Added sugar is one of the most controversial ingredients in the modern diet.
It has been associated with many serious diseases, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Part of the problem is that most people consume way too much sugar without knowing it.
Fortunately, there are many ways to sweeten foods without adding sugar.
This article explores 9 research-backed healthy alternatives you can use instead.
Evidence suggests that those who follow diets high in added sugar are more likely to develop obesity (
Sugar can interfere with hormones in your body that regulate hunger and satiety, leading to increased calorie intake and weight gain (
Excessive sugar consumption can also harm your metabolism, which can lead to increased insulin and fat storage (
High sugar intake is associated with poor oral health and some of the most deadly diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer (
In addition to causing health problems, sugar is addictive. It causes dopamine to be released in the reward center of the brain, which is the same response activated by addictive drugs.
This leads to cravings and can drive overeating, especially in stressed individuals (
Consider the following alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that’s extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub that’s scientifically known as Stevia rebaudiana.
This plant-based sweetener can be extracted from one of two compounds — stevioside and rebaudioside A. Each contains zero calories, can be up to 350 times sweeter than sugar, and may taste slightly different than sugar (
The leaves of Stevia rebaudiana are packed with nutrients and phytochemicals, so it’s not surprising that the sweetener is linked to some health benefits (
Stevioside, a sweet compound in stevia, has been shown to lower blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels (
While Stevia is considered generally safe, more current research is needed to determine whether the natural sweetener brings sustained benefits for human health.
Stevia is 100% natural, contains zero calories, and has no known adverse health effects. It has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to that of sugar. It’s extracted from corn or birch wood and found in many fruits and vegetables.
Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, which is 40% fewer calories than sugar.
What makes xylitol a promising alternative to sugar is its lack of fructose, which is the main ingredient responsible for most of sugar’s harmful effects.
Unlike sugar, xylitol does not raise your blood sugar or insulin levels (
In fact, it’s associated with multiple health benefits, including improved dental health and bone health (
However, many studies surrounding xylitol are
When consumed in moderation, xylitol is generally well tolerated by humans, but it can be highly toxic to dogs (
If you own a dog, you may want to keep xylitol out of reach or avoid having it in the house altogether.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that contains 40% fewer calories than sugar. Eating it in moderation is generally safe, but xylitol can be highly toxic to dogs.
Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but it contains even fewer calories.
At only 0.24 calories per gram, erythritol contains 6% of the calories of regular sugar.
It also tastes almost exactly like sugar, making it an easy switch.
Your body does not have the enzymes to break down the majority of erythritol, so most of it is absorbed directly into your bloodstream and excreted in your urine unchanged (
Therefore, it does not seem to have the harmful effects that regular sugar does.
Moreover, erythritol does not raise blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, or triglyceride levels (
Despite its low calorie count, a study in college students without obesity linked erythritol blood levels to increased fat mass and weight gain (15).
The study also found that erythritol plays a role in metabolism, as some people genetically create more erythritol from glucose than others.
However, it’s unclear how consuming erythritol affects body composition. More research is needed to determine whether it contributes to weight gain.
Erythritol is considered generally safe as a sugar replacement for human consumption, but commercial production of erythritol is time consuming and expensive, making it a less available option (
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that tastes almost exactly like sugar, but it contains only 6% of the calories. However, more research is needed to determine whether it contributes to weight gain in some people.
Monk fruit sweetener is extracted from monk fruit, a small round fruit grown in Southeast Asia.
This natural alternative contains zero calories and is 100–250 times sweeter than sugar.
Monk fruit contains natural sugars like fructose and glucose, but it gets its sweetness from antioxidants called mogrosides.
During processing, mogrosides are separated from the fresh-pressed juice, removing fructose and glucose from monk fruit sweetener.
Mogrosides provide monk fruit juice with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, while animal and test-tube studies have shown that monk fruit can inhibit cancer growth (
That said, more research is needed to fully understand these mechanisms.
What’s more, studies have found that monk-fruit-sweetened beverages have minimal influence on your daily calorie intake, blood glucose levels, and insulin levels, compared with sucrose-sweetened beverages (
However, monk fruit extract is often be mixed with other sweeteners, so be sure to read the label before consuming it.
Monk fruit sweetener is a safe and healthy sugar alternative, but more studies are needed to fully understand its health benefits.
Yacon syrup is extracted from the yacón plant, which is native to South America and known scientifically as Smallanthus sonchifolius.
It tastes sweet, is dark in color, and has a thick consistency similar to that of molasses.
Yacon syrup contains 40–50% fructooligosaccharides, which are a special type of sugar molecule that the human body cannot digest.
Because these sugar molecules are not digested, yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar, or about 1.3 calories per gram.
The high content of fructooligosaccharides in yacon syrup offers a variety of health benefits. Research shows it can reduce glycemic index, body weight, and the risk of colon cancer (
What’s more, one study found that fructooligosaccharides can increase feelings of satiety, which may help you feel full faster, as well as eat less (
They also feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, which are incredibly important for your overall health (
Having healthy gut bacteria has been linked to a decreased risk of diabetes and obesity, as well as improved immunity and brain function (
Yacon syrup is generally considered safe, but eating large amounts of it may lead to excessive gas, diarrhea, or general digestive discomfort.
Yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar. It’s also very high in fructooligosaccharides, which feed the good bacteria in the gut and may aid weight loss.
