Guide to Healthy Sweeteners
If you’ve been swimming in a sea of mass confusion when it comes to choosing the best sweetener, you’re not alone. With obesity and diabetes on the rise, reducing sugar consumption is key, but there is light on the horizon with healthy alternatives. This guide will help you navigate the high sugar seas and enjoy the sweeter life more safely.
Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
If you are still using artificial sweeteners, don’t. The petite pastel packets may look innocent, but they’re shrouded in sweet deception. The most widely recognized artificial sweeteners include aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low). Consumption of these artificial sweeteners contributes to certain health risks. Saccharin, for example, has been linked to bladder cancer. Sucralose is an organochlorine; organochlorines are not compatible with human metabolism and are known to cause genetic and reproductive damage. Aspartame is an excitotoxin, which research links to headaches, sleep disorders, and seizures. Brain tumors and lymphoma in rodents have been linked to the consumption of high amounts of Aspartame.
In addition, a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that artificial sweeteners have been linked to a slew of health issues including weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Artificial sweeteners can also wreak havoc on your gut’s healthy bacteria, or microbiota, which could lead to glucose intolerance. Chemical sweeteners offer absolutely no health benefit to the body and over time may lead to health problems.
It just makes common sense to make an effort to read labels and avoid artificial sweeteners.
Skip the Refined Sugars, Too
Similar to artificial sweeteners, refined sugars can promote the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut, according to research published in the journal Nutrients. Also highly caloric, refined sugars are present in most processed foods.
White table sugar is one example of highly refined sugar. Derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, it is 99.9% sucrose with a high glycemic index of 65. High fructose corn syrup is another common refined sugar. Extracted from corn, it consists of equal parts fructose and glucose with a very high glycemic index of 73.
Natural Sweetener Considerations
When reviewing natural sweeteners, we focused on the following characteristics to help you pick healthier sweeteners that work best for you and your diet. These terms are used in the section that follows and in the Comparison Chart at the bottom of the page.
- Vegan/plant-derived: All of the sweeteners in our list are plant-derived except for honey. Since it’s made by bees, it is not considered vegan.
- Type of sugar:
- Natural sugar: These are less refined, natural sugars sources made into liquid or granules. They may or may not have nutrients or calories.
- Raw sugar: These are raw sugars that are found naturally and contain nutrients, but are higher in calories.
- Sugar alcohol: Most sugars in this category are chemically processed natural sugars with low glycemic index and low calories.
- Glycemic index: Indicates the speed at which the sweetener raises blood glucose levels. Lower numbers are best for diabetics.
- Carbohydrates: In the Comparison Chart, we’ve provided the number of carbohydrates per 20 grams of each of the healthy sweeteners reviewed. Lower carbohydrate sweeteners are best for those following a ketogenic or low-carb diet.
- Nutritive/caloric: Sweeteners rated “yes” in the Comparison Chart contain calories and some level of nutrition. Those rated “no” have low to zero calories and no nutritional benefits.
Natural Healthy Sweetener Alternatives
Non-nutritive sweeteners contain few, if any calories, but also fewer nutrients. Below are two natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners that offer zero calories, making them great for those trying to lose weight.
1. Natural Stevia
Derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, stevia extract is sold in the U.S. in a refined form called rebaudioside A — a glycoside that is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but has zero calories, zero fat, and zero carbs. Used as a sweetener for centuries in Paraguay, stevia is excellent for baking and beverages since it is heat-stable. It is absorbed slowly into the bloodstream, so stevia won’t cause a spike in blood sugar or insulin levels, making it ideal for people with diabetes or for anyone trying to control their weight.
Some brands are highly refined and include dextrose or erythritol derived from genetically engineered corn, so be sure to check ingredients. For example, the Truvia brand, which contains stevia extract, also contains erythritol. According to The Food Babe, erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar, but it is manufactured via a fermentation process to create a chemically pure version or sugar alcohol. Look for brands containing only stevia — check the label for “whole leaf stevia.”
If you are allergic to daisies, ragweed, chrysanthemums, or sunflowers, you shouldn’t use stevia as it belongs to the same plant family.
2. Monk Fruit Sweetener
Like stevia, monk fruit is often processed with dextrose or erythritol; it is best to find brands that are not. Also like stevia, monk fruit is heat-stable, so it’s ideal for baked goods and beverages. While it’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, monk fruit’s health benefits far outweigh sugar.
Initially used by the Buddhist monks in the 13th century, monk fruit extract is derived from crushed monk fruit and contains unique antioxidants called mogrosides. The extract contains zero calories, low carbohydrates, zero sodium, and zero fat. So it’s a great option for anyone on a ketogenic diet or trying to lose weight. Since it won’t spike blood sugar, it’s also great for people with diabetes since it can have a positive effect on insulin secretion stimulation.
