensive than other sweeteners on this list.
Note: For a link to organic lucuma powder at a reasonable price, click here.
#17 — Mesquite
Mesquite is a powdered sweetener and flour substitute made from the pods of the mesquite tree. It’s primarily made up of sucrose and fructose and was used by Indigenous tribes in the Americas before sugar was introduced. It delivers a sweet, nutty, caramel-like flavor.
Pros: It’s a highly regarded whole-food sweetener because it retains the fiber content of the pods and also delivers protein, minerals, and antioxidants. Because of its fiber and protein, it’s lower on the glycemic index and may actually be anti-inflammatory rather than pro-inflammatory like refined sugars.
Cons: Mesquite is still very sweet and contributes calories to your diet, so it should be used in moderation. It also has a texture closer to flour and doesn’t melt like sugar, which may increase your need for liquids in a recipe. It’s also more expensive than many popular sweeteners.
Note: For a link to organic mesquite powder at a reasonable price, click here.
#18 — Date Sugar
Date sugar is simply made by grinding whole dates into a powder. It looks like brown sugar but has a butterscotch flavor similar to golden syrup.
Pros: Date sugar is a whole-food sweetener, made from fruit. Dates are highly nutritious — rich in fiber, antioxidants, B vitamins, and minerals, including potassium, manganese, and copper. Dates have a number of health applications, including supporting pregnancy, heart health, and blood sugar management.
Date trees are also pretty eco-friendly because they’re zero-waste. Date palms have many applications beyond providing food. They’re also naturally suited to hot climates and may be important for food system resilience which is important in the context of climate change.
Cons: Date sugar doesn’t melt well, so it does have some limitations in terms of where you can use it. But it works well in baked goods, similar to brown sugar. Date sugar is also another more expensive option among sweeteners.
Note: For a link to organic date sugar at a reasonable price, click here.
Date paste is far less processed than date sugar, easy to make at home, and can be used in recipes where date sugar doesn’t work. You can also buy whole pitted dates and blend them into the wet ingredients for baking and other applications. This Super Simple Homemade Date Paste recipe is one of our most popular recipes.
And the Best Sweeteners of All Are… Fresh Fruit!
Whole fruits, either mashed or pureed, are the best sweetener option.
And fruit has the distinct advantage of actually being good for you.
Many people find that they can satisfy a sweet craving with naturally sweet frozen grapes or berries, mandarin oranges, or a mango or banana.
And fruit comes with fiber and many other beneficial nutrients. Mashed bananas or applesauce can also replace sugar in some baked goods.
A Spoonful of Sugar
In a society that’s made added sugars a primary source of calories, we can see how sugar is harming the health of billions.
And for some people, especially those who are more susceptible to addictive foods and are high on what neuroscientist Susan Peirce Thompson, PhD, calls the “susceptibility scale,” the taste of sweet foods other than whole fruits — even stevia and dried fruits — can trigger addictive tendencies. You can learn more about Susan’s brilliant work here.
For many of us, a modest amount of the right kind of sweeteners can add a dash of delight to our culinary lives. And sometimes, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
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Tell us in the comments below:
- Do you use added sugars? Why or why not?
- If you use sweeteners or sugar substitutes, what’s your favorite?
- Are there any sweeteners you never eat?
Featured Image: iStock.com/eskymaks