Q: I’m trying to cut sugar out of my diet. When I really need some sweetness, which is the healthiest sugar substitute?
Thanks to more awareness of how much sugar is hiding in packaged foods and new research on how harmful to our health the sweet stuff really is, many people are trying to eat less sugar. (As an RD, that fact makes me do a little dance of joy!)
But sweeteners offered as a replacement are often just as bad for your health. Ones to definitely avoid? Artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet ‘N Low, and Equal, and sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol, which can wreak havoc on your digestion.
The best plan, of course, is to break up with sugar altogether, and I created a practical 12-Step Guide to help you do just that.
But for moments when you really, really just need a little sweetness, there are better options out there. Keep reading for the basic facts on sugar substitutes from natural sources.
The Healthiest Sugar Substitute?
What it is: A syrup that comes from the same spiky plant Tequila is made from.
Pros: Agave has a pretty neutral flavor and is touted for its low 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 theoretically use less.
Cons: It’s higher in calories than table sugar. Most importantly, it’s higher in fructose (the form of sugar linked to diabetes, heart disease, and more) than any other sweetener (even high-fructose corn syrup).
Use it or lose it: Better to avoid the fructose. Lose it!
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 like manganese, phosphorous, potassium, iron, magnesium, and calcium. Studies show that it 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 in moderation, but check the label to see whether the sweetener contains just chicory or other added sugars and sugar alcohols.
What it is: It’s made from sap from the cut flower buds of the coconut palm tree.
Pros: Coconut sugar is low on the glycemic index, and unlike agave, it’s also low in fructose. It also has a neutral flavor that’s closer to cane sugar and works really well for baking, where other sugar substitutes (like liquid ones) 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.
What it is: Sugary nectar made by bees.
Pros: Raw honey is super natural (i.e. totally unprocessed) and contains lots of 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 alternatives (60 per tablespoon) and higher on the glycemic index than some.
Use it or lose it: Use it in very small amounts, especially drizzled in tea during cold and flu season.
What it is: The sap from maple trees, boiled down into sticky syrup.
Pros: Pure maple syrup is as natural and unprocessed as it gets, and it comes with benefits like lots of manganese, which is essential for energy production and antioxidant defenses, and zinc, which promotes immune health. Plus, it’s delicious (tastes like you’re wearing cozy socks in Vermont!).
Cons: It’s high in calories, at about 51 per tablespoon. The flavor is so strong it only works to sweeten certain things.
Use it or lose it: Use it in moderation, in things the flavor works for, like oatmeal and baking.
What it is: A type of small melon found in the tropical and subtropical regions of South East Asia.
Pros: Like Stevia, monk fruit is an all-natural, calorie-free sweetener with a zero on the glycemic index. It’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar to taste, so you can use a lot less. It also contains antioxidants and is 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 when needed, but try to find pure sources without other things added.
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 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so you can use much less. It doesn’t impact blood sugar like table sugar, and one study showed it may even help lower blood pressure. After initial concerns surfaced on its health effects in the 90s, many studies have shown it to be safe.
Cons: Some experts say more research should be done on its health effects over the long-term, since its use is becoming more widespread. It’s also often mixed with sugar alcohols like erythritol, so read the ingredient list.
Use it or lose it: Use it, in moderation.
The Bottom Line
Now you’ve got some better 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 none at all. When you sweeten food, even with some of these more natural options, your body will continue to crave sweets and you may eat more later in the day.
You can cut back on all kinds of sugar by choosing low-sugar indulgences like really good dark chocolate. And try tapping other flavor enhancers so you don’t need the sugar—like cinnamon in coffee, garlic to make pasta sauce, or vinegar to make salad dressing.
I get it, though. When you do need a little sweetness, consult this list, choose the healthiest sugar substitute, and use the least amount possible.