Sugar is the ultimate conundrum for food lovers. On the one hand, you know too much of it isn’t good for you. On the other hand, it just tastes so darn good. If you have a sweet tooth, those truths make maintaining a healthy diet even more challenging.
There are a handful of zero-calorie alternatives for sugar on the market, but while they may not contain calories, they come with their own sets of health risks. That downfall leaves natural sugar alternatives as the last choice standing for those who want to live a healthy lifestyle but still want a bit of sweet goodness in their foods.
Here, we will take a quick look at the differences between raw and refined sugar, why zero-calorie alternatives are not a good option, and six of the best natural sugar alternatives you can incorporate into your diet immediately.
Raw vs. Refined Sugar
There are, indeed, differences between raw and refined sugar. The bad news is, it doesn’t necessarily mean raw sugar is any healthier than the white stuff we all grew up on.
The main difference between the two is in the boiling process. For refined sugar, the cane juice is boiled multiple times in order to remove all of the molasses. Raw sugar, meanwhile, is boiled only once, leaving behind some of the beneficial nutrients contained in molasses.
Nutrients in raw sugar include key ones such as iron, calcium and potassium. The problem, however, is the amount of these nutrients found in raw sugar is so minuscule that it makes no meaningful difference to your overall health.
For example, you would need to ingest seven cups of raw sugar to get the potassium contained in a single medium-sized banana. Raw sugar has the same amount of calories as refined sugar, which is nearly 800 calories per cup. It doesn’t take a math genius to realize it makes no sense to ingest seven cups of sugar to get the nutritional value of one banana.
Unhealthy Sugar Substitutes
You now know that raw sugar offers no tangible health benefits versus refined sugar, so your next thought may be to turn to sugar alternatives. There are some healthy replacements for sugar, but before we get to those, let’s take a quick look at some of the well-known sugar alternatives you should try to stay away from.
Agave nectar is a somewhat trendy alternative for sugar, but it’s one you’ll want to avoid. Manufacturers tend to market the product toward people with diabetes, claiming it has a low glycemic index and won’t cause your blood sugar to rise as much as traditional sugar.
That marketing can be misleading. It’s true that agave nectar has relatively low levels of glucose, but the unfortunate trade-off is that it has extremely high levels of fructose. In fact, in some cases, it has even more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, which can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes, including weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even cancer.
High-fructose corn syrup has been an enemy of health-conscious eaters for years, and unfortunately, agave nectar isn’t much better.
Anyone who has been to a café or diner will instantly recognize the iconic pink packets of Sweet’N Low. Saccharin is the main ingredient in this sugar alternative, and it’s attractive because it contains zero calories and zero carbohydrates. Further, saccharine can be up to 400 times sweeter than traditional sugar, meaning you need to use a lot less to sweeten your food or drinks.
The potential benefits of these properties are obvious. Since saccharin contains zero calories, you would think it could be a way to help keep weight off. Also, the substance doesn’t have the harmful cavity-causing effects on your teeth that sugar can.
In animals, saccharine has been shown to contribute to cancer in a few different organs, including the bladder, ovaries and uterus. Later studies have found that these effects may not apply to humans, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest continues to recommend that people avoid consuming saccharine.
Potential cancer risks aside, saccharine has lost a bit of popularity over the years because while it is sweet, it also tends to have a bitter aftertaste.
Consumers know aspartame better as brand names such as Equal and NutraSweet. Its most attractive feature is it’s a very low-calorie alternative to sugar. It contains four calories per gram, roughly the same as sugar, but it’s 200 times sweeter, meaning you need to use much less to get the same sweetening effect on food or drinks.
The American Cancer Society says that most studies in humans haven’t found a link between aspartame consumption and an increased risk of cancer. That’s a good thing, of course, but there are many other claims that aspartame can cause a number of less serious health problems, including mood changes, dizziness, headaches and digestive issues.
More severe suspicions include links to Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, attention deficit disorder, seizures, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease. That being said, there are no studies that have found conclusive and consistent links between any of these ailments and aspartame consumption. Even still, the fact that it’s a possibility may give many consumers pause before ingesting high amounts of aspartame.
Sucralose, most commonly known by the brand name Splenda, is an artificial sweetener that can be up to 600 times sweeter than traditional sugar. The human body can’t fully break down sucralose, which means it essentially has zero calories.
Among artificial sweeteners, sucralose is the one that tastes the most like real sugar, and with zero calories, that’s a very attractive proposition. There are some recent medical concerns that may give you pause, however.
Studies are ongoing, but a fairly recent one found a significant increase in male mice bearing malignant tumors related to the amount of sucralose they were given. That doesn’t necessarily mean it affects humans in the same way, but it can be hard to want to ingest a substance that you know leads to higher instances of cancer in animals.
Cancer may not be the only risk. There is also evidence that sucralose can lower the amount of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system, which could contribute to obesity and all of its associated risks. Further, sucralose may inhibit the absorption of prescription drugs and release toxic compounds into food when used in baking.
Again, more research is likely needed to fully flesh out how harmful sucralose can be, but it would seem the risks outweigh the benefits.
