It’s estimated that the average American consumes 17 teaspoons of sugar every day and around 57 pounds of added sugar each year. Not only are many people eating and drinking way too much sugar, but the use of artificial sweeteners is on the rise too. Thankfully, there are sugar substitutes that can actually help cut back on sugar, so long as you choose the correct ones.
Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, ace-K and saccharin have been debated for years in regard to their potentially damaging effects. While all of these sweeteners are technically “safe” and sugar-free, according to the Food and Drug Administration, they are coming under increased scrutiny.
Side effects related to their consumption seem to range from headaches and poor digestion to cravings and even mood disorders.
Refined sugars aren’t healthy either. According to the Cleveland Clinic, “table sugar is inflammatory, high in calories and offers no nutritional benefit.”
Side effects of of consuming too much sugars include diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and even poor cognitive functioning.
So what is a good natural sweetener and the best alternative to sugar then? Fortunately, there are many sugar substitutes that are healthy and tasty alternatives to refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners can actually provide nutrients and therefore boost health. For example, one study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that substituting healthy sweeteners in — including blackstrap molasses, maple syrup and honey — can increase your antioxidant intake and offer other benefits.
Healthiest Sugar Substitutes
What is the healthiest sugar substitute to use? Some experts like fruit the best because there are no empty calories involved and the sugars are naturally occurring, but it really can be a matter of personal opinion and/or individual health needs.
Are sugar substitutes bad for you? It depends a lot on the specific type.
Benefits of sugar substitutes vary, but one thing they all have in common: They come from nature.
Natural sweeteners (or non-nutritive sweeteners) are those that may contain calories (depending on the kind) and also usually supply some nutrients. Honey, maple syrup and molasses, for example, all contain beneficial components, such as enzymes, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates, that the human body knows how to process.
Certain natural sweeteners (like banana puree and date paste) provide health benefits, such as encouraging healthy blood pressure and reducing cholesterol levels and heart disease risk, thanks to their fiber content.
How many calories do sugar substitutes have? Here’s the calorie content of some of the most popular natural sweeteners:
- Raw honey (1 tablespoon = 64 calories)
- Stevia (0 calories)
- Dates (1 Medjool date = 66 calories)
- Coconut sugar (1 tablespoon = 45 calories)
- Maple syrup (1 tablespoon = 52 calories)
- Blackstrap molasses (1 tablespoon = 47 calories)
- Balsamic glaze (1 tablespoon = 20–40 calories, depending on thickness)
- Banana puree (1 cup = 200 calories)
- Brown rice syrup (1 tablespoon = 55 calories)
- Real fruit jam (varies depending on fruit)
- Monk fruit (0 calories)
1. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a true superfood and one of the best natural sweeteners. It’s packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin.
Together, these essential nutrients help neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.
One tablespoon of raw honey has less impact on glycemic load than a single banana. Once pasteurized, honey loses many of its benefits, so look for raw (ideally local) honey at farmers markets and directly from local beekeepers.
The darker the honey, the richer the flavor and the greater the nutrition benefits.
How to use raw honey:
Don’t cook or bake with raw honey. Drizzle it on breakfast cereals, over your sprouted grain toast, on yogurt and for salad dressings.
Raw honey is also a great substitute for molasses in case you’re not a fan or don’t have it on hand.
Many people only think of using honey in their tea, but honey is one of the best natural sweeteners for coffee too. One thing to note: If you enjoy honey in your tea or coffee, wait until the drink is just tepid enough to sip comfortably, and then add honey to taste.
Stevia is native to South America and has been used for hundreds of years in that region to support healthy blood sugar levels and prompt weight loss.
Stevioside is the element in the leaves that makes it more than 200 times as sweet as sugar. It’s available in liquid drops, packets, dissolvable tablets and baking blends.
It has zero calories, zero carbohydrates and none of the nasty side effects of artificial sweeteners.
Stevia is related to the sunflower, and some people experience a slight metallic aftertaste. If that has been your experience with stevia in the past, try a brand that is higher in the steviosides.
Read labels carefully to know what you’re getting, since some stevia products contain stevia as well as erythritol, which may trigger indigestion in some people.
How to use stevia:
Unlike raw honey, stevia is heat-stable, so feel free to use it in any way you desire. Remember, it’s 200 times sweeter than sugar, so don’t use it in the same ratio.
To make up for the lost bulk when using stevia in baked goods, use ⅓ to ½ cup of one of the following bulking agents: fresh fruit puree, yogurt, roasted winter squash, two whipped egg whites or one to two tablespoons of coconut flour.
