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When our family made the transition to a real food diet I thought sugar was off the menu. While I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, sometimes I want to indulge in a (healthy) dessert. I discovered sweetness is possible in a real-food diet with natural sugar substitutes. Healthy doesn’t have to mean avoiding sweeteners entirely. It just means avoiding added sugars, especially, highly processed table sugar.
Replacing sugar with natural alternatives can take some work at first. But once you learn the basics and upgrade your pantry choices, cooking with the occasional natural sweeteners becomes second nature.
What’s Wrong With Sugar?
Oh let me count the ways… Not only does sugar contribute to tooth decay, but it can lead to other issues like gingivitis.
When we eat sugar it causes rapid glucose spikes followed by low blood sugar levels and an energy crash. Excess sugar is converted to fat in the body, leading to weight gain.
Over time, this pattern can lead to insulin resistance, where our cells become less responsive to the hormone insulin. Insulin resistance can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes, obesity, and an increased risk of heart disease.
That’s not to mention the inflammation and addictive eating sugar can cause.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
One popular sweetener you’ll find in many processed foods (especially in America) is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). While it’s cheap to make it has tons of fructose that can lead to overeating and health problems.
That’s because the body metabolizes fructose differently than glucose. Fructose is more easily stored as fat in the liver. Ultimately, it contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), weight gain, and obesity.
How About Artificial Sweeteners?
Many people who avoid sugar turn to artificial sweeteners instead. Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners promoted for weight loss. The first non-caloric sugar substitutes on the market came from a lab. These are the most common artificial sweeteners:
Saccharin (a popular brand is Sweet’n Low)
Aspartame (the sweetener found in Equal)
Sucralose (found in Splenda)
Acesulfame potassium (also called Ace-K)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates artificial sweeteners as food additives. The FDA says they’re safe when used within established acceptable daily intakes. However, scientific research says otherwise.
My Favorite Natural Sugar Substitutes
If you want to lower your processed sugar intake, consider these natural sweeteners. They’re still not something I use all the time, but they’re much healthier for the occasional treat.
My preferred sweetener of choice is raw honey. Unlike processed honey, it retains many of the beneficial compounds and nutrients.
Raw honey has lots of benefits:
Nutrients: Raw honey has antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and small amounts of amino acids. It’s also rich in enzymes.
Antibacterial and antifungal properties: The propolis in raw honey is antibacterial and antifungal and may help candida overgrowth.
Prebiotics: Unique carbohydrates in honey called oligosaccharides in honey feed beneficial gut bacteria.
Potential allergy relief: Due to its local pollen content, raw honey may calm an overly sensitive immune system.
Raw honey is still a source of sugars and calories, so enjoy it in moderation.
Where to buy: Raw honey can be expensive in small quantities. Finding a local bulk supplier from a local apiary, farmer’s market, or natural food store is usually the best option.
How I use it: I use honey to naturally sweeten baked goods. I’ll also drizzle it over pancakes, waffles, yogurt, and even homemade ice cream.
Maple syrup is a natural sweetener from sugar maple tree sap. It’s not the high-fructose pancake syrup you find in the cereal aisle!
Health Benefits: Maple syrup has small amounts of minerals, like manganese, iron, calcium, and zinc. It also has some antioxidants.
Where to buy: You might be able to find locally produced maple syrup in your area. Avoid buying “maple-flavored syrups” made with artificial ingredients. The only ingredient in pure maple syrup should be“maple syrup.”
How I use it: I use maple syrup to sweeten baked goods and drizzle over hot breakfast cereal, pancakes, and waffles.
Sucanat or Muscovado
Sucanat is essentially dried sugar cane juice. It’s unprocessed compared to white or brown sugar. “Sucanat” stands for sugar cane natural.” To make sucanat, sugar cane juice is extracted and evaporated. It’s then dried into granules. Sucanat subs 1:1 for white sugar in most recipes
Muscovado is a sticky, minimally processed brown sugar made from sugar cane juice. It’s dark in color and rich in flavor due to the molasses still present. Because it’s minimally processed, it retains its minerals. Muscovado subs 1:1 for brown sugar in most recipes.
Yes, sucanat and muscovado are still processed. But they’re much closer to the original state than highly processed, stripped, and refined sugar.
Note: Baked goods made with these sweeteners will have a darker color and slight molasses flavor.
Health Benefits: These sweeteners retain some nutrients from the whole sugar cane. Examples are iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and B vitamins. While only present in small amounts, these whole sugars provide some trace nutrients refined sugar lacks. They also have these properties:
Lower glycemic: Because they’re less processed, these sugars have a slightly lower glycemic index than refined sugar. The slower increase in blood sugar can support balanced glucose levels.
