We all know that sugar is bad, in fact, the research and evidence prove it! High-sugar diets are linked to serious and damaging health risks that include obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even tooth decay. In a perfect world, quitting sugar would be easy... but we don't live in that world and the truth is most people struggle with doing so. Unfortunately, the best strategy isn't to quit sugar altogether, instead, it's best to learn how to reduce your sugar intake. Learning different ways to cut back on sugar will help train your body to crave less of it. However, it's best to be prepared when cravings kick in when your will is low to avoid splurging too much on added sugars and causing a mess in your gut! When your cravings are in high drive consider a healthy food swap, meaning, create what your sweet tooth is craving at home using sugar substitutes that are healthy. But navigating the world of sugar is tricky... there are so many names for sugar it can be hard to determine which ones are good and which ones are bad.
There are three sugar substitutes you can choose from - artificial sweeteners and natural sugar alternatives, and sugar alcohols. Which ones are bad? And which ones are good? If you don't know the answer, don't worry, we're going to help clear up that confusion and give you a list of the best and healthy sugar alternatives!
Natural vs Added Sugars
Natural sugars, as you may have guessed, are the ones found in whole foods like fruits! Fruit, like bananas and strawberries, naturally contains fructose. Other natural sugars are glucose, sucrose, and one you may have not known is lactose! These natural sugars have fewer calories than sugars that go through a refining process, also known as refined sugars. Unlike their counterpart, foods containing naturally occurring sugars tend to have fewer calories, lower sodium content, high water content and contain vital nutrients your body needs. These sugars are ok in moderation because they have little effect on blood sugar levels due to the low glycemic index. A glycemic index is a rating system for foods that contain carbohydrates, it's meant to show you how quickly each food affects your blood sugar (glucose) levels. So, the lower the glycemic index, the slower the blood sugar rises after eating that food - which is ideally what you want.
The sugars to be concerned about are added sugars, typically found in soda or baked goods. Added sugars are so bad that the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) issued a limit on them to its dietary guideline and advice to cut sugar consumption to no more than 10% of overall calories due to the negative health effects it can create if overconsumed.  Consuming high amounts of refined and/or added sugars found in common foods have been linked to weight gain, obesity, and can even lead to type 2 diabetes due to increasing the risk of insulin resistance.  Not only that, but it can wreak havoc in your gut, and an unhealthy gut can lead to a number of other health problems! This is why it's best to keep your intake of added sugars to a minimum.
So, what are these sugars?
They are any sugar that gets added to a food, could be by you, a food manufacturer, or the chef preparing your meals. Added sugars are commonly found in processed and manufactured foods, including high fructose corn syrup found in various common condiments, bread, and even salad dressing. These types of sugars are often used in processed foods to increase the shelf life of products and improve flavor and texture. They're also typically nutrient-poor and are just designed to be digested quickly which can cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels.
How to identify added sugars on an ingredient list
Added sugars are not something you want to eat regularly. Although they are okay in moderation, it's best to reduce your intake greatly or find better sugar substitutes in place of them. The thing is, they're not as easy to spot as you may think. Added sugars are found in the usual foods you'd think - candy, cake, cookies, ice cream, etc. But they're also found in foods like instant oatmeal, sauces, protein bars, dried fruit, cereal, ketchup, and so many more! Luckily, a quick look at the nutrition label will show you how many added sugars were used in the given product. Just look underneath "total sugars".
It can still be tricky finding them, considering the various different names for sugar! So to help, look out for these when looking at the ingredients list:
- Brown sugar
- Cane juice
- Cane sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Rice syrup
- Barley malt
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Honey (processed and filtered)
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Pancake syrup
- Raw sugar
- Sugar molecules: anhydrous or crystal dextrose, fructose, liquid fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose
- Turbinado sugar
Healthy Sugar Alternatives
Do you need to avoid the sugars mentioned above all the time? No, but just reduce your intake of them and try to avoid products with any of those listed high on the ingredients list. If they're at the top of the list that means the product you're looking at contains a lot of sugar. Instead, consider purchasing other products using sugar alternatives or create your own recipe for that product at home! Fortunately, these alternatives can be easily found at any health and grocery store, but it's best to know about them before buying because some are better than others.
There are three main types of sugar substitutes...
- Artificial sweeteners: These are synthetic sugar substitutes commonly found in diet sodas or foods labeled as "sugar-free" They are often sweeter than actual white sugar, but are low-calorie and allow you to enjoy your old favorites guilt-free. However, they do have a bit of a bad reputation and have been known to spark even more cravings, so just be extra careful with foods labeled as "diet" or "sugar-free". They have been cleared as safe to consume by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it's best to not have too much. Common artificial sweeteners found in foods are saccharin (Sweet'n Low), acesulfame potassium (Sunett or Sweet One), aspartame (Equal), neotame (Nutrasweet), and sucralose (Splenda).
- Natural sweeteners: As you may have guessed, come from natural sources like fruits and contain small traces of antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins. This is why they're touted as a healthier sugar substitute than others, but to be clear, some often undergo processing and refining. Common natural sweeteners include agave nectar, coconut sugar, dates, maple syrup, molasses, monk fruit, raw honey, and stevia.
- Sugar alcohols: These are actually considered to be natural sweeteners because they come from carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables. We put them in a separate category because they are man-made to be added to processed foods. Unlike artificial sweeteners, they're not that sweet and do contain calories. But they still contain fewer calories than white sugar which makes them a good alternative. The downside to these is that they can cause digestive issues like gas and bloat, so it's best to consume them in small amounts. Common sugar alcohols include erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol.
