The average American consumes 70-80 grams of sugar per day. Shocking, right? Sugar is hidden in, and added to, nearly EVERYTHING! Besides the cookies, candy, desserts and sugary filled drinks, it also sneaks its way into “healthy foods” like yogurt, tomato sauces, granola, and protein bars. And this is no accident. Sugar wreaks havoc on your body creating all sorts of issues including: an insatiable appetite, cravings, hormone disruptions and gut problems.
So, what’s a healthy-minded person to do when it comes to baking, having a sweet treat, or sweetening coffee?! Rest assured that healthy sugar alternatives do exist, and we refer to them as natural sweeteners. We aren’t talking about artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are chemically made in labs. Ummm, no thanks! Even though artificial sweeteners are currently recognized as safe by the FDA, they have been linked to weight gain, sugar cravings, and disruption of gut health. (1,2,3) While there are studies proving artificial sweeteners are safe for human consumption in moderate amounts, it’s best to be on the safe side and avoid artificial sweeteners. Why risk it, right?
Sugar in any form contributes to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and several metabolic disorders. This is why it’s so important to be mindful of the amount you use on a daily basis. Take on the mindset of ‘a little goes a long way’ and ‘less is more’ when it comes to all sweeteners. When going the natural, route be picky and opt for high-quality, organic natural sweeteners.
Coconut Sugar (1 Tablespoon = 45 calories)
Coconut sugar is made by heating the coconut blossom sap. Similar to its healthy relatives: coconut water, coconut oil, and coconut milk, coconut sugar is becoming more mainstream due its low glycemic index (compared to glucose) and trace nutrient content of iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and antioxidants. Coconut sugar has a rich, nutty taste and is 1:1 when being substituted for table sugar. This option is heat stable and great for cooking and baking.
Coconut sugar contains some nutritional benefits compared to table sugar, which is void of any nutrients, (AKA “empty calories).” But use caution! While coconut sugar does have some benefits, it still provides the same amount of fructose as sugar, gram for gram.
Maple Syrup (1 Tablespoon = 52 calories)
Maple syrup is extracted from the maple tree, bottled, and graded. The grades vary from country to country. In the United States, maple syrup is graded based on color. Grade A = the lightest syrup, typically used as a traditional syrup. Grade B = darker in color for cooking and baking. The darker the syrup the higher the antioxidant count which helps combat cancer causing free radicals.
Check the label before you buy! Be sure you’re getting true maple syrup and not an artificial maple flavoring likely to be printed as ‘natural maple flavor.’ No thanks! Ideally, you’re looking for 100% pure maple syrup.
Maple syrup does have the added bonus of trace amounts of calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Similar to coconut sugar, the amount of nutrients is low compared to the amount of sugar, so use sparingly.
Raw Honey (1 Tablespoon = 70 calories)
This lovely nectar from bees is full of polyphenols (plant compounds) packed with antioxidants and health benefits. Raw honey also contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and enzymes. Note: there is a major difference when comes to honey and raw honey. Regular honey undergoes more processing by means of ultrafiltration which strips the honey of its beneficial enzymes and bee pollen fragments. The trace amounts of pollen and enzymes are the components that give honey it’s antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. (5) Raw honey is simply strained and then bottled. The limited processing preserves the beneficial components, making it the superior choice.
Dates (1 Medjool date = 68 calories)
Dates are one of the most nutrient dense dried fruits, rich in antioxidants and a great source of iron, potassium, and fiber. Random side note: the consumption of dates regularly during the last few weeks of pregnancy may start the process of cervical dilation. Interesting, right? (4)
Dates are sweet and a paleo option for baked goods and healthy protein balls and chewy bites. Ever heard of date paste? Date paste acts a binder made by soaking pitted dates in extremely hot water until soft. Once drained, add to a food processor with a few tablespoons of water and blend until you get a creamy paste! Use it for baking instead of sugar or in lieu of maple syrup or honey.
Figs are great as well and can be substituted for dates in a recipe, but just know they contain less sugar than dates so the end product won’t be as sweet.
Blackstrap Molasses (1 Tablespoon = 50 calories)
Blackstrap molasses is made from repeatedly boiling down cane or beet sugar. The end result is a nutty flavored, thick, syrupy-like substance. It contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, even more than honey and maple syrup. (6)
Not super sweet, use as a blend with other sweeteners or as a marinade.
