Sugar, sugar, everywhere. Sometimes it can really seem that way, and we could likely all benefit from less of the white stuff in our diets. If you’re looking for more nutritious ways to sweeten your life, we’ve got good news for you: there are plenty of alternatives to refined sugar that are not only delicious, but even bring some healthy qualities to the table.
And then of course, there’s this hard truth: sugar is sugar is sugar. Whether you’re using organic sugar-in-the-raw or honey or maple syrup, the sweet stuff is still a super concentrated source of energy that your body may not need.
Regardless of the source, sugar hits your blood stream in more or less the same way and triggers biological mechanisms put in place to deal with incoming calories, such as the release of the hormone insulin. And in the case of low and no-calorie sweeteners, simply the taste of sweetness in the mouth is enough to spark a brain-body reaction to sweetness called the cephalic phase response that starts with receptors on the tongue.
It’s a good thing to keep in mind then, that no matter the source of your sweetener it’s always best to consume these things in moderation. There’s no magic bullet, and it something seems too good to be true it probably is! Below, I’ve ranked natural sugar substitutes from best to worst.
Honey is a beautiful natural sweetener which has been used for thousands of years as a food, medicine, and athletic fuel among other things. Known to have antifungal and antioxidant properties, honey also may contain some vitamins and trace elements such as zinc and selenium, depending on where the bees picked up the pollen.
And since honey doesn’t require any preservatives or other additives, it’s pretty special stuff! But let’s not forget that honey is still mostly sugar: about 30 percent glucose and 40 percent fructose, plus several other more complex sugars in the mix.
This liquid gold made from the sap of maple trees begins by tapping the tree, which allows clear and nearly tasteless sap to run out freely. The sap is then boiled and evaporated to produce syrup with the characteristic amber color of maple syrup and a sugar content of about 60%. Like honey, maple syrup is rich in antioxidant minerals such as manganese and zinc, which can contribute to a healthy immune system.
Made from the sap of the coconut palm, coconut sugar provides the same calories as regular cane sugar. However, coconut sugar is around 75% sucrose and only about 5% fructose (table sugar is about 50/50). Coconut sugar also ranks lower on the glycemic index than other forms of sugar do, which means blood sugar levels may remain more stable.
Agave nectar or agave syrup comes from the agave plant; yes, the same one that is used to make tequila. Agave nectar is made from the starchy root of the agave plant, which is very high in the oligosaccharide inulin (mainly fructose), which is then converted in to a “syrup” through a chemical process.
Agave was once the golden child of healthy sweeteners but has since fallen from grace due to its extremely high fructose content–which can be upwards of 70% (for comparison’s sake, high fructose corn syrup contains about 55% fructose) and while fructose doesn’t affect the blood sugar in the same way as glucose does, it can contribute to insulin resistance and other health issues.
Dates are wonderful things! They truly are nature’s candy; they’re sweet and caramelly, and they are absolutely packed with sugar. 100g dates contains roughly 265 calories, about 90% of which is sugar, mostly in the form of glucose and fructose. In their whole form dates are especially rich in soluble fiber, which is the kind that helps maintain healthy blood cholesterol and stabilize blood sugar levels.
If your date syrup is simply whole dates and water cooked down, some of this dietary fiber will be retained. But the sugar content will also be concentrated in comparison to whole dates. Dates are also rich in a host of different vitamins and minerals.
Here’s the bottom line: Overall there isn’t a whole lot of difference between white table sugar and any of the natural sugars I’ve mentioned above. To the body they are all sugar that will be converted to glucose for metabolic fuel. And while honey and maple syrup may contain some nutrients, calorie for calorie they’re a very poor source of nutrients when compared to eating whole foods like fruits and vegetables.
So while these natural and unrefined sugars are indeed nutritionally superior to refined white sugar, they are definitely not health foods. They’re fine consumed in moderation, as most things are.
And if sugar is sugar is sugar, how about the zero-calorie sweeteners you’ve seen at the health food store?
Stevia is a plant native to South America that has been traditionally used since the 16th century by crushing the leaves to sweeten tea and medicine. What we know as stevia today are sweet tasting compounds called steviol glycosides extracted from the stevia leaf, which are over 200 times sweeter than an equal weight of table sugar.
Stevia is considered a zero-calorie sweetener because at the quantities typically used it is all but free from calories. Unlike zero-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, stevia is derived from a plant, which means that it can be marketed as natural, although there are some who will only consider whole-leaf stevia as the natural option.
Another zero-calorie sweetener being touted as all natural is Swerve, a sweetening agent made from erythritol, a type of sugar alcohol naturally found in plants, and oligosaccharides, which are non-digestible carbohydrates. The big selling point of Swerve, apart from being derived from natural sources, is that it can be used as a sugar replacement in equal portions, so there is no complicated recipe calculation needed when swapping Swerve for sugar.
To its credit, Swerve does appear to be made from the most natural forms of each ingredient it contains, and is completely free from GMO ingredients. However, despite being derived from natural ingredients, Swerve, like steviol glycosides, is still most definitely a laboratory creation. If you’re sensitive to FODMAPs (which include some oligosaccharides), you may want to avoid Swerve.
For those who need or prefer zero-calorie sweeteners, it’s great that there are naturally-derived options like stevia or Swerve available. By all accounts they are far and away better than artificial sweeteners.
I do think though, aside from whole-leaf stevia which is quite obviously natural, that labeling these sweeteners as all natural is a bit of a slippery slope. I always cringe a bit whenever I see someone eating low calorie treats with wild abandon just because they’ve been made with one of those sweeteners. If you want to use stevia or Swerve, my advice is to use it in moderation just as you would with any other natural sweetener such as honey, maple syrup, or good old-fashioned cane sugar.5