Now that you understand the difference between the three sugar substitutes, which ones are the best?
This sugar is considered to be natural since it is made from the sap of the coconut palm. It's extracted and boiled to be produced into brown granulated sugar. It's considered to be a healthier alternative to regular sugar because it contains inulin (a type of fiber) which slows glucose absorption, making it a lower glycemic index than other highly processed sugars.
It's ideal for baking because it can be substituted one-for-one with white sugar! Other reasons to love and include it in your pantry...
- Tastes similar to brown sugar.
- Has higher levels of zinc, calcium, and iron than in regular granular sugar.
- Considered to be an unrefined sugar.
- Contains potassium, antioxidants, and other nutrients.
This is the preferred sugar alcohol because it has .24 calories per gram, compared to sugar which has 4 calories per gram. In large amounts, it can cause bloating so be mindful about how much you consume, but most don't reach the level that brings those troubles!
It makes for a great alternative used in baking, but here are other reasons you might love it...
- It does not spike insulin or blood sugar.
- Not as sweet as refined sugar, typically 40% less sweet.
- Can be used as a 1:1 ratio to sugar when baking.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
A great, underrated natural sweetener is known as monk fruit extract! Monk fruit is also known as "Buddha fruit", a small fruit that is grown in Southeast Asia. The fruit is crushed to collect the juice and then dried into a concentrated powder. It contains natural sugars, fructose, and glucose, but it gets its sweet taste from mogrosides, an antioxidant. In fact, it's nearly 300 times sweeter than regular sugar despite it being a zero-calorie sweetener. But don't worry, it's considered safe to consume and has no harmful side effects according to the FDA.
Other reasons to love monk fruit are...
- The antioxidant mogrosides have anti-inflammatory benefits.
- You don't need to use as much since it's much sweeter than sugar (consider starting with a 1/3 cup for one cup of sugar).
- Compared to the usual sucrose-sweetened drinks, studies have found that monk fruit sweetened drinks have a lower effect on daily calorie intake, blood glucose levels, and insulin levels.
Pure maple syrup
All-natural, pure maple syrup may come as a surprise... It contains 24 antioxidants and other important nutrients, including potassium, manganese, and iron. It also has a low glycemic index score and makes for a delicious sugar substitute!
Here are other reasons you might love it:
- Helps with digestion.
- Has a 1:1 ratio to any liquid sweetener and honey.
- Ideal replacement for vegans who don't consume raw honey.
- When used in baking, it doesn't break down and maintains its nutritional value.
If you don't know, raw honey is a nutritional powerhouse! When in its raw form, honey contains royal jelly, beeswax, pollen, propolis (has anti-inflammatory and infection-fighting properties), amino acids, and enzymes. But if you want to ensure you get all the good stuff to reap from its health benefits, then buy raw honey, meaning not pasteurize or filtered.
Besides it being sweet and tasty, here are other reasons to use it as a sugar substitute:
- Can be used in baking or cooking, as long as it doesn't need to be heated too high (to keep as many nutrients as possible).
- Has a 1:1 ratio to any liquid sweetener, including maple syrup.
- Makes a great topping to spruce up plain yogurt, fruits, and even veggies.
This sugar substitute is highly loved for its versatility and the fact that it has zero calories and doesn't cause an insulin spike! Stevia is considered to be natural because it originates from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana.
Here are more facts about stevia before you add it to your pantry:
- Some, not all, companies highly process the stevia plant, so be wary about the brand you purchase from.
- It's 200x sweeter than table sugar.
- Contains antioxidants, including kaempferol.
- Comes in powder and liquid for making it ideal for drinks, baking, oats, or any other dishes that need a hint of sweetness.
Actual, whole foods
We saved the best for last... The best healthy sugar alternative is using actual whole foods!! Sweeten up your favorite dishes or baked goods by replacing sugar with fruits and vegetables. There are various to choose from, but here are some of the best ones you can try:
- Apples or applesauce: Apples are not only delicious but also nutrient-dense. And the best thing about them is that they can be easily added to baking recipes! Applesauce works as a substitution for both oil and butter at a 1:1 ratio while adding sweetness at the same time!
- Bananas: This fruit is high in potassium and is linked to improving digestive and heart health, but best of all, it makes for a great sugar substitute! It can be added to protein smoothies, pancakes, oatmeal, and pretty much any healthy baking recipe!
- Dates: This is probably one of the best alternatives to sugar because of all the nutrients it contains! Dates contain minerals, vitamins, are high in fiber, and have a rich, caramel taste. It can be made into date paste, chopped, and added to baking, oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt.
- Sweet potatoes: Sweet potatoes are complex carbohydrates that are packed with fiber and nutrients. This isn't as sweet as the others, but it makes a great replacement for sugar in brownies, cakes, and muffins. It also works well in oatmeal, smoothies, and pancakes.
Just remember, it’s best to use and consume any sugar, natural or artificial, in moderation. Although these healthy sugar substitutes are better than the real thing, you should still be mindful about how much you eat. Instead, use this as a way to discover new and healthier alternatives to your favorite foods, and find better cooking and baking recipes that align with your goals, and maintain your body in healthy shape!
Want more healthy baking substitutes? We got you covered with a list of our favorite substitutes that will help you bake healthier at home!