The next time that you want to add a touch of sweetness to your favorite food or drink, you may want to carefully consider the sweetener you use.
Most Americans consume far too much added sugar in the form of refined sweeteners like white sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). These sweeteners are often added to sweetened beverages, sugary cereals, sweet snacks, and desserts.
Although sweets taste delicious, eating too much added sugar may take a toll on your health.
For example, diets high in added sugar are strongly linked to medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver disease.
While it’s perfectly healthy to enjoy foods that contain a small amount of added sugar on occasion, keeping your total sugar intake to a minimum may help reduce your risk of these conditions and improve your health in other ways.
If you want to cut your intake of common refined sweeteners like white sugar and HFCS, there are many alternatives to choose from. Some of these even contain zero or very few calories.
Here are 10 alternatives to refined sugar.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that’s derived from the leaves of the South American shrub Stevia rebaudiana.
This plant-based sweetener can be extracted from one of two compounds called glycosides — stevioside and rebaudioside A. These compounds don’t contain any calories, are up to 450 times sweeter than sugar, and may taste slightly different than sugar.
Human and animal research indicates that replacing sugar with stevia may help prevent weight gain and reduce blood sugar levels.
While stevia is considered generally safe, some studies suggest that it may harm your gut microbiome. Overall, more research is needed.
2. Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a type of carbohydrate naturally found in fruits and vegetables.
Popular sugar alcohols used as sugar alternatives include erythritol, xylitol, and maltitol.
The bacteria in your mouth don’t ferment sugar alcohols, so they don’t damage your teeth the way that regular sugar does. Plus, they have substantially fewer calories and don’t significantly affect blood sugar levels, making them a smart alternative for those with diabetes.
Erythritol contains just 0.2 calories per gram, while xylitol provides 2.4 calories per gram. For reference, sucrose — or table sugar — packs 4 calories per gram.
Although sugar alcohols are considered generally safe, some may cause digestive upset when eaten in large amounts.
For example, sorbitol may trigger laxative effects in doses of 20–50 grams, while erythritol may cause stomach upset if you eat over 455 mg per pound (1,000 mg per kg) of body weight.
Finally, xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. If you live with a dog, you may want to keep xylitol out of reach or avoid it completely.
3. Monk fruit sweetener
Monk fruit extract is obtained from the Siraitia grosvenorii plant, which is native to China.
Even though monk fruit is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar, it doesn’t contain any calories. This sweetness comes from compounds called mogrosides, primarily mogroside V.
Because monk fruit doesn’t have any calories or affect blood sugar levels, it may promote weight loss and improve blood sugar levels if used in place of regular sugar. However, there’s currently a lack of human studies on this sweetener.
Keep in mind that monk fruit extract is often mixed with other sweeteners, so be sure to read the label before consuming it.
Allulose, also known as D-allulose, is a monosaccharide (or sugar) that exists naturally in certain fruits.
It has 70% of the sweetness of table sugar and provides just 0.2 calories per gram.
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Unlike many other zero-calorie and low-calorie sweeteners, allulose closely mimics the taste of regular sugar.
Plus — while more research is needed — human studies suggest that allulose may help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels in people with and without diabetes.
Keep in mind that large doses may lead to symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, so you should stick to a maximum single dose of 0.19 grams per pound (0.4 grams per kg) of body weight and a maximum daily dose of 0.4 grams per pound (0.9 grams per kg).
Summary: Stevia, monk fruit, certain sugar alcohols, and allulose are much lower in calories than table sugar and do not significantly affect blood sugar levels, making them a smart alternative to refined sugar.
Dates are the dried fruits of the date palm tree. These sweet, chewy fruits are an excellent alternative to refined sugar and offer several health benefits.
Unlike refined sugar and many other sweeteners, dates are a good source of nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6, carotenoid, and polyphenol antioxidants.
Because of their sweet taste, you can use dates in place of sugar in recipes for energy bars, cakes, and cookies. Furthermore, you can blend them to flavor homemade nut milk and smoothies.
Some people make dates into a thick paste, which can be used as a 1-to-1 replacement for refined sugar.
Dates are high in calories and natural sugars, but studies note that they don’t significantly affect blood sugar levels like table sugar does, even among people with diabetes.