Dates provide potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium and vitamin B6. From the date palm tree, they are easily digested and help metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Evidence shows that dates may help reduce LDL cholesterol in the blood and may reduce the risk of stroke.
How to use dates:
The first step is to make a paste. Date paste can be used one-to-one in most recipes, unlike stevia, and it does add bulk for baking.
Soak Medjool dates in hot water until soft. If the water reaches room temperature and the dates aren’t soft enough, soak in hot water again.
Reserve the soaking liquid, as it’s integral to making a good paste. Add the soaked dates to your food processor, along with one tablespoon of the soaking liquid.
Blend until smooth. Add more water as needed to create a thick, rich paste.
You are looking for the consistency of peanut butter. Use in your favorite cookie or cake recipe to cut out refined sugar and boost the nutrients.
You can also use date paste to sweeten your favorite muffins and pies. For fruit pies, mix 1–1½ cups of puree with four cups of fruit, and bake as normal.
Depending on the water content of the fruit, you may need to add a thickener, like tapioca.
4. Coconut Sugar
Most people have heard about the benefits of coconut water, coconut milk, coconut flour and, of course, fresh coconut. Now, more and more people are using coconut sugar as their natural sweetener of choice because of its low glycemic load and rich mineral content.
Packed with polyphenols, iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, antioxidants, phosphorous and other phytonutrients, coconut sugar is versatile and now readily available.
Coconut sugar is extracted sap from the blooms of the coconut and then heated. Next, through evaporation, we get coconut sugar.
Date sugar (made from dried dates) and coconut sugar are often used interchangeably in recipes because they provide similar flavor. Both are great sugar substitutes for baking.
How to use coconut sugar:
Use coconut sugar in your favorite recipes, for it measures just like traditional sugar. It’s a bit more coarse than refined sugar, but that’s OK.
Add the amount of sugar called for in a recipe to your food processor, and give it a whirl until you get the desired texture.
You can even make a confectioner’s sugar substitute with coconut sugar quite quickly. For every cup of coconut sugar, add one tablespoon of arrowroot powder, and blend until smooth in a clean coffee grinder or high-powered food processor.
5. Maple Syrup
Native to North America, maple syrup comes in both grades A and B. While time-consuming, maple syrup processing requires only four steps: drilling the hole in the tree, hanging a bucket to catch the sap, boiling to evaporate out the water and then filtering of any sediment.
Maple syrup is one of the best natural sugar substitutes because it’s an outstanding source of manganese and contains calcium, potassium and zinc. Rich with antioxidants, this all-natural sweetener helps neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage.
Select darker, grade B maple syrups, as they contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.
How to use maple syrup:
Maple syrup is heat-stable, so you can use it in virtually any application. Add it to marinades, glazes or sauces, and use for baking.
Use it to sweeten homemade granola and your morning coffee or tea.
For a glaze for cookies or cakes, heat until just barely simmering, and add the coconut-powdered sugar from above. Stir until smooth, allow to cool to room temperature and then drizzle away.
6. Blackstrap Molasses
Organic blackstrap molasses is highly nutritious, rich in copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6. Sugarcane and beet molasses have been shown to have the highest phenolic content and antioxidant activity when compared with refined sugar, beet sugar, rape honey, corn syrup and dates.
There are several types of molasses, depending on which level of processing it has gone through. All molasses is obtained from raw cane sugar, made by boiling it until it’s a rich, sweet syrup.
Blackstrap molasses comes from the third boiling, concentrating its nutrients and providing for its deep rich flavor.
How to use blackstrap molasses:
Molasses has a unique, rich flavor. It may not be appealing for some to use for topping toast, porridges or other concentrated applications. However, it’s a perfect sweetener for marinades and to use in baking.
You can even make a brown sugar alternative by adding two tablespoons of molasses for each ½ cup coconut sugar a recipe calls for. Put the coconut sugar and the molasses in a food processor, and pulse until the consistency of commercial brown sugar is reached.
7. Balsamic Glaze
Balsamic vinegar is rich in antioxidants that destroy free radicals and the enzyme pepsin that helps promote healthy digestion and tastes great.
How to use balsamic glaze:
Balsamic glazes are available in natural health food and gourmet stores, but you can also quickly make your own glaze at home. Simply simmer two cups of balsamic vinegar over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until it’s reduced to ½ cup.
This process can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes. It will thicken further upon cooling.