As the name suggests, nutritive sweeteners offer nutritional benefits such as vitamins and minerals. They also contain calories and have a higher glycemic index than the non-nutritive sweeteners.
3. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup, made from the sap of sugar maple trees, offers nutritional benefits and is an excellent substitute when preparing raw foods. It boasts high calories, but unlike white table sugar, darker grade maple syrup can offer up to 24 antioxidants, according to research. Maple syrup also contains minerals including manganese and zinc.
While the glycemic index of raw maple syrup is lower than that of white sugar, it is still not recommended for diabetics or those trying to lose weight, due to its high sugar content. This sugar alternative is best consumed in moderation.
4. Raw Honey
According to Integrative and Functional Medicine Dietitian Karen Graham, raw honey consists of about 40% fructose and 30% glucose. The remaining ingredients include water, pollen, and minerals such as magnesium and potassium. Honey packs a sweet punch as a natural antifungal and antibacterial, inhibiting the growth of fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and viruses.
Used medicinally for thousands of years as a wound treatment in natural medicine, medical-grade honey has reemerged into modern medicine. Manuka and jellybush honey are now being utilized for wounds and to treat the staph infection caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
Graham advises that, according to Ayurvedic medicine, honey should never be cooked since the heat creates unwanted particles that adhere to the lining of the digestive tract, creating toxins known as “ama,” the root cause of many illnesses. “You can put raw honey in warm tea or warm water but never in hot liquids and never cook it,” she says. Graham also suggests shopping for raw honey that is dark in color; like maple syrup, research shows, the darker the color, the higher the antioxidants.
Honey, like maple syrup, should be consumed in moderation because of its high sugar content.
5. Brown Rice Syrup
Although it’s derived from brown rice, brown rice syrup doesn’t offer an abundance of nutrients like brown rice does. High in sugar, this low-fructose sweetener consists mainly of glucose — not the best choice for those with diabetes. However, brown rice syrup is easier on the liver than high-fructose sweeteners. That’s because most cells in the body can break down glucose, but only liver cells can metabolize fructose — and too much of it endangers the liver. Another reason to be careful with high-fructose sweeteners: Research reveals high fructose levels are associated with type 2 diabetes.
6. Raw Agave Sweetener
Agave nectar has been used as a natural sweetener in Mexico for centuries. According to Registered Dietician Karen Graham, agave sweetener is approximately 80% to 90% fructose with the remaining ingredient being glucose, depending on the plant. “If you consume too much fructose, excess amounts get stored as fat leading to a fatty liver, or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and contribute to obesity — especially belly fat,” says Graham. With high fructose consumption, some of the fat ends up in the bloodstream as small LDL, or “bad” cholesterol particles. The small size allows them to get lodged into the arteries, causing atherosclerosis (plaque buildup).
Many people unknowingly experience fructose intolerance. “Eating high amounts of fructose, such as in agave sweetener, can result in acne and symptoms of diabetes in non-diabetics,” explains Graham.
Graham suggests purchasing raw agave since it’s processed at a much lower temperature. Non-raw agave can be manufactured with chemicals that transform the agave into a finished product very similar to high fructose corn syrup. Graham cautions, “If you are going to consume agave sweetener, consume it in small amounts and not very often.”
7. Organic Coconut Sugar
Although highly caloric, coconut sugar, unlike white sugar, is low glycemic and contains nutrients such as antioxidants, polyphenols, and minerals. Coconut sugar is naturally high in amino acids and contains 10,000 times more potassium, 20 times more magnesium, and 20 times more iron than conventional sugar. Coconut sugar also includes inulin fiber, which, according to research, may slow glucose absorption.
Xylitol is part of a class of sweeteners called sugar alcohols, or polyols. These low-calorie carbohydrate sweeteners are derived from fruits and vegetables. Although not alcoholic, most sugar alcohols are chemically manufactured in a structure similar to alcohol. They provide an average of two calories per gram and have an extremely low glycemic index. Xylitol is excellent for diabetics, but it contains no vitamins or minerals. It is often used to sweeten toothpaste, mouthwash, and gum. And it’s excellent at reducing dental plaque.
To view our printable comparison chart of healthier natural sweeteners, click the image below.
As you can see, there are pros and cons to all sweeteners. Even with the benefits of these healthier sweeteners, there is mounting evidence that limiting your overall intake of sugar is advisable. However, there is no question that natural sugars trump both refined sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Feature photo by Brooke Lark of Unsplash. Originally published on February 21, 2019, this article was updated in February 2022.