Healthiest Sugar Alternatives
Hopefully, you have not been scared off after reading some of the potential risks of common sugar alternatives. Don’t fear — it’s now time to turn our attention to some of the healthiest alternatives to sugar.
Stevia comes from a plant that grows in tropical regions of North and South America, and in recent years has become a popular sugar replacement. It’s a natural substance, immediately making it much more attractive than most of the above-mentioned alternatives. Stevia is very low in calories and it’s roughly 40 times sweeter than traditional sugar.
Not only is Stevia a low-calorie sugar alternative, it has a number of health benefits as well. Studies have shown that it can help lower blood pressure, which in turn lowers the risk of ailments such as stroke, heart disease and kidney failure.
There is also evidence that Stevia can lower blood sugar levels, which is particularly helpful for diabetics. It can also help prevent cavities and gingivitis, promote healthier bones, and help prevent cancer. Further, when used on the skin, it can help ease symptoms of eczema and dermatitis.
No food is risk-free, however, and some have complained that Stevia has led to headaches, dizziness and occasional cramping. More research needs to be done, but as it stands, Stevia looks like a sugar alternative that’s not only sweet but offers a handful of health benefits as well.
Just as the name indicates, coconut sugar comes from coconuts and has a texture and flavor that resembles brown sugar. This kind of sugar has the same amount of calories as traditional sugar, so eating large amounts could have the same negative effect on your waistline. However, coconut sugar has a number of health benefits not found in your regular everyday table sugar.
For example, there is evidence that coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, a good thing for diabetics looking to manage blood sugar and insulin levels.
It also has small amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants not found in traditional sugar. The amounts can be minuscule, which limits the health benefits, but a sweetener that contains essential vitamins and minerals is a better option than one that doesn’t.
Finally, because coconut sugar contains insulin, it can promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut, offering a probiotic effect. This benefit can go a long way toward helping with digestive issues.
This isn’t sugar extracted from dates, but rather dried and granulated dates that end up with a brown sugar-like appearance.
Dates are fruits, so they contain a significant amount of natural sugars. In fact, 100 grams of dates contain 63 grams of sugar. That said, date sugar also includes the same nutrients found in dates, such as dietary fiber, Vitamin B-6, iron and calcium. Date sugar is also high in antioxidants, which helps stop or prevent cell damage. Those are all benefits that regular traditional sugar cannot claim.
On the downside, dates do contain fructose. But the health benefits found in dates are a tradeoff not found in other substances laden with fructose, such as agave nectar or high-fructose corn syrup.
Pure Maple Syrup
Maple syrup has a reputation as a topping of choice for foods such as pancakes, waffles and French toast, and the pure version can work well as a natural sugar replacement.
Pure maple syrup has a slightly lower glycemic index than cane sugar, which is better for blood sugar levels. It also has a small amount of antioxidants and minerals that aren’t found in traditional sugar at all. Some of the antioxidants found in pure maple syrup can help lower the risk of heart disease and arthritis.
There is also evidence that pure maple syrup can benefit your skin and complexion, and it’s also better for your digestive system than traditional sugar. Finally, it also has some nutrients that are not found in regular sugar, such as calcium, potassium, manganese and zinc.
For some, the main drawback of pure maple syrup may be its distinct taste. While maple flavor is a good match for some foods, it may not work well with everything.
Raw honey is about as natural as food comes, as it’s made from the nectar of flowers. The key here is not to mistake processed or filtered honey for its raw counterpart, as the raw version offers far more health benefits.
One study showed that compared to sugar, raw honey causes a small reduction in body weight and body fat, and it also reduced cholesterol levels. The researchers concluded that raw natural honey reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and doesn’t contribute to weight gains in those who are already overweight or obese.
Among the many other benefits of raw honey, it can help reduce symptoms of seasonal allergies, provide a boost to your immune system, give you a small boost of natural energy, and has high levels of antioxidants. It can also help you get a healthier night’s sleep, help heal wounds, and help manage diabetes.
In all, the many benefits of raw honey make it one of the best sugar alternative options on this list.
When traditional sugar is refined, the white powdery substance you’re familiar with is only one product. The other is blackstrap molasses. The molasses takes with it the vitamins and minerals that were absorbed by the sugar cane plant, while the sugar does not.
A tablespoon of molasses contains significant amounts of Vitamin B-6, potassium, magnesium, iron and manganese, and it even has a gram of protein. It can help with iron deficiency, give your hair a new glow, and its high amount of nutrients can prevent or help relieve constipation.
Finally, blackstrap molasses can help lower blood pressure and it has the highest level of antioxidant activity of any of the alternatives on this list. If raw honey is the No. 1 option on the list, this is a close second.
Moderation Is Key
It’s common sense that too much sugar is bad for you, but in reality, too much of anything can be bad for you. While the healthy sugar alternatives we listed here offer far more benefits than traditional sugar, consuming them in excess can still lead to bad things.
Still, while often delicious, traditional refined sugar offers no health benefits. The alternatives listed here all do, and when used correctly, they can be just as satisfying.