In a 16-week study of 100 people with type 2 diabetes, one group ate 3 dates daily while the other ate none. The group who ate dates had significant reductions in total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, while their HbA1c — a marker of long-term blood sugar control — remained unchanged.
6. Applesauce and other fruit purées
Replacing sugar with applesauce — or purées of other fruits like bananas — is an excellent way to reduce your refined sugar intake. Consider this swap in recipes for cakes, cookies, muffins, and bread.
Suggested read: What are sugar alcohols, and are they a healthy sugar swap?
All fruits offer health benefits due to their nutrients. For example, mashed bananas are high in folate, manganese, magnesium, and vitamins B6 and C.
Unlike refined sugar, fruit is generally linked to a variety of health benefits, including a reduced risk of chronic disease and a lower risk of death from all causes.
If you buy applesauce or other fruit purées from the store, be sure to select unsweetened products with no added sugar.
7. Yacon syrup
Yacon syrup is extracted from the yacon plant (Smallanthus sonchifolius), which is native to South America. Its sweet taste, dark color, and thick consistency make it somewhat comparable to molasses.
This product is rich in fructooligosaccharides, a type of sugar molecule that your body can’t digest. Because these sugar molecules are undigested, yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar or about 1.3 calories per gram.
However, yacon syrup is less sweet than table sugar, so you may need more to match the sweetness of refined sugar.
The fructooligosaccharides in yacon syrup may offer health benefits. For example, these compounds act as prebiotics, which helps feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. Plus, some research suggests that yacon syrup may increase feelings of fullness.
Nonetheless, studies are limited.
Plus, eating large amounts — over 20 grams per day — may result in excessive gas, diarrhea, and stomach pain.
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honeybees. It contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as an abundance of plant compounds that provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.
Yet, the types of plant compounds in honey depend on many factors, including the type of bee that produced the honey and the type of flower the bee was feeding on.
Honey compounds, such as honey polyphenols, may help modulate inflammation in your body. Honey also has a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) than table sugar. These qualities may make it healthier than refined sugar.
However, research on these benefits is limited.
If you choose to use honey, do so in moderation, as it’s still high in sugar and calories.
9. Maple syrup
Maple syrup is a thick, sugary liquid that’s made by cooking the sap of maple trees.
It contains a small amount of minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese. Plus, it’s rich in phenolic compounds like lignans and coumarins that may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Despite having some beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, maple syrup is still very high in sugar. It has a slightly lower GI than regular sugar, but — like any sweetener — should be used in moderation.
Molasses is a sweet, brown liquid with a thick, syrup-like consistency. It’s made from boiling sugar cane or sugar beet juice.
It contains a handful of vitamins and minerals, as well as several antioxidants. Furthermore, it’s a good source of the minerals iron, potassium, and calcium, which are important for many aspects of health.
Overall, molasses makes a fine replacement for refined sugar, but you should limit your intake because it’s still a form of sugar.
Summary: You can use dates, fruit purées, yacon syrup, honey, and maple syrup as alternatives to sugar. Although these sweeteners may offer limited health benefits compared with refined sweeteners, any sweetener should be used sparingly.
Why you should lower your added sugar intake
It’s good to bear in mind that eating too much added sugar may harm both your physical and mental health.
For example, diets high in sugar are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver.
What’s more, people whose diets are high in added sugar have a greater risk of depression than those whose diets are low in it.
A sugary diet may also damage your oral health by feeding the harmful bacteria in your mouth, increasing your risk of cavities and gum disease.
All the same, you don’t have to avoid added sugar at all costs.
Instead, make an effort to follow a healthier diet, only eating foods high in added sugar sparingly. A balanced diet that consists mostly of whole, nutrient-dense foods — especially vegetables and fruits — provides the nutrients that your body needs for optimal health.
Summary: Given that a high sugar diet may harm your physical and mental health, it’s best to minimize your added sugar intake. However, don’t be afraid to occasionally enjoy treats that contain added sugar as part of a well-rounded diet.
High sugar diets are linked to an increased risk of disease and may impair your health.
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Thus, replacing refined sugar with some of the sweeteners on this list may help you cut back your intake.
Still, instead of focusing on one ingredient like sugar, you should pay more attention to your diet as a whole. For optimal health, it’s best to eat mostly whole, nutritious foods like fruits, veggies, nuts, beans, and fish, enjoying sugary foods sparingly.