Which Natural Sugar Substitutes Are the Healthiest?
Added sugar sneaks its way into a surprising number of foods — even savory foods like spaghetti sauce and salad dressing. It’s a testament to how much we crave and enjoy sweetness, but it can also make it difficult to cut back on sugar.
If you’re worried you might be eating too much sugar, natural sugar substitutes might seem like a simple way to sweeten your food without adding empty calories. But with so many options available, how do you choose the best sugar substitute?
First and foremost — any type of sweetener should be consumed in moderation. “We should be focusing less on what type of sweeteners to use and instead on how much we use,” says Abbey Sharp, Registered Dietitian, YouTuber, and Blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen. “Consuming sweeteners in moderation will help our palate adapt to lower levels of sweetness.”
Here’s what you need to know when you’re looking for the healthiest alternative to sugar.
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Nutritive Vs. Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
Before you choose your sugar swaps, it’s important to understand the difference between nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners.
- Nutritive sweeteners (like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and date sugar) contain calories. These are natural alternatives to refined sugar, but they’re still sugars — honey, for example, contains 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon.
- Non-nutritive sweeteners (like stevia and monkfruit) are either very low in calories or contain zero calories. Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin also fall into this category — but if you’re looking for natural sugar substitutes, stevia and monk fruit are the main options.
What Are the Best Zero-Calorie Natural Sugar Substitutes?
Stevia and monk fruit are the key players when it comes to zero-calorie natural sugar substitutes. (If you’re looking into keto sugar substitutes, these are the two natural sugar substitutes you’ll likely hear about.) Here’s what you need to know about each.
Monk fruit extract
Made from monk fruit — a.k.a. luo han guo, a small fruit native to Southern China — monk fruit extract can be up to 250 times sweeter than sugar. It has a slightly fruity flavor, and you might notice a lingering aftertaste.
Monk fruit extract contains zero calories, and research suggests the mogrosides in monk fruit may have antioxidant properties. But you should still consume this sweetener in moderation — the FDA notes that an acceptable daily intake has yet to be determined.
Pure stevia leaf extract — which is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar — comes from the leaves of the South American Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant. The sweetener is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the FDA.
Look for 100 percent stevia extract, Sharp says, as some stevia products may contain fillers. And while stevia contains zero calories or carbohydrates — making it a popular keto sugar substitute — you should still consume stevia-sweetened products in moderation.
Which Nutritive Sweeteners are Healthiest?
Some nutritive sweeteners contain phytonutrients and minerals you won’t find in refined sugar. But ultimately, these natural sweeteners are still full of sugar — and the calories can add up quickly, so you need to consume them in moderation.
Before you substitute honey for sugar in your coffee, here’s how these natural sweeteners stack up.
Date sugar has the least sugar and lowest calorie count on this list — a one-teaspoon serving of date sugar contains 15 calories and 3 grams of sugar. Made from dehydrated dates, this natural sweetener resembles brown sugar and has a slightly butterscotch-like flavor. Because date sugar is less sweet than other sugar alternatives, if you substitute it one-for-one for refined sugar in a recipe, the result will be less sweet than you’re used to — but you might find you don’t need your morning oatmeal to be quite so sweet!
Made from the sap of a coconut palm tree, coconut sugar substitutes well for brown sugar since it resembles the caramel-colored sweetener both in taste and appearance. A one-teaspoon serving of coconut sugar contains 15 calories and 4 grams of sugar, and also provides some iron, zinc, calcium and potassium — though you’re still better off getting those minerals from more nutritious sources.
This sweetener, made by boiling down sap from maple trees, adds tons of rich flavor to dressings, marinades, and baked goods. (The darker the syrup, the stronger its flavor.) Maple syrup provides minerals like phosphorous, potassium, calcium, and magnesium — but a one-tablespoon serving also contains 52 calories and 12 grams of sugar, so keep a close eye on serving sizes. And, of course, skip the imitation syrups, which are typically made from corn syrup and imitation maple extract.
There are plenty of good things to say about this thick and gooey natural sweetener, which is produced when bees transport flower nectar to honeycombs. Honey contains amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols, and research suggests it may also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. But it’s definitely not a low-calorie alternative to sugar — a one-tablespoon serving of honey contains 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar.
What’s the Best Sugar Substitute for Baking?
When you’re whipping up your favorite homemade treats, you can use natural sugar substitutes for baking — but be aware that not all substitutes will produce the same flavor or consistency in your homemade treats.
Natural, minimally processed sugars — like dates, honey, and maple syrup — can provide extra flavor and sweetness to recipes like overnight oats or smoothies, Sharp says. Granulated sweeteners may be your best bet if you’re looking to use an existing recipe that calls for granulated sugar.
Or simply search for recipes made without refined sugar in the first place — you can find tons of tasty recipes that use natural alternatives in place of sugar, like this pumpkin zucchini bread recipe (which calls for coconut sugar) or this gluten-free apple crisp recipe (which uses maple syrup).