Q: What’s the healthiest sugar substitute?
“ I’m trying to cut sugar out of my diet. When I really need some sweetness, what is the best option for me?”
Thanks to increased awareness about how much sugar is hiding in packaged foods and new research on how harmful to our health the sweet stuff is, many people are trying to eat less sugar. (As a registered dietitian, this makes me do a little dance of joy!)
A high-sugar diet is linked to a wide range of health conditions, from inflammation and obesity to cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. High consumption of added sugars is also associated with cognitive decline and cancer.
Sugar intake can cause a cascade of events in the body. Fructose—a simple sugar found in many plants—causes a disruption in fat and carbohydrate metabolism. Unlike glucose, fructose is metabolized by the liver where it promotes fat synthesis. Excess sugar (and excess fructose) can increase the likelihood of outcomes such as high cholesterol, insulin resistance and high blood pressure.
But, sweeteners offered as a sugar replacement are often just as bad—or worse—for your health. Artificial sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda), saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low), and aspartame (Equal) top the list of replacements to avoid. Sugar alcohols such as xylitol and erythritol should also be eaten minimally as they can wreak havoc on your digestion.
The best plan is to break up with added and artificial sugar altogether. This 12-Step Guide will help you do just that.
But for moments when you really, really just need a little sweetness, there are healthier options out there. Keep reading for the basic facts on sugar substitutes from natural sources.
The Healthiest Sugar Substitute?
Let’s break down some of the different sugar substitutes you may come across as you scan recipes and read nutrition labels. You’ll learn where each sugar substitute comes from, the pros and cons of that option and whether you should use it or lose it.
What it is: A syrup that comes from the same spiky plant as tequila.
Pros: Agave has a neutral flavor and is touted for being low on the glycemic index (meaning it may not spike blood sugar as much as other sweeteners). It’s also 1.5 times sweeter than sugar so you could use less in a recipe to get the same amount of sweetness.
Cons: It’s higher in calories than table sugar. It’s also higher in fructose (the form of sugar linked to diabetes and heart disease) than any other sweetener—even high-fructose corn syrup.
Use it or lose it: Better to avoid the fructose. Lose it!
What it is: Allulose is a monosaccharide—a single sugar molecule— derived from fructose. It occurs naturally in fruits like raisins and figs.
Pros: Allulose has about 60 – 70% of the sweetness of table sugar and provides just 0.2 calories per gram. Unlike other low-calorie sweeteners, it has a similar flavor to traditional sugar. Allulose also doesn’t affect insulin levels, so it’s a good alternative for people with diabetes.
Cons: Some people experience gastrointestinal discomfort with allulose. Symptoms can range from bloating to constipation.
Use it or lose it: Use it sparingly. Lose it if ANY GI discomfort arises.
3. Applesauce and Other Fruit Purees
What it is: Purees are cooked or fresh fruit (typically apples, bananas, or berries) blended to create a smoothie-like consistency.
Pros: Unlike refined sweeteners, whole fruit purees contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. For example, banana puree offers natural sweeteners plus folate, magnesium and potassium.
Cons: Making your own fruit purees for baking is labor intensive. If you opt to buy store-bought purees like applesauce, be mindful of any preservatives or added sugars hiding in the ingredient list.
Use it or lose it: Use it to sweeten oatmeal or smoothies and as an oil substitute while baking.
4. Blackstrap Molasses
What it is: Molasses is a nutrient-rich byproduct of sugarcane production.
Pros: Although molasses is primarily made of sugar, it contains a much more impressive nutrient profile than refined options. Blackstrap molasses contains iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and phosphorus.
Cons: Some blackstrap molasses may be high in the chemical acrylamide, which can act as a carcinogenic.
Use it or lose it: Use it, sparingly. Its thick consistency and unique flavor profile make it a good addition to sauces, marinades, and dressings.
What it is: Chicory is derived from the root of a perennial plant.
Pros: Like agave, it has a very low glycemic index. It also contains important B vitamins, soluble fiber, and many essential minerals such as manganese, phosphorous, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium. Studies show that chicory may prevent constipation and help maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the colon.
Cons: It’s often combined with other ingredients when sold as a sweetener, which can be confusing. It’s not calorie-free like stevia or monk fruit, but calories vary depending on what it’s mixed with.
Use it or lose it: Use it, but check the label to see whether the sweetener contains only chicory or if there are other added sugars and sugar alcohols.
6. Coconut Sugar
What it is: Coconut sugar is made from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm tree.