Potential antioxidants: The molasses in sucanat and muscovado may contribute some antioxidant compounds.
Where to buy: Sucanat and muscovado may be challenging to find locally, although some natural foods stores may carry them. For muscovado, you can also check your nearest Indian grocery store. Ideally, buy organic. You can also order sucanat and muscovado online here.
How I use it: Sucanat can replace white sugar or brown sugar in most recipes. However, sucanat does have a caramel-like flavor. I’m more likely to use muscovado in recipes calling for brown sugar, like chocolate chip cookies.
Coconut Sugar, also known as coconut palm sugar, is made by heating and dehydrating coconut palm sap. It’s a popular sugar alternative due to its minimal processing and potential health benefits. Plus coconut sugar is more sustainable to grow than sugar cane.
Nutrients: Coconut sugar has small amounts of nutrients like iron, zinc, potassium, and B vitamins.
Lower glycemic: Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular table sugar, so it has less impact on blood sugar levels.
Inulin as a prebiotic: Coconut sugar may have inulin, a dietary fiber with prebiotic effects. Inulin promotes beneficial bacteria in the gut and supports digestive health.
Where to buy: I like Wholesome Sweeteners’ sustainably sourced coconut sugar. You can often find this natural sugar substitute at your local grocery, natural foods store, or online.
How I use it: Coconut sugar has a rich, caramel-like flavor that can enhance many recipes. You can generally use it 1:1 to replace white or brown sugar.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
Monk fruit (luo han guo) is a Southeast Asian fruit rich in antioxidant compounds called mogrosides. Food manufacturers use mogrosides to make the non-nutritive sweetener monk fruit extract.
Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory: Some research suggests monk fruit mogrosides have anti-inflammatory properties. A 2013 study found these compounds may reduce diabetes-related oxidative stress.
Supports a healthy weight: Monk fruit is low in calories and doesn’t spike insulin (which can lead to weight gain).
Protects against diabetes: Because monk fruit doesn’t significantly raise blood sugar, it may help those with diabetes. It can also help anyone wanting to manage their blood sugar levels.
May protect against cancer: The antioxidants in monk fruit may protect against cancer.
Where to buy: Many grocery stores carry monk fruit sweetener. It’s often mixed with erythritol but this version uses allulose and monk fruit extract.
Small amounts of erythritol are okay occasionally, but it causes digestive issues for some people. If your gut is compromised, it would be best to skip it.
How I use it: Monk fruit swaps out for white sugar at a 1:1 ratio. I also use the liquid version for things like tea or coffee.
Allulose as a Natural Sugar Substitute
Allulose is a low-calorie sugar that occurs naturally in some foods, like wheat, raisins, and figs. While it has the same chemical formula as glucose, its structure is slightly different. That gives it some unique properties, like a low-calorie content and a low glycemic index.
You’ll often find it in prepared products. It’s a great option for those who want to reduce sugar intake without sacrificing their favorite treats. Not everyone tolerates allulose and it can cause digestive issues in large amounts. Learn more about allulose here.
People enjoy date fruits for their natural sweetness and rich caramel-like flavor. They’re not only delicious, but they have many health benefits due to their nutrient content.
Nutrients: Dates are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and fiber.
Lower glycemic: Despite their natural sweetness, dates have a relatively low glycemic index. The fiber in dates can also help moderate blood sugar levels.
Rich in fiber: The dietary fiber in dates feeds good bacteria and promotes regular bowel movements. Fiber also helps us feel fuller.
Antioxidant properties: Dates have various antioxidants that help protect cells from oxidative stress.
Anti-inflammatory: Some compounds in dates have anti-inflammatory effects.
Digestive health: The soluble fiber in dates can promote a healthy gut and support beneficial gut bacteria.
Where to buy: Dried dates are available at most grocery and natural foods stores. Of course, you can also find them online. You may also find date syrup, a sweetener similar to honey.
How I use them: I blend pitted dates in a food processor to create sweet raw food treats. Take one or two soaked dates and add them to smoothies for whole food sweetness. Try whole dates in my Molasses Cookies recipe or Wellness Energy Bars). You can also make your own date syrup.
While dates offer many health benefits, they’re high-carbohydrate due to their natural sugars. Be sure to eat them in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
Fruit is naturally sweet, making it the perfect sweetener for quick breads, pancakes, and waffles. Fruits are also rich in essential nutrients, antioxidants, fiber, and natural sugars.
