Ever thought about what your tea or hot chocolate would taste like without a sweetener? Probably not as good. Sugar adds a sweet flavor to foods and drinks, making them delicious.
Overconsumption of sugar is not suitable for your health, but little amounts do no harm. The most commonly used type is refined sugar which is highly processed and contains plenty of empty calories. But what is the healthiest type of sugar to use instead of refined sugar? Here are the top 9 healthiest sugar substitutes.
What Is Sugar?
Most people think of sugar as the white or brown powder we add to hot chocolate or use to bake when sugar is actually a form of carbohydrate. Sugars are primarily divided into two subgroups – simple and complex sugars.
Simple sugars, which are monosaccharides, are just 3 – glucose, galactose, and fructose. Complex sugars (disaccharides), on the other hand, are made by combining two of the simple sugars to form a complex carbohydrate. Maltose (glucose and glucose), Lactose (glucose and galactose), and Sucrose (glucose and fructose) are the most common complex sugars (5).
Long chains of monosaccharides are referred to as oligosaccharides. Starch is a glucose polymer and is the most abundant energy source for humans. Other substances such as sugar alcohol and glycerol may be sweet but do not fall under the classification of sugars.
Sugar is found naturally in a lot of food. For example, fructose is a simple sugar found in most fruits, vegetables, and even nuts, including mangoes, peaches, grapes, apricots, almonds, pistachios, lentils, and carrots. Also, lactose, a combination of glucose and galactose, is found in dairy products like milk or cheese and human breast milk.
Refined sugars come from the chemical extraction and processing of foods rich in sugars. Sugar cane and sugar beet are rich in sucrose and are mainly used to manufacture refined sugar. Grain is also malted to produce maltose. Also, corn starch is industrially converted to sugars to make corn syrup.
We use granulated sugar in tea, coffee, milk, baking cakes, cookies, pies, or brownies. Added sugar refers to sugar removed from its source and added to foods during processing to enhance taste or shelf life (11). Food manufacturers add refined sugar to industrial food and drinks like yogurt, crackers, salad dressings, flavored milk, breakfast cereals, and soft drinks. These foods thus contain a lot of empty calories with little to no nutritional value.
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Why Is Sugar Bad For You?
Overeating sugar is bad for you as it has many adverse health effects. And given the sweet taste of sugar and sugary foods, it is easy to overindulge. The average American consumes about 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily (10).
The CDC recommends that adults keep their daily intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total calorie intake. For example, in a 2000 calories diet, only 200 calories (12 teaspoons) should come from added sugar (10). Also, children under the age of 2 should not consume any added sugar.
Here is why eating too much sugar is bad for your health:
Can Lead To Weight Gain
Excessive consumption of sugar can cause an increase in weight. Research shows that individuals who follow a diet high in sugar are more likely to suffer from obesity. Consumption of too much fructose alters lipid metabolism, increases insulin resistance, postprandial triglycerides, and hepatic lipogenesis (20).
Overeating sugar also has a negative impact on your body’s metabolism. Fructose in sugar causes a dysregulation in the metabolism of lipids and carbohydrates. This effect results in increased fat and insulin storage (18).
Increases Your Risk Of Heart Disease
High-sugar consumption has been linked to the development of several conditions, including cardiovascular diseases. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. Research shows that very high sugar diets can result in inflammation, obesity, high blood pressure, increased blood sugar, and triglyceride levels (21).
May Speed Up The Skin Aging Process
Wrinkles are folds in your skin that naturally appear as you age, regardless of your health status. However, poor dietary choices can expedite the skin aging process. When sugar and protein in your body react, they form advanced glycation end products (AGEs). They play a vital role in the pathogenesis of skin aging (1).
Increases Your Risk of Type II Diabetes
There is a direct link between excessive sugar intake and diabetes. High-sugar consumption can cause obesity which is a risk factor for diabetes (15). Prolonged consumption of high amounts of sugar can cause insulin resistance that causes spikes in your blood sugar and increase the risk for diabetes (20).
So what is the healthiest type of sugar? Does such a thing even exist? Keep reading to find out.
What Is The Healthiest Sugar Substitute?
Saying goodbye to refined sugar may not be an easy thing, but considering its harmful effects, it is worthwhile. However, many sugar alternatives are branded as natural and healthy to use when they are not. So finding a suitable substitute can be quite the task.
So here are the facts to help answer; what is the healthiest sugar alternative?
First on our healthiest sugar substitute list is stevia. It is a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana native to South America. It contains zero calories and is up to 350 times sweeter than regular sugar (16). The plant contains steviol glycosides, which are responsible for its unique sweet flavor.
Stevia is particularly popular among individuals who are trying to lose weight. The leaves of the stevia plants are packed with nutrients and phytonutrients. Evidence suggests that a compound called stevioside found in stevia can help lower blood sugar, insulin, and blood glucose levels (17).
The consumption of high-purity steviol glycosides is considered safe. Thus, when used as a sweetener, high purity stevia does not cause any adverse side effects. The recommended daily intake of steviol equivalents is about 4 mg per kg of body weight. This is equivalent to about 12mg of high-purity stevia per kg of body weight (16).
Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is found in most fruits and vegetables. It is the healthiest non sugar sweetener. Xylitol is neither a sugar nor an alcohol but is a sweet carbohydrate. Sugar alcohols chemically combine the characteristics of alcohol and sugar molecules.
Store-bought xylitol is a white crystalline powder. Xylitol is nearly as sweet as sugar but has fewer calories. It contains about 2.4 calories per gram, whereas table sugar contains about 4 calories per gram. A teaspoonful of xylitol has about 10 calories (24).
What makes xylitol an ideal alternative is its lack of fructose that is the primary culprit behind sugar’s harmful effects. Also, it is lower in calories and unlike sugar, does not cause a rise in your insulin or blood sugar levels (23).
Additionally, xylitol helps reduce the risk of developing dental cavities and decay. It also improves bone density, helping prevent conditions such as osteoporosis. Research increasingly suggests that xylitol also acts as an energy source for intestinal microbiota (23).
When consumed in moderation, this sugar alcohol is safe for human consumption. If consumed in excess sugar, alcohol can cause gastrointestinal issues (9). Xylitol is safe for individuals with a history of alcohol addiction as it does not contain any actual alcohol.
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Monk Tree Sweetener
Monk tree sweetener is made from extract derived from dried monk fruit. The monk fruit resembles a small green melon and gets its name from the monks who first cultivated it. It is 150 to 250 sweeter than sugar and has zero calories.
Monk fruit gets its sweetness from a compound called mogrosides. During manufacturing, mogrosides are separated from the freshly pressed juice, removing glucose and fructose from the sweetener.
Mogrosides are a powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties. Monk fruit is a great choice for individuals who want to reduce their calorie intake. Studies show that monk-fruit-sweetened drinks have a minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin levels compared to sucrose-sweetened beverages (6).
Monk sugar sweetener is a safe, healthy sugar alternative. But when shopping for this sweetener, make a point to check the labels. Often, Monk fruit extract is mixed with other inorganic sweeteners.
Next on our list of healthiest sugars to use is coconut sugar. It is derived from the sap of coconut palm. Coconut Sugar is very popular in vegan diets as it is plant-based. It contains trace amounts of calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, and antioxidants.
Coconut Sugar has a glycemic index of 54 which may be due to its inulin content. Inulin is a type of soluble fiber that has been shown to slow digestion, keep you full for longer and feed the friendly bacteria in your gut (22).
However, coconut sugar contains a lot of calories. A teaspoon of coconut sugar contains about 18 calories (4). This sweetener also contains high amounts of fructose, so it’s best if you consume it in small amounts.
Erythritol, just like xylitol, is a sugar alcohol. It contains way fewer calories having just 0.24 calories per gram. Its taste is similar to that of table sugar, so it’s easy to switch to.
The metabolism of erythritol differs slightly from those in other substances. The body does not have the enzymes to break down erythritol, so most of it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. It is then excreted into urine unchanged (7).
More so, erythritol does not raise cholesterol, insulin, triglycerides, or blood sugar levels. Surprisingly, despite the low-calorie count of this sugar alcohol, a small college student study linked it to increased fat mass and weight gain. However, it’s still unclear how sugar alcohol affects body composition and weight (8).
Erythritol is a safe alternative to sugar. But since the production cost is high and production takes time, it is a less available option.
Do you ever wonder what is one of the healthiest sugars to use in coffee? Well, there’s honey. Honey is a favorite of many. Its use dates back to ancient Egypt. It is a thick golden syrup produced by bees, with the primary ingredient being nectar from flowers.
This sweetener contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals such as riboflavin, calcium, magnesium, potassium, manganese, and niacin (13). It is a powerhouse of Antioxidants. A tablespoon of honey contains about 64 calories which is higher compared to that of table sugar.
Honey has a glycemic index (GI) of 58. It thus has a medium effect on blood sugar levels and doesn’t raise it as fast as foods with high GI.
Antioxidants in honey, such as phenolic acids and flavonoids, can help prevent inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer (12). Honey may also help promote a healthy gut. It is a potential prebiotic; thus, it acts as a source of energy for intestinal microbiota.
The downside to honey is that 40% is fructose, of it is relatively high fructose. Overconsumption of fructose has many adverse negative effects. And given that honey is sweeter than sugar, you don’t need to use too much of it. Also, since bees produce honey, most vegans do not consume it.
Yacon syrup is a sweetener extracted from the roots of the yacon plant native to the Andes Mountains. It is sweet, dark, and has a consistency similar to that of molasses.
The syrup contains only ⅓ of the calories in table sugar which is about 1.3 calories per gram. It is not as sweet as sugar, so more may be used to achieve the desired sweetness. Yacon syrup consists of inulin, fructooligosaccharides, and small amounts of fructose and glucose.
Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are an soluble fiber undigested by the digestive system and, due to their bulking effect, helps the passage of waste. Both inulin and FOS are prebiotics that feed the good bacteria in the gut (14).
Yacon syrup has recently become popular as a weight-loss supplement. This is owing to its low-calorie content. In a small study of obese and dyslipidemic women, daily consumption of yacon syrup caused a significant decrease in waist circumference, body weight, and BMI (25).
Yacon has a very low glycemic index and may be beneficial to regulating blood sugar and insulin levels. This syrup is a great sugar substitute for maple, but like most foods, when consumed in excess, it can cause harm.
High consumption of yacon syrup can lead to abdominal cramping, bloating, gas and diarrhea. The recommended daily intake amount of yacon syrup is about 20 grams.
You probably used maple syrup as a topping for your pancakes in the morning. You can also add it to your coffee. This is probably because it is a delicious source of sugar for coffee out there that doesn’t compromise taste. Maple syrup is made from the xylem sap of maple trees. Maple sap is heated down to reduce the water content and concentrate the sugars.
The main sugar in maple syrup is sucrose. It contains some potassium, sodium, calcium, zinc, manganese, iron, and magnesium. This syrup has no fat or dietary fiber. Additionally, it contains more antioxidants than honey (3).
A teaspoonful of maple syrup has about 52 calories (19). The glycemic index of maple syrup is lower than table sugar with a score of 54. So it may raise your blood sugar levels slower than table sugar.
The lighter types of maple syrup have a delicate taste, where the darker colored variants have a stronger taste. Maple syrup also contains more antioxidants than honey. The melanoidins (brown pigments) contribute to the antioxidant activity of maple syrup (3).
Maple syrup is an ideal alternative to sugar, but you should consume it in moderation because of its high sucrose content.
Last on our healthiest type of sugar list is molasses. It is a sweet thick brown liquid made by heating down sugar beet or sugar cane juice. Blackstrap molasses has the lowest sugar content among all sugar cane products.
There are different types of molasses, including light, dark, blackstrap, sulfuric, and unsulfured molasses. Light molasses is obtained by the first boiling and is the sweetest. The second boiling obtains dark molasses, which is darker and less sweet. On the other hand, blackstrap molasses is obtained by the third boiling and has a bitter taste.
One tablespoon contains about 58 calories – most of which comes from carbohydrates. Molasses is a rich source of vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B6, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, and selenium. It also contains several antioxidants, including polyphenols (2).
Much as this sweetener contains several vitamins and minerals, it is still very high in sugar. So it is best to use molasses in moderation. But when compared to refined sugar, molasses is a better choice.
The Bottom Line
Discovering sweet substitutes you appreciate can assist you with diminishing your sugar consumption. In any case, sugar options are not a supernatural solution to your medical issues.
Sugar substitutes may make you want all the more sweet and sweet food varieties. While sugar substitutes might be lower in calories than refined sugar, make sure to restrict your consumption, as they can have adverse outcomes to your wellbeing also when consumed in excess.
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This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
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- Antioxidant activity and polyphenol composition of sugarcane molasses extract (2020, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Antioxidant Activity of Different Grades of Maple Syrup as Determined by the Hydrophilic Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity Method (2015, jstage.jst.go.jp)
- Coconut Sugar: Is It Good for You? Pros and Cons, Nutrition Information, and More (n.d, webmd.com)
- Defining and interpreting intakes of sugars | The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition | Oxford Academic (2003, academic.oup.com)
- Effects of aspartame-, monk fruit-, stevia- and sucrose-sweetened beverages on postprandial glucose, insulin and energy intake (2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Erythritol as sweetener—wherefrom and whereto? (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Erythritol is a pentose-phosphate pathway metabolite and associated with adiposity gain in young adults (2017, pnas.org)
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- Get the Facts: Added Sugars | Nutrition (2021, cdc.gov)
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- Know Your Limit for Added Sugars | Healthy Weight, Nutrition, and Physical Activity (2021, cdc.gov)
- Novel Insights into the Health Importance of Natural Honey (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
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- Risk Factors Contributing to Type 2 Diabetes and Recent Advances in the Treatment and Prevention (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stevia, Nature’s Zero-Calorie Sustainable Sweetener (2015, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Stevia Leaf to Stevia Sweetener: Exploring Its Science, Benefits, and Future Potential (2018, academic.oup.com)
- Sugar consumption, metabolic disease and obesity: The state of the controversy (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Syrups, maple (2019, usda.gov)
- The Dose Makes the Poison: Sugar and Obesity in the United States – a Review (2020, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The Evidence for Saturated Fat and for Sugar Related to Coronary Heart Disease (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The water-soluble extract of chicory reduces glucose uptake from the perfused jejunum in rats (1996, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Xylitol’s Health Benefits beyond Dental Health: A Comprehensive Review (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Xylitol Uses, Benefits & Dosage (2021, drugs.com)
- Yacon syrup: beneficial effects on obesity and insulin resistance in humans (2009, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)