Pros: It is low on the glycemic index and, unlike agave, it’s low in fructose. Coconut sugar has a neutral flavor reminiscent of cane sugar and works well for baking whereas other liquid sugar substitutes do not.
Cons: It has about the same number of calories as table sugar, and it can be super expensive.
Use it or lose it: If you love to bake, use it to make slightly healthier cookies and cakes.
7. Date Sugar
What it is: Made from dehydrated and ground dates, date sugar is an alternative high in antioxidants and potassium.
Pros: Because date sugar is ground whole dried fruit, it contains all the fruit’s nutrients—vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber—but you’d have to eat a lot of it to get a substantial amount of nutrition. It contains about 10 calories per teaspoon and 1% of the Daily Value for potassium and 2% for fiber. That fiber also means it also has a low glycemic index.
Cons: Date sugar contains fructose, so it may not be the best choice for someone monitoring their blood sugar. It may also be trickier to work into recipes as it doesn’t melt or dissolve as sugar does.
Use it or lose it: Use it infrequently
What it is: Honey is the sugary nectar made by bees.
Pros: Raw honey is natural, unprocessed, and contains beneficial nutrients like B vitamins and iron. It can also act as an immune-system booster thanks to antibacterial compounds that help fight infection in the body.
Cons: It’s higher in calories than most of the other sugar alternatives (60 calories per tablespoon).
Use it or lose it: Use it in very small amounts. We love drizzling honey into our tea during cold and flu season.
9. Maple Syrup
What it is: The sap from maple trees, boiled down into sticky maple syrup.
Pros: Pure maple syrup is as natural and unprocessed as it gets. It comes with benefits like lots of manganese (essential for energy production and antioxidant defenses), and zinc (promotes immune health). Plus, it’s delicious—it tastes like you’re wearing cozy socks in Vermont!
Cons: It’s high in calories, at about 51 per tablespoon. Maple is also a strong flavor so it doesn’t work as a general sweetener and tastes best when paired with specific foods.
Use it or lose it: Use it in small amounts and make sure to match your tastes. It tastes delicious in oatmeal or plain yogurt.
10. Monk Fruit
What it is: Monkfruit is a small melon found in the tropical and subtropical regions of Southeast Asia.
Pros: Like stevia, monk fruit is a natural, calorie-free sweetener with a zero on the glycemic index. It’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so you can use a lot less and still get a sweet taste. It contains antioxidants which are said to support the immune system, digestive tract, glands, and respiratory system.
Cons: Like chicory, it’s often sold as a blend, paired with corn sugar or sugar alcohols.
Use it or lose it: Use it, but try to find pure sources without other sugar replacements added as well.
What it is: Stevia is a powder that comes from the ground-up leaf of a plant native to South America.
Pros: It’s virtually calorie-free and is up to 400 times sweeter than sugar (depending on which components of the plant are used) so you can use much less for the same sweetness punch. Stevia doesn’t impact blood sugar the same way table sugar does, and one study showed it may even help lower blood pressure. After initial concerns surfaced on Stevia’s health effects in the ’90s, many studies have shown it to be safe.
Cons: Some experts say more research should be done on its long-term health effects as its use becomes more widespread. It’s also mixed with sugar alcohols like erythritol quite often, so read the ingredient list.
Use it or lose it: Use it in small amounts and look for organic whole leaf stevia whenever possible.
12. Yacon syrup
What it is: Yacon syrup is extracted from the yacon plant, a species of daisy traditionally grown in South America.
Pros: Yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of traditional sugar and contains fructooligosaccharides, which are non-digestible carbohydrates. These compounds act as prebiotics, which feed probiotics—the friendly bacteria in your gut—and improve the overall health of your microbiome. Additionally, some limited research suggests that yacon syrup may increase feelings of fullness.
Cons: For some, especially in those with IBS, fructooligosaccharides can increase gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, flatulence and diarrhea.
Use it or lose it: Use it but lose it if ANY GI discomfort arises.
The Bottom Line
Now you have some healthier options for tea, baking, and everything in between. But, at the end of the day, my advice still comes back to this: All of these are sweeteners, and ideally you’d use as little as possible. When you sweeten food, even with some of these more natural options, your body continues to crave sweets and you may eat more later in the day.
You can cut back on your sugar intake by choosing low-sugar indulgences such as really good dark chocolate. And, try tapping other flavor enhancers—like cinnamon in coffee, garlic in pasta sauce, or vinegar in salad dressing—so you don’t need the sugar.
I get it, though. When you do need a little sweetness, consult this list, choose the healthiest sugar substitute for the given situation, and use the least amount possible.