It’s estimated the the average American consumes 70-80 grams of sugar per day. Is this number shocking? It shouldn’t be, because added sugar is hidden 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. The list goes on. And this is no accident. The Sugar will wreak havoc on your hormones creating all sorts issues including an insatiable appetite and nearly uncontrollable sugar cravings.
So, what’s a healthy minded person to do when it comes to baking, having a sweet treat, or sweetening coffee?! Fret not because there are actually many healthy sugar alternatives and we refer to them as natural sweeteners. We aren’t talking about artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners are chemically made in lab and from natural. 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 just as many studies proving artificial sweeteners to be safe for human consumption in moderate amounts it’s best to be on the safe side and avoid artificial sweeteners and foods sweetened with artificial sweeteners. Why risk it, right?
Sugar in all of its forms contributes to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and several metabolic disorders. This is why it’s so important to be mindful of the amount you’re using on a daily basis. Take on the mindset of ‘a little goes a long way’ and ‘less is more’ when it comes to sugar and even natural sweeteners. When going the natural sweetener 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 sugar is heat stable so it’s great for cooking and baking.
It’s a plus that coconut sugar contains some nutritional benefit compared to table sugar which is void of any nutrients, hence why table sugar is referred to as “empty calories.” However, it is important to note that consuming real, wholesome plant-based foods will provide much more nutrients. It’s best not to rely on sugar of any kind for nutritional benefit, simply think of the additional nutrients as an added bonus.
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 being the lightest syrup and typically used as a traditional syrup. Grade B is darker in color and used 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)
Raw honey is full of polyphenols (plant compounds) that are 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. Unless denoted specifically as raw honey the honey has likely undergone 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 of the honey making raw honey the superior choice.
Raw, organic honey is ideal but know that currently there are no regulations on the processing of organic honey, so if buying organic be sure the processing was limited. You want all of the good stuff in the jar!
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 very sweet and perfect for making baked goods and no-bake sweet treats. Ever heard of date paste? Date paste acts a binder for sweet treats like healthy protein balls and brownie bites. It’s made by soaking pitted dates in extremely hot water until soft. Adding dates to a food process with a few tablespoons of water and blending 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 known as blackstrap molasses. It contains trace amounts of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In fact, it contains more antioxidants than honey and maple syrup. (6)
It can be used for topping and drizzling over your snacks, but the distinct flavor of molasses makes it ideal for cooking, baking, and marinades.
Yacon Syrup (1 Tablespoon = 39 calories)
(Much more research is needed)
This is a fairly “new” natural sweetener 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 breakdown 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 can improve dental health which is why it’s commonly found 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 destress if eaten in large amounts and/or a you’re sensitive to sugar alcohols. So go easy on the amount.
Xylitol is derived from corn and birch wood. Since corn is often genetically modified the better option is the xylitol extracted from birch wood, especially if you’re sensitive to corn. Check the label.
Erythritol (zero calories)
Erythritol is a popular sugar alcohol derived from non-GMO corn and fruit fermentation. Erythritol cooks, looks, tastes, and performs just like sugar, and that’s why this is often a preferred sweetener for baking. It’s also calorie free, has no aftertaste, and will not raise blood glucose and insulin levels. (9)
Even though erythritol is a sugar alcohol, in some it seems to cause fewer GI issues compared to other sugar alcohols. This may be due to the fact that Erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted into the urine instead of going through the colon for excretion.
Monkfruit is a zero calorie, zero carb sweetener and should not affect blood sugar levels. It’s actually been around for centuries. It’s 100x sweeter than table sugar, because it’s so sweet it’s often sold as blend with erythritol to reduce the sweetness. So, if you’re looking for pure monkfruit be sure to read the label.
Since monkfruit is fairly new to the market there aren’t many long-term studies on the safety of monkfruit, but do know it’s been used for years in other parts of the world without any negative side effects reported.
Stevia is a natural sugar extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. While some rave about stevia in all its glory others despise stevia noting a gross after taste. Stevia is super sweet and 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 200x sweeter than regular table sugar.
From what we know today stevia is probably 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 it’s better used as a 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. This suggestion is only if you love maple syrup. It’s great for baking, as well.
Coconut sugar and table sugar is a 1:1 ratio. With the exception of coconut sugar touting 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 & Monkfruit
Just a touch will do you! 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 monkfruit to a cup of joe is zero calories and won’t spike your blood sugar making it a great sugar alternative for diabetics.
The above are some of the healthiest, natural sugar alternatives, while they are healthier than regular table sugar for various reasons, these are best used sparingly. Decide which ones work best for you.. Although these sweeteners are natural, they too have drawbacks like getting a taste of something sweet and in turn increasing cravings for more and more. We don’t want you having those cravings so do your best to use sparingly and even better, not at all if you can.
The added nutritional benefits of these healthy sugar alternatives do NOT compare to the nutritional benefits of real food. The fact that some of these natural sugars have a little bit more nutrition to offer than regular table sugar, does not give the green light to consume more sugar. The amount of sugar you would have to consume to receive the nutritional benefit is not worth negative effects from the sugar. It would be a disservice to yourself. Instead, eat REAL food to maximize your nutritional intake! Ex: Vegetables!
Note: With continued research, we learn more and more about these sweeteners. Above is what we know as right now, but this of course is subject to change as we learn more.