Drizzle the glaze over grilled wild-caught salmon, raw cheese or even fresh berries to bring a natural sweetness and a bit of a tang.
8. Banana Puree
Bananas are rich in fiber and potassium and a good source of vitamins B6 and C. They are also naturally sweet with a subtle flavor, making them a perfect natural sweetener.
How to use banana puree:
First, over-ripe bananas are the best to use when replacing refined sugar in recipes. They are sweeter and puree well.
For every cup of sugar called for in a recipe, use one cup of banana puree.
To make the puree, add bananas to a food processor with a tablespoon of water, and blend. Add more water if necessary to reach the consistency of thick applesauce.
As bananas brown when exposed to air, use as quickly as possible in recipes. If you are using banana puree in raw preparations, add one teaspoon of fresh lemon juice to the food processor to help slow the oxidation process.
9. Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup starts with brown rice that is fermented with enzymes to break down the starch. The liquid is then heated until the syrup consistency is achieved.
The result? A thick, amber-colored, sweet syrup perfect for recipes calling for corn syrup and other unhealthy sweeteners.
The fermented process helps break down the sugars into ones that are easily digestible. The fermenting process is key. Some brown rice syrups are fermented with barley enzymes, meaning it contains gluten.
Purchase brown rice syrups that are labeled gluten-free.
How to use brown rice syrup:
As mentioned above, brown rice syrup is the perfect replacement in recipes that call for corn syrup. Use a one-to-one ratio.
To replace regularly processed white sugar, use one cup for each cup of sugar called for, and decrease liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup.
Use brown rice syrup to make healthy granola bars and granola, nut clusters, and to sweeten nut and fruit pies.
10. Real Fruit Jam
You can use commercially available fruit jam — just be sure there is no added sugar or pectin.
It’s better to make your own sugar-free jam with organic fresh or frozen fruit. It’s easy and economical.
How to use real fruit jam:
Replace sugar in recipes at a one-to-one ratio, decreasing the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup. For recipes that don’t have added liquids, you can add a tablespoon of coconut flour to thicken the recipe as desired.
To make your own fresh jam, combine four cups of your favorite fruit or berry in a saucepan with ½ cup water. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently.
Simmer until fruit has broken down and has started to thicken. Puree in a food processor, and use immediately.
For a tasty apple pie, simmer ½ cup of peeled diced apples with one cup of green grapes until soft. Puree in the food processor until smooth.
Toss with sliced apples and a touch of cinnamon, and bake as directed. The grapes add a subtle sweetness while the natural pectin in the apples helps thicken the pie.
11. Monk Fruit
One of the most popular sugar substitutes for low-carb dieters is monk fruit. Monk fruit contains compounds that, when extracted, provide 300–400 times the sweetness of cane sugar, but monk fruit sugar contains no calories and has no effect on blood sugar.
How to use monk fruit:
Monk fruit can be used in all kinds of recipes from cheesecakes and cookies to smoothies and healthy mocktails.
How to Get More in Diet
Getting more natural sweeteners in your daily diet isn’t hard if you completely stop using refined table sugar and use healthier sugar substitutes instead. Plus, you also can look for food products that are sweet thanks to ingredients like stevia rather than refined sugar.
To find your best sugar substitutes, you’ll likely have to test out a few. You might end up liking one for your morning coffee but a different one for your baking needs.
Even when using natural sweeteners, like raw honey, you still want to be mindful of your overall sugar consumption.
How much natural sugar should you have a day? According to the American Heart Association (AHA), you should limit the amount of added sugars you consume to no more than half of your daily discretionary calorie allowance.
For most American women, this is no more than 100 calories per day and no more than 150 calories per day for men (or about six teaspoons per day for women and nine teaspoons per day for men). The AHA defines “added sugars” as “any sugars or caloric sweeteners … added to foods or beverages during processing or preparation.”
So added sugars include refined sugar as well as natural sweeteners like honey.
If you are being treated for any ongoing health concern, especially diabetes, check with your doctor before incorporating any new sweeteners and sugar substitutes into your diet.
Ready for some awesome recipes that swap out refined sugar for some healthier sweetness? Try these Gluten-Free Gingerbread Cookies that are naturally sweetened with dates and blackstrap molasses or these Maple Glazed Rosemary Carrots, which make a delicious side dish.