Rich in nutrients: Fresh fruits are excellent sources of vitamin C, vitamin A, and various B vitamins. They also have minerals like potassium, magnesium, and folate.
Antioxidants: Fruits are rich in antioxidants like vitamins C and E. They’re also high in many phytochemicals. Antioxidants help neutralize harmful free radicals, lowering oxidative stress and cell damage.
Blood Sugar Control: Fiber naturally accompanies the natural sugars in fruits. This can slow the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream, stabilizing glucose levels.
Heart Health: Fruits like berries, citrus fruits, and apples can aid heart health due to their dietary fiber. And the antioxidants and nutrients promote healthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure.
Digestive Health: Fruits are an excellent source of fiber for a healthy gut microbiome. It also promotes regular bowel movements, preventing constipation.
Where to buy: Local farmers and farmers’ markets. The organic produce section of your local natural foods co-op or grocery store
How I use it: I like to add one or two mashed bananas to my pancakes and waffles instead of adding extra sugar. This same technique works in many muffin and quickbread recipes.
Applesauce is another fruit-based sweetener that blends well into pancakes or muffins. Naturally sweet fruit can also sweeten plain yogurt. Fruit or fruit juice also add sweetness to smoothies and homemade ice cream.
If you want to avoid calorie sweeteners, stevia is a good option. Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener derived from the Stevia plant. While some people notice an aftertaste from stevia, it’s a popular sugar-free and plant-based sweetener.
Stevia is super sweet and cannot easily substitute for honey, maple syrup, or sugar.
Zero calories: Stevia is virtually calorie-free.
Blood sugar regulation: Stevia doesn’t significantly impact blood glucose.
Antioxidant Properties: Some studies suggest stevia has antioxidant properties.
Potential Anti-Inflammatory Effects: Stevia’s antioxidants may have anti-inflammatory properties.
While stevia offers potential benefits, like any sweetener it’s best to use it in moderation.
Where to buy: Look for stevia without artificial sweeteners or chemical additives.
Natural Sweeteners I Don’t Recommend
These are some sugar substitutes I don’t recommend. Some of them don’t have enough safety research, while others have too many negative health effects.
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate commonly used as sugar substitutes. Some common sugar alcohols include xylitol, erythritol, and sorbitol. They’re a hybrid of sugar and alcohol molecules (a different type than what’s in alcoholic drinks).
Sugar alcohols are sweet in taste but have fewer calories than regular sugar. They don’t spike blood sugar, so they’re often used in products marketed to those with diabetes. You’ll find them in sugar-free candies and chocolates. They also don’t contribute to tooth decay like other types of sweeteners.
However, sugar alcohols may cause bloating, and digestive distress for some people because they may alter gut bacteria.
Low glycemic: Sugar alcohols are very low on glycemic index, so they don’t spike blood sugar.
Lower Caloric Content: Sugar alcohols generally have fewer calories than regular sugar so they’re popular in “diet” foods.
Dental Health: Sugar alcohols are less likely to promote tooth decay compared to regular sugars. They aren’t as easily metabolized by oral bacteria, so there’s less acid to damage tooth enamel.
Antioxidant potential: Some research shows erythritol can counteract free radicals.
Non-GMO xylitol or erythritol in small amounts can be okay occasionally, but they cause digestive issues for some people. If your gut is compromised, it’s best to skip it.
Where to buy: Sugar alcohols are popular enough that you’ll find them at your local grocery store. If you decide to use these sweeteners, be sure to get organic. Both xylitol and erythritol can come from corn, so going organic ensures non-GMO.
How I use them: With what I currently know about sugar alcohols, I only use xylitol from birch wood in homemade toothpaste. At this point, I prefer the other natural sweeteners listed above for food.
Agave nectar (agave syrup) is derived from agave sap, primarily from blue agave. This sap is collected, filtered, and then processed to create the sweet syrup. Agave is known for its mild flavor and is a natural alternative to sugar and honey.
Agave has a lower glycemic index than other sugars. However, that’s due to its high fructose content. Fructose is bad for your liver and sets you up for cravings. I don’t use or recommend agave nectar.
Bottom Line on Natural Sugar Substitutes
With natural sweeteners in the pantry, our family can enjoy classic treats without compromising on flavor. Keep in mind that carbs do matter, whether they come from white sugar or coconut sugar. Moderation is key, even with natural sweeteners. So now you can have your cake and eat it too!
What natural sugar substitutes do you use? Share with us below!