Are Sugar Alternatives Healthier? Here's a Breakdown

October 21, 2015
by Dana Poblete for Thrive Market
Are Sugar Alternatives Healthier? Here's a Breakdown

Dropping a teaspoon or two of raw sugar into a morning cup of coffee is a healthier move than taking a spoonful of white sugar, right? Well, not exactly. Okay, coconut sugar then. Try again.

The truth is, white table sugar and other natural sugars including coconut, honey, and maple sugar can all spike blood sugar and turn into fat when eaten excessively. However, some natural sugars are less processed, so if adding sweetener is a must, certain types are definitely safer than others. Nutritionally, while natural sugars can contain some nutrients, the amounts are typically negligible compared to whole food sources. (The body does need glycogen from sugar, but fruit is a better source than the white stuff since it contains fiber.)

Moderation is key when dealing with sugar in general. We break down 10 types of sweeteners—what they are, if you should worry about them, and how to use them. Check out the surprising sugar alternative that actually is healthier than most sweeteners—and a “sugar” that’s packed with antioxidants.

Stevia

What is it?

Stevia is a no-calorie, natural sweetener extracted from the stevia plant.

What's the concern?

It's considered fine in moderation. A 2010 study in the journal Appetite found that people who ate a meal made with stevia had lower blood sugar than when eating a meal made with sugar, as well as lower insulin levels than eating a meal made with artificial sweeteners. It doesn't contribute calories or carbohydrates to the diet, and isn’t a concern for weight gain. It doesn’t affect blood glucose or insulin response either, so it’s safe for people with diabetes. However, while stevia can help lower blood pressure, people on blood pressure medication may risk a dangerous dip in blood pressure levels from consuming this sugar alternative.

How to use it?

Go for pure, organic stevia without artificial ingredients. It’s 200 times sweeter than sugar so use it sparingly. One packet is equivalent to about two teaspoons of regular sugar. Use it primarily in beverages or sprinkled over fruit or cereal; it’s not a practical substitute in baking since the disparity between its sweetness compared to that of sugar makes the ratios difficult to master.

Refined white sugar

What is it?

This is pure, unadulterated table sugar we all know and love—crystallized sucrose extracted from either sugarcane or sugar beets and then bleached.

What's the concern?

Sugar, natural or processed, including the refined white stuff, causes a spike in insulin. Too much sugar can cause the body to store it as fat instead of use it for fuel. It’s also addictive, which can lead to excessive consumption that contributes to a higher risk of diabetes, overweight, obesity, and chronic diseases.

How to use it?

It’s a classic ingredient in baking and pretty much every other scenario that calls for sweetening, but be open to considering other sugar alternatives. Otherwise, opt for the organic version.

Refined brown sugar

What is it?

Although it contains slightly more nutrients than white sugar, it’s basically the same thing, only with molasses added back to it after the refining process.

What's the concern?

Overeating brown sugar poses the same risks as white sugar. Eat in moderation to limit risk of weight gain, diabetes, obesity, and chronic diseases.

How to use it?

Opt for organic and use interchangeably with white sugar.

Turbinado sugar

What is it?

Also known as raw sugar or Sugar In The Raw, turbinado is still refined sucrose, although less processed, and still contains some of its natural molasses.

What's the concern?

Overeating turbinado sugar poses the same risks as white sugar, so eat this in moderation as well.

How to use it?

Use interchangeably with white sugar.

Coconut sugar

What is it?

Also known as coconut palm sugar, it’s a natural sweetener made from the sap of coconut trees, with a similar look, texture, and taste to brown sugar.

What's the concern?

Coconut sugar is somewhat healthier than white sugarespecially considering it's less processed. However, it still provides just as many calories and carbohydrates and also still contains quite a bit of fructose, which can elevate blood pressure, triglycerides, and LDL (bad cholesterol), and raise insulin resistance and obesity risk if eaten in excess.

How to use it?

Sub in for regular sugar at a 1:1 ratio to make recipes Paleo.

Coconut nectar

What is it?

Also derived from the sap of the coconut tree, coconut nectar is similar to syrup, but with a coconutty, earthy, sweet taste.

What's the concern?

Raw coconut nectar has less fructose and can contain some amino acids—both good things. But again, sorry to keep drilling this point, but it's still sugar and should be consumed in moderation as well.

How to use it?

Use it as a sweetening syrup to add to yogurt, pancakes, waffles, raw and vegan desserts, and beverages.

Agave

What is it?

A syrupy sweetener made from the juice of the agave succulent.

What's the concern?

Agave is typically highly processed and also very high in fructose.

How to use it?

Agave works as a vegan alternative to honey, but try to limit consumption of it and instead opt for coconut nectar when possible.

Raw honey

What is it?

Honey that has not been heated or filtered.

What's the concern?

It's actually a pretty good choice. It contains less glucose and fructose than white sugar, as well as more complex carbohydrates, so the body accumulates less calories from it. Also, raw honey doesn’t contain preservatives, additives, or fillers like high fructose corn syrup, which is always a safer bet. Raw is considered to have a greater nutrient density than regular honey, but that doesn’t necessarily mean raw is the only way to go. Processed honey is fine, but be sure to shop from a reliable source to ensure it's pure, and not the fake stuff.

How to use it?

Raw honey is perfect for drizzling over breakfast foods, desserts, as well as being a nice alternative beverage sweetener. In baking, use 1/4 to 1/3 cup raw honey for every one cup of sugar.

Maple sugar

What is it?

Made from maple tree sap and tastes similar to maple syrup, with a look and texture like light brown sugar.

What's the concern?

Maple sugar contains some manganese, iron, and calcium, and raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar does. But it’s still incredibly sweet and should be consumed in moderation.

How to use it?

It can be used to sweeten beverages and dishes that pair well with maple flavor, such as oatmeal. It’s twice as sweet as sugar, so when using in baking, reduce the amount by as much as half the amount of sugar called for in the recipe.

Date sugar

What is it?

Unlike other sugars, date sugar is not extracted from anything—it’s simply dried dates ground into a fine powder.

What's the concern?

It's a pretty good choice for certain types of sweetening. Since it’s essentially comprised of dates, it contains a healthy amount of antioxidants.

How to use it?

Since it clumps and doesn’t melt, it’s not the ideal substitute for sugar in certain uses such as baking. But it can sweeten dishes that don’t necessarily need the sweetener to melt—sprinkle it atop muffins, cinnamon toast, or fruit to add sweetness and extra texture. It is extremely sweet, so use it sparingly.

Photo credit: Paul Delmont

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This article is related to: Healthy Choices, Healthy Eating, Nutrition, Raw honey, Sugar, Maple sugar, Healthy Desserts

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  • Greentara

    The latest research shows that stevia is broken down in the digestive system into steviols, which are mutagenic, so it is actually only safe in very small amounts. Let's face it, no one expects to get nutrients from sweeteners, so constantly bringing that up is kind of silly. If you want to provide really helpful information, provide accurate information on the glycemic indexes of these sweeteners. That is probably the biggest issue since insulin is inflammatory.

  • Kevin Blasko

    Coconut sugar is Paleo? Something tells me our ancestors didn't spend hours painstakingly extracting coconut sap and refining it into a powdered sugar!