Choosing the Best Sugar Alternative
There are so many sugar alternatives on the market today, it is hard to decide which one to use, or if you should be using one at all. The purpose of this article is to provide you with general information for the most popular “natural” sugar substitutes and ultimately which option is best.
What is it?
Monk fruit is a small, round, green melon native to China. It has been used in China for centuries with no observed negative health effects. To be used as a natural sweetener, the juice is squeezed from the fruit and dried to form a powder extract.
The powder is 150-200x sweeter than regular table sugar, yet has zero calories and minimally impacts blood glucose and insulin levels. The FDA has approved monk fruit sweetener for pregnant women, children and people with diabetes. Mogrosides are the chemical compound responsible for giving monk fruit its sweetness, which have also been found to have antioxidant properties.
Some note that monk fruit has an unpleasant aftertaste. Always read the ingredients label for potential additives like sugar alcohols, sugars and molasses, which are often added to monk fruit sweetener, effecting its health benefits. Unfortunately, the use of monk fruit as a sweetener is still so young and so is the scientific evidence. I personally don’t want to use something that has hardly been studied.
What is it?
The leaves of Stevia Rebaudiana have been used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries. It can be found in powder or liquid form. Stevia has been used as a sweetener in Japan for 30 years, as well as in South America, Australia and New Zealand.
Stevia is 250-300x sweeter than regular table sugar, and like monk fruit, has zero calories and a low glycemic index. I find that stevia is typically easiest to find in the grocery store and tastes very similar to table sugar, so it is usually my go-to.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI) suggests that Stevia might cause mutations that can lead to cancer. However, more recent studies and long-term usage in other countries suggest this isn’t the case. Similar to monk fruit sweetener, common stevia sweeteners have harmful additives, so be sure that stevia is the only ingredient listed on the label.
What is it?
Erythritol, commonly found in powder or liquid form, is a sugar alcohol that naturally occurs in some fruit, like pears, melons and grapes, and fermented food.
Erythritol contains no sugar and has virtually zero calories (0.2 calories per gram versus sugar, which has 4 calories per gram). It is found to be safe in pregnant women, children and people with diabetes.
Like most other sweeteners, other ingredients are often added to erythritol to cut costs. Look for 100% erythritol sweeteners like Smart Sweet.
What is it?
Coconut sugar is derived from the coconut palm tree by boiling and dehydrating its sap.
Coconut sugar contains zinc, iron, potassium and inulin, which is a beneficial fiber for gut bacteria, acting as a prebiotic. It has a low glycemic index, so blood glucose levels won’t spike. Additionally, it is one the most sustainable sweeteners on the market.
Coconut sugar is made of over 50% sucrose (table sugar), which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. So coconut sugar that claims to be fructose-free is not entirely true. Fructose should be limited or cut completely from the diet (aside from eating raw fruit) because the body quickly converts it into fat. Glucose should also be strictly limited in the diet. Coconut sugar also contains a similar amount of calories compared to table sugar. For me, the negatives of coconut sugar outweigh the positives.
So what’s the verdict?
Based on all available research for “healthier” sugar alternatives – which for some is very limited – it seems that all the alternatives listed above are better options than regular table sugar, which raises blood sugar, causes inflammation, weight gain, mood swings, heart disease and a host of other problems; nevermind the additives that bring their own plethora of health concerns. However, I am an advocate for eating whole, naturally occurring foods, and even natural sugar alternatives should be limited. Before resorting to using the above sugar alternatives which are still fairly processed, try these more raw, wholesome sweeteners in your recipes instead:
- Pure maple syrup: This is my favorite sweetener to add to recipes, especially baked goods. Maple syrup is loaded with 24 antioxidants that help protect against free radical damage. It also contains anti-inflammatory properties that help to protect against chronic diseases. Not only is it a good natural sweetener, but is nutrient-dense. Do not use fake maple syrup, which is made with high fructose corn syrup. This is not nearly the same and has zero health benefits.
- Agave nectar: a low-glycemic natural sweetener. While honey, maple syrup and table sugar have a glycemic index of 50 or higher, agave is closer to 20. Although high glycemic foods aren’t necessarily bad for you (pineapple has a GI of 70), they will cause a larger insulin spike, leading to temporarily higher blood glucose levels. People with high blood sugar may want to limit high glycemic foods.
- Medjool dates: A naturally sweet fruit. Just four pitted medjool dates (about 1/2 cup) contains over 6 grams of fiber, 20% of your daily potassium intake and 13% of your daily magnesium and vitamin b6 intake. You can now find date sweeteners in a liquid or crystallized form at your local grocery store.
Note: I know that many people will shy away from these natural sweeteners because of their high-calorie and sugar content compared to the other sweeteners listed above. Keep in mind that these are naturally-derived sugars, which will be used as energy rather than stored in fat deposits. Agave nectar and maple syrup have actually been able to assist in weight loss when compared to using table sugar.
I know that these options won’t work for all recipes, but you’d be surprised how much they do work for. I still use some stevia in my coffee, but never for baked goods. Try out these ingredients before using sweeteners like stevia.