Several natural sweeteners are often used by health-conscious people in place of sugar. These include coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, and molasses.
These natural sugar alternatives may contain a few more nutrients than regular sugar, but your body still metabolizes them the same way.
Note that the natural sweeteners listed below are still forms of sugar, making them only slightly “less harmful” than regular sugar.
6. Coconut sugar
Coconut sugar is extracted from the sap of the coconut palm.
It contains a few nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, as well as antioxidants (
It also has a lower glycemic index than sugar, which may be partly due to its inulin content.
Insulin is a type of soluble fiber that has been shown to slow digestion, increase fullness, and feed the healthy bacteria in your gut (26).
Nevertheless, coconut sugar is still very high in calories, containing the same number of calories per serving as regular sugar.
It’s also very high in fructose, which is the main reason why regular sugar is so unhealthy in the first place (
At the end of the day, coconut sugar is very similar to regular table sugar and should be used sparingly.
Coconut sugar contains a small amount of fiber and nutrients, but it’s high in fructose and should be consumed in moderation.
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honey bees.
It contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as an abundance of beneficial antioxidants (
The phenolic acids and flavonoids in honey are responsible for its antioxidant activity, which can help prevent diabetes, inflammation, heart disease, and cancer (
Many studies throughout the years have attempted to establish clear links between honey and weight loss, decreased glucose levels, and reduced hyperglycemia (
However, larger studies and more current research are necessary to establish clear patterns.
While honey has promising health benefits, it contains fructose, which can contribute to a slew of health problems.
In short, honey is still sugar and not completely harmless.
Honey contains antioxidants and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. It may offer some health benefits, but it’s still sugar and should not be consumed excessively.
8. Maple syrup
Maple syrup is a thick, sugary liquid that’s made by cooking down the sap of maple trees.
It contains a decent amount of minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese.
It also contains more antioxidants than honey (29).
A study in rodents found that when taken orally with sucrose, maple syrup lowered plasma glucose concentrations significantly more than taking sucrose alone (
The oligosaccharides — a type of carb formed by several simple sugars — in maple syrup are likely responsible for the lowered plasma glucose concentrations.
Oligosaccharides have also been reported to be effective against type 1 diabetes in mice (
Test-tube studies have indicated that maple syrup may even have anti-cancer properties, but more research is needed to confirm this (
Despite some beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, maple syrup is still very high in sugar. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar, so it may not raise blood sugar levels as quickly. Yet, it will still raise them (34).
Much like coconut sugar and honey, maple syrup is a slightly better option than regular sugar, but it should still be consumed in moderation.
Maple syrup contains some minerals and over 24 different antioxidants. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar, but it will still raise your blood sugar levels significantly.
Molasses is a sweet, brown liquid with a thick, syrup-like consistency. It’s made from boiling down sugar cane or sugar beet juice.
It contains a handful of vitamins and minerals, as well as several antioxidants (
Furthermore, its high iron, potassium, and calcium contents may benefit bone and heart health (
Overall, molasses makes a fine replacement for refined sugar, but its consumption should be limited, as it’s still a form of sugar.
Molasses contains nutrients that support bone and heart health. Nevertheless, it’s still high in sugar and should be consumed sparingly.
Finding sweet substitutes you enjoy can help you reduce your sugar consumption. However, sugar alternatives are not a magical answer to your health problems and should be used in moderation.
Although they have been marketed as healthy alternatives, many studies have found no links between sugar substitutes and long-term improvements in regards to your calorie intake or risk of diabetes or obesity (39,
In fact, sugar substitutes may cause you to crave more sweet and sugary foods (
Some studies have even linked sugar substitutes to a higher risk of glucose intolerance or weight gain (
While sugar alternatives may be significantly lower in calories than pure sugar, remember to limit your consumption, as they can have health consequences as well.
Sugar alternatives may be healthier in theory, but they’re not a magical answer to your health problems and should be consumed in moderation.
Some alternative sweeteners may cause more harm than good. Some may even be more dangerous than sugar.
Below are sugar substitutes you should try to avoid.
Agave nectar is produced by the agave plant.
It’s often marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, but it’s probably one of the unhealthiest sweeteners on the market.
The liquid sweetener consists of 85% fructose, which is much higher than regular sugar (
As previously mentioned, high amounts of fructose are strongly associated with obesity and other serious diseases.
Despite being marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, agave nectar contains even more fructose than sugar and should be avoided.
High fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn syrup.
It’s commonly used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks.
As its name implies, it’s very high in fructose.
Fructose can increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes, and other serious diseases like cancer (
One study found that HFCS supported tumor growth in mice, while another study suggests that a high fructose diet could accelerate the progress of breast cancer (
It can be equally as harmful as sugar and should be avoided at all costs.
While you won’t typically use HFCS as an individual ingredient in your recipes at home, it’s commonly found in sauces, salad dressings, and other condiments that you may be cooking with.
High fructose corn syrup is also high in harmful fructose and should be avoided.
Eating too much sugar has been linked to several deadly diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
The sweeteners in this article are good alternatives, though the key word here is alternatives, meaning they should be used instead of refined sugar — and in moderation.
Stevia is probably the healthiest option, followed by xylitol, erythritol, and yacon syrup.
Natural sugars like maple syrup, molasses, and honey are less harmful than regular sugar and even have health benefits. Yet, they should still be used sparingly.
As with most things in nutrition, moderation is key.