When my clients come in wanting to reduce their intake of added sugars, they pepper me with a barrage of questions about sugar substitutes: Which one is the best? The worst? How much is too much? And I don’t blame them: A sweet tooth is a very real thing!
The answer to their questions, however, is a bit complicated.
First things first: Do you even need a sugar substitute?
If sugar is something that only very occasionally finds its way into your life and in small doses (meaning, it’s not routinely sneaking its way in through “healthy” cereals, sweetened yogurt, condiments, processed foods, and the like), there are way more significant things to feel guilty or stress about. If the bulk of your diet is composed primarily of whole, unprocessed foods without added sweeteners, a small serving of a sugary treat once in a great while might actually help you stay on track for the long haul by preventing you from feeling deprived (think: a slice of worth-it birthday cake or a scoop of gelato from that place in Italy you’ll remember forever).
For more day-to-day desires for a taste of something sweet, I generally recommend sticking to what you like the most and will feel truly satisfied with a smaller amount of. One thing to keep in mind? When it comes to sweetness, the more you have, the more you tend to want, so training your taste buds to crave a higher level of sweetness on the regular can make it harder to feel satisfied with naturally sweet foods.
Confession time: Like many ’80s babies, I basically came out of the womb drinking diet soda and stirring skim milk and artificial sweetener into my coffee. I also ate “lite” yogurt well into my early 20s (I know, I know). Sugary desserts, frozen yogurt, candy, and granola bars were also a regular part of my week. In 2010, though, I decided to give up the soda and swapped in seltzer. Within a few weeks, I couldn’t stand anything in my coffee, either. For the first time in my life, foods began to taste too sweet. It was like my sweet tooth had fallen out! That experience had a lot to do with why I focus now on helping my clients address the underlying craving rather than simply trying to swap in substitutes.
That said, there are definitely healthier alternatives to white sugar. Here are a few questions to ask yourself when choosing one:
What am I hoping to get from this sugar substitute?
Are you looking for something that provides fewer calories or that you’ll be able to use less of? Is it more about having a less processed sweetener? Are you looking for something that might offer some health benefits along with that sweetness?
What am I going to use this sugar substitute for?
Some recipes do better with some forms of sweetener over others. For example, the texture of baked goods can have a lot to do with the ratio of wet to dry ingredients. In a beverage, you may be looking for something that dissolves easily in liquid. Consider the sorts of things you might be mixing that sweetener with or into—yogurt, sauces, marinades?
Also, know that you can use regular sugar for nonfood things, too. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but a company once sent me a giant bag of sugar to sample…and I used it to make a foot scrub. That probably wasn’t what they’d had in mind, but my feet felt so refreshed and exfoliated! Seriously, if you have sugar lying around, mix it with olive or coconut oil and your favorite essential oil, and enjoy a luxurious DIY spa treatment.
A few nutritional basics to consider.
One teaspoon of sugar provides around 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates (as sucrose). There aren’t really any nutrients in white sugar to speak of.
A question I get a lot is whether brown sugar is better than white, but brown sugar is just white sugar mixed with molasses, resulting in a darker color and richer flavor—but no greater health benefits.
Organic sugar isn’t a whole lot better, either. It’s grown without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides or fertilizers. It’s also processed differently from conventional sugar and may be a light brown color because it retains some of its original molasses content, which is processed out in conventional white sugar.
So what are the best natural sugar substitutes?
Honey is my top pick for its versatility, long shelf life, and extensive history as a medicinal food that has been studied for its phytochemical, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties.
You’ll get about 20 calories in each teaspoon, and because it is so sweet, you can often get away with using less. If you’re swapping honey into a recipe for sugar, halve the amount it says to use. It also works great in sauces and drinks.
If you’re adding honey to a cup of tea (or coffee—it sounds weird, but it’s great!) or using it as a topping for a yogurt parfait, use a spoon or even a measuring spoon to make sure you’re getting portions in check and not using too much.
Maple syrup is hands-down my personal favorite in terms of flavor. Made from the sap of maple trees, maple syrup can be found in Grades A and B. Grade A can be light, medium, or dark amber, and Grade B is the darkest variety. The darker varieties have a stronger maple flavor, so take that into consideration when deciding what to use it for.
Studies have shown that it also has antioxidant phenolic compounds and may have potential health benefits. While ladling it on in mass quantities would counteract those benefits, if you’re deciding between maple syrup and table sugar, try the maple syrup. It also has a lower glycemic index score (54) than sugar. You’ll also get a tiny bit of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, manganese, potassium, and zinc in each teaspoon.
I love to drizzle a half-teaspoon of maple syrup on plain yogurt or a bowl of oatmeal. It also blends easily into sauces and marinades, and you can use it to sweeten homemade granola. Want to play mixologist? Try it in a cocktail.
Agave nectar is made from the Agave tequiliana (tequila) plant. It’s about 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar. While agave nectar originally gained popularity when it was introduced to the U.S. market because of its lower glycemic index (GI) score (the measure of how quickly a food raises your blood sugar) compared to sugar, it also drew criticism because the refining process used to make it and the high fructose content were so similar to high-fructose corn syrup.
Coconut sugar has gained popularity recently as a less processed alternative. It’s made from sap from the coconut palm tree and results in a brown color that’s similar to raw sugar but with a finer particle. Calorically, it’s virtually the same as white sugar, and while it does have small amounts of vitamins and minerals from the coconut palm plant, you’d need to eat so much of it to get a substantial amount, and the impact of the sugar negates any potential awesomeness.
Stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and is popular as a calorie-free alternative to sugar. Stevia-based sweeteners are derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) Bertoni, a plant found in parts of South America. In the United States, certain refined stevia products are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though use of the stevia leaf and crude extracts are not approved, due to safety concerns.
While the initial sweet taste is hard to ignore, many consumers complain about a bitter aftertaste. In recent months, you’ve possibly noticed more products with “stevia-free” on the label—this is because many companies are working to address consumer complaints about that aftertaste.
Monk fruit extract has also become popular as a nonnutritive sweetener. Grown primarily in Southeast Asia, monk fruit is a small green gourd that resembles a melon. Because its juice is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, a very small amount provides a lot of sweetness, so it can be considered a low-calorie food, with less than a calorie per serving.
In the United States, sweeteners made from monk fruit are classified by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS. You can find it in liquid, granule, or powder form. While many consumers love the sweet taste, one downside is that it has a very strong fruity taste, and some find it has a distinct aftertaste.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol usually sourced from corncobs or birch trees with a granular structure and a sweetness similar to sugar that has gained popularity as an alternative to aspartame in things like chewing gum and low-calorie beverages. It’s an OK alternative, but some of my clients find that it irritates their gut, and it can have a laxative effect when consumed in large quantities (so go slow if your stomach is sensitive!).
Overall, you need to pick the sugar alternative that’s right for you.
Addressing the underlying reasons for sugar cravings and learning to experience naturally present sweetness in food can help support big-picture wellness for the long term. Shorter term, when you’re looking for a healthier alternative to sugar, there are tons of options out there, and it can be overwhelming when trying to figure out which one to have.
As a general rule of thumb, choose what you enjoy the most and will be able to feel satisfied with a smaller amount of. Think about how you plan to use that sugar substitute—it’s OK to have a few go-to’s for different uses. It’s all about having a positive experience and feeling great.