Yacon Syrup (1 Tablespoon = 39 calories)
This fairly “new” natural sweetener is quickly gaining popularity. Yacon syrup comes from the yacon plant, native to South America. The syrup is similar to molasses in thickness and color.
However, it’s different than the natural sweeteners listed above because it’s mainly composed of fructooligosaccarhides, which are undigested by the body, making this syrup a slightly lower calorie natural sweetener. The sugar molecule, fructoloigosaccarhide acts as a prebiotic in the gut, feeding the good bacteria. So far we know yacon syrup is safe and beneficial, but eating large amounts has been linked to GI distress, so keep the serving size small.
Since very high temperatures will break down the structure of the fructooligosaccarhides, yacon syrup is not ideal for cooking.
Natural Sweeteners for Diabetics
Xylitol (1 teaspoon = 10 calories)
Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is similar to table sugar, but contains less calories per gram and doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin levels. (7) Several studies indicate it improves dental health, so you’ll see it in chewing gum. (8) Xylitol is a healthy option when it comes to natural sweeteners, but note that sugar alcohols like xylitol are not fully absorbed, so they can cause GI distress if eaten in large amounts and/or a you’re sensitive to sugar alcohols.
Xylitol comes from both corn and birch wood. Since corn is often genetically modified, search for the kind sourced from birch wood.
Erythritol (zero calories)
Erythritol is a popular sugar alcohol derived from non-GMO corn and fruit fermentation. It cooks, looks, tastes, and performs just like sugar, making it a preferred sweetener for baking. It’s also calorie-free, has no aftertaste, and won’t raise blood glucose and insulin levels. (9)
Even though erythritol is a sugar alcohol, it seems to cause fewer GI issues compared to other sugar alcohols. This may be due to the fact that once absorbed into the bloodstream, it excretes into the urine instead of going through the colon for excretion.
Monk Fruit (zero calories)
Monk fruit is a zero calorie, zero carb sweetener and should not affect blood sugar levels. It’s actually been around for centuries. It’s 100 times sweeter than table sugar. Because it’s so sweet, it’s often sold as a blend with erythritol to reduce the sweetness. So, if you’re looking for pure monk fruit, be sure to read the label.
It’s fairly new to the market so there aren’t many long-term studies on safety. However, it’s been used for years in other parts of the world without any negative side effects.
Stevia (zero calories)
Stevia is a natural sweetener extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. Some rave about stevia, while others detect an unpleasant aftertaste. Super sweet, a little goes a very long way. So, when using or substituting in a recipe, be mindful of the amount added. Stevia is NOT a 1:1 ratio with it comes to sugar. It’s nearly 200 times sweeter than regular table sugar.
From what we know today, stevia seems the healthiest natural sweetener on the market today. In fact, studies have linked stevia to regulating blood sugar and insulin levels, controlling/decreasing blood pressure, and satisfying a sweet tooth. (10, 11)
Best Natural Sweetener for Tea & Coffee
Plenty people love a touch of honey in their coffee. That’s fine if you like the taste, but if the coffee is too hot some of the beneficial enzymes might get killed off from the heat. If you’re looking to reap the benefits of honey, drizzle over yogurt or pancakes and use to sweeten homemade salad dressings.
Maple syrup is heat stable so it can be used to sweeten hot beverages like tea or coffee.
Coconut sugar and table sugar is a 1:1 ratio. With the exception of coconut sugar containing a few more minerals than table sugar, the two are very similar in calories, so be mindful of the amount used. Don’t go crazy!
Stevia & Monk Fruit
Just a touch will do! Stevia (in liquid or powder form) and monk fruit are great for sweetening teas and coffees, but not too much or you’ll end up with an overly sweet, bitter tasting beverage. Word of caution: these sweeteners are VERY sweet, so start with a little, taste, and go from there. Adding stevia or monk fruit to a cup of Joe contains zero calories and won’t spike your blood sugar.
The above are some of the healthiest, natural sugar alternatives. While many contain less sugar and carbs than regular table sugar, still use sparingly. Although these sweeteners are natural, drawbacks, like craving more sweets once you taste something sweet, often occur.
Note: With continued research, we learn more and more about these sweeteners. Above is what we know right now.