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The Best Alternatives to Sugar

By EAT SMARTER
Updated on 04. Oct. 2016

In recent years, sugar has become the enemy of healthy bodies. Some have gone as far as calling it toxic, and while there is still a need for ongoing research it is a good idea to try to cut some of the sugar out of your diet.

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This idea of sugar being toxic is not a new one. In fact, a British professor named John Yudkin first presented the idea that sugar is the leading cause of heart disease and obesity over 40 years ago in 1972. At that time, research had come out about the health hazards of saturated fats as the main culprit and Yudkin was completely overshadowed and then ridiculed by his colleagues.

Sugars have no nutritional value, and are simply empty calories. According to the American Heart Association, men should get no more than 150 calories (or 9 teaspoons) from sugar while women should limit themselves to 100 calories (6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day. In comparison, the average American is consuming about 20 teaspoons of added sugar per day, more than three times the recommended intake for women and more than twice for men.

When sugar is consumed, it gets rapidly processed by the body. During this processing, the body produces insulin which helps to transport the sugar into the cells via the bloodstream. When our cells already have the fuel they need to function properly, the extra sugar is carried away and then stored as fat.

There are now many sugar alternative options lining the aisles of grocery stores, but what are they all? And are they actually better than sugar?

Agave nectar is made from the agave plant, a large succulent related to the yucca that grows mostly in Mexico and is used to make tequila, agave nectar, and even rope. Agave nectar (or syrup) was long touted as the sugar alternative for healthy people. It was promoted by celebrities such as Oprah and Dr. Oz as the best choice, but over the last few years the claims of health about agave have come crashing down. Agave is typically 60-97% fructose, which is a fruit sugar. This level of fructose is higher than that of high-fructose corn syrup (55%), which has long been the enemy in the sweetener world. Agave was often suggested as a substitute for HFCS and sugar, when used to sweeten drinks, because it has a low glycemic index and it is so sweet that you do not have to use a lot. However, because it has such high levels fructose, it overwhelms your liver, increases bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, and can cause a rise in the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

Bottom-line: Agave is not a recommended sugar substitute because of its unhealthy levels of fructose.

Honey is made by honey bees, who collect nectar from flowers and bring it back to their hive. The nectar then goes through an evaporation process that turns it into thick, golden honey. The honey is then extracted, strained and packaged by beekeepers. Honey has been used as not only food, but also medicine for thousands of years. Honey is effective in boosting immune health, can be used to keep wounds sterilized, and if you consume local honey it will help to lower the effects of seasonal allergies. You can read more about the medicinal and health uses for honey here [link to honey article]. As a sweetener, honey is one of the best sugar alternatives available. Honey can be used to sweeten baked goods, beverages, and even vegetable or meat dishes. Honey contains trace amounts of nutrients, and only 38% fructose.

Bottom-line: Honey is a great choice as a sugar substitute, it should be avoided by children under the age of 1 year or those with weakened immune systems because it may contain bacterial spores.

A favorite of those in the northeast, maple syrup is another good choice as a sugar substitute. Maple syrup is made when the sap from sugar maple trees is boiled down until it has thickened and is golden in color. It takes about 35-50 gallons of sap, depending on the sugar level of the sap, to make a single gallon of maple syrup, which is why the price is often high for maple syrup. Maple syrup does tend to be high in sugar, and so should be consumed in moderation. There are different grade of maple syrup, which are identified by their sugar levels, quality, color, and flavor.

Bottom-line: Maple sugar is higher in sugar than some other sweeteners on this list, so it should be consumed in moderation, but it still makes a great processed sugar substitute.

Brown rice syrups is thick like HFCS, so it makes a great substitute in situations where you need a binder, such as granola bars. Brown rice syrup is made when cultures are added to cooked brown rice and then heating, reducing and straining it. Brown rice syrup contains trace minerals, but it does have a high glycemic index.

Bottom-line: Brown rice syrup is a good choice when a recipe calls for HFCS, but should be used sparingly since it has a high glycemic index.

Coconut sugar is made from the sap collected from the coconut palm flowers. Like maple syrup, honey, and brown rice syrup, coconut sugar contains trace amounts of nutrients. Coconut sugar also contains inulin, which is a type of fiber that helps to feed the good bacteria found in your digestive system. Coconut sugar has a rich, caramel-like taste and is great for use in baked goods, where it can be used as a substitute for regular or brown sugar. Coconut sugar ranks fairly low on the glycemic index, which means it may be a good choice for diabetics.

Bottom-line: Coconut sugar is a good baking substitute for regular sugar, but it should be consumed in moderation.

Stevia is quickly becoming the darling of the sugar alternatives world. This sweetener is made from a South American plant, and it is said not to spike blood sugar levels. The sweetener, which can be found in powdered or liquid form, is much sweeter than sugar so you can use smaller quantities. It can be used in place of sugar in many type of recipes, but it is not a 1:1 swap, so you will need to do a little bit of math to get it right. There are many different brands of stevia available on the market, it is best to choose the least processed ones and avoid those that contain additives.

Bottom-line: Stevia is a great choice for baking and everyday use, but be sure to stick to a stevia that is as pure as possible.

Xylitol is a type of sugar alcohol, like stevia it does not cause a spike in blood sugar levels. It can be found in many fruits and plants, but in most cases it is extracted from corncobs or wood. Xylitol can cause digestive issues if consumed in large quantities and is extremely toxic for dogs. Xylitol, like stevia, can be used in baking but it can be used in the same quantity as sugar.

Bottom-line: A sugar alcohol, xylitol is a good choice (in mindful quantities) for diabetics to use as a sweetener.

Dates are great, natural substitute for sugar. They can be used in desserts, drinks, and marinades simply by removing the pit and blending them up. You can either purchase date syrup, or you can make it yourself by pureeing dates with hot water. Dates contain good levels of fiber, potassium, magnesium, copper, and other nutrients that make them a nutritious choice for sugar substitution. If you are substituting dates in baked goods, be sure the flavor of the dates will not impede on the flavor of the finished product.

Bottom-line: Dates can be used in a variety of ways to substitute sugar, such as homemade almond milk or cakes. They are a great unprocessed sweetener option.


There are a lot of options out there for substituting traditional sugar in recipes. Choosing the right one comes down to what you will be making and if you have certain health concerns. In general, all of these sweeteners should be consumed carefully and in moderation, as they are still sugar afterall.

  1. “Sugar 101.” American Heart Association. American Heart Association, Inc., 19 Nov. 2014. Web.
  2. “Frequently Asked Questions about Sugar.” American Heart Association. American Heart Association, Inc., 19 May 2014. Web.
  3. Hamblin, James. “Being Happy with Sugar.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 5 June 2014. Web.

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