More tasty recipes that use natural sweeteners instead of refined sugar or artificial sweeteners include:
- Key Lime Pie Recipe
- Coconut Milk Coffee Creamer Recipe
- Roasted Beets Recipe with Balsamic Rosemary Glaze
Sugar Substitutes to Avoid
Evidence suggests that we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that zero-calorie artificial sweeteners with zero grams of sugar are healthy. Both human and animal studies continue to reveal that frequent consumption of diet soda or artificial sweeteners is associated with greater body mass index, obesity and metabolic syndrome.
What are the worst sugar substitutes? One is high fructose corn syrup, which is usually produced from genetically modified corn.
Fructose is a simple sugar that is rapidly metabolized by the liver, causing a “sugar high.” Researchers believe this quick-acting sugar leads to increased storage of fat in the liver, potentially resulting in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive upset and atherosclerosis.
Another popular one is sucralose, which is 600 times sweeter than sugar and may contribute to an addiction for overly sweet foods and drinks. A study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that cooking with sucralose at high temperatures can generate dangerous chloropropanols — a toxic class of compounds.
Human and rodent studies demonstrate that sucralose may also alter glucose, insulin and glucagon-like peptide 1 levels.
There are many artificial sweeteners on the market today, including:
- Acesulfame potassium
- Sugar alcohols (like mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysate)
- Sweet ‘N Low
Here are a few surprising examples of where these chemicals may be found:
- Toothpaste and mouthwash
- Children’s chewable vitamins
- Cough syrup and liquid medicines
- Chewing gum
- No-calorie waters and drinks
- Alcoholic beverages
- Salad dressings
- Frozen yogurt and other frozen deserts
- Baked goods
- Breakfast cereals
- Processed snack foods
- “Lite” or diet fruit juices and beverages
- Prepared meats
- Nicotine gum
Which is the safest artificial sweetener? It depends on what you consider to be “artificial.”
A sweetener in extract form, such as stevia or monk fruit, is a good choice if you’re looking for a zero-calorie option.
Sugar alcohols may be a better choice than certain other artificial sweeteners if you can tolerate them well. Sugar alcohols are sweeteners that have about half the calories of regular sugar.
They are found naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables and produced from sugars and starch, made into extracts and granules.
Examples of sugar alcohols include xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and other sugar alcohols that end in –itol. These are not always absorbed well by the body and can cause digestive reactions and gastrointestinal side effects in some people, including bloating, gas, cramping and diarrhea.
The laxative effect of xylitol is so pronounced in fact that it’s actually part of the chemical makeup of some over-the-counter laxatives. Even though these sweeteners have been on the market for decades, pregnant and breastfeeding women should select other natural sweeteners instead, since their safety is not known in these situations.
Special note to dog owners: Sugar alcohol-based artificial sweeteners are life-threatening toxins to dogs. Be mindful of breath mints, candies, sugar-free gum, frozen desserts and other foods when your pets are around.
Sugar Consumption Stats
Here are some recent statistics involving sugar in the American diet that are quite concerning:
- The United States ranks as having the highest average daily sugar consumption per person, followed by Germany and the Netherlands.
- In 1822, the average American ate the amount of sugar found in one of today’s 12-ounce sodas every five days. As of 2012, we were eating that much every seven hours.
- Using brain-scanning technology, scientists at the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse were among the first to show that sugar causes changes in people’s’ brains similar to those in people addicted to drugs, such as cocaine and alcohol. These changes often result in heightened cravings for more sugar.
- The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting total intake of discretionary calories, including both added sugars and fats, to 5 percent to 15 percent per day. Yet children and adolescents in America obtain about 16 percent of their total caloric intake from added sugars alone.
- A large amount of clinical studies have found consistent data that body weight changes correlate directly with increasing or decreasing intake of sugars. Just by decreasing 5 percent of sugar intake, individuals were witnessed to lose an average of 1.8 pounds of their body weights, and by increasing sugar intake by 5 percent, individuals were seen to gain an average of 1.7 pounds.
- What is the best alternative to sugar? That is definitely a matter of taste preference as well as health status, but a good alternative to refined sugar is a healthy natural sugar substitute rather than artificial sweeteners.
- Examples of some of the best natural sugar substitutes include stevia, monk fruit, pureed fruit, coconut sugar, honey and molasses.
- Are natural sweeteners better than sugar? Unlike refined sugar, natural sweeteners like date paste and fruit jam provide beneficial nutrients and sometimes fiber and enzymes. That said, eating any type of sugar in moderation is still important, even these natural sugar substitutes.
- Living healthy doesn’t mean you have to give up sweets entirely — it just means you need to replace unhealthy refined sugars and artificial sweeteners with these natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes.