Natural Sugars 101: Your Guide to Natural Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes
We know sugar is dangerous. Toxic, even. And with our knowledge of the dangers of sugar growing, the need to reduce sugar in our diets has never been greater. But how can we reduce our sugar intake without giving up many of the foods we love? More importantly, how can we do this without resorting to health damaging sugar substitutes like Splenda and aspartame? Luckily, there are many natural, healthy sugar substitutes that you can use to keep the sweetness in your food, without all of the extra calories and health risks of sugar. Consider these seven substitutes the next time you are looking to add some healthier sweetness to your food.
Stevia is one of the most popular sweeteners worldwide, especially in South America (the native region of the herb) and Japan. It is about 30 times sweeter than sugar, making it an excellent choice for coffee, tea, sweets, and other foods. Stevia is not currently available as a “sweetener” under the FDA labeling system, but is sold as a dietary supplement. Best of all, stevia has zero calories and helps with the treatment of many diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, and digestive problems. When using stevia, try following packaging labels and experimenting with amounts until you find the appropriate sweetness.
Honey is sweeter than sugar and has been used as a sweetener for centuries. It has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for weight loss, and is rich in antioxidants, which help protect the body from many different illnesses. It is a very versatile sweetener, and excellent for baking. The best types of honey to buy are usually those that are organically and locally produced, as they will typically have more vitamins and antimicrobial properties.
This sugar substitute is extracted from the agave cactus plant, and usually converted into a syrup form. Agave tastes somewhat similar to honey, is also sweeter than sugar, and may be a good substitute for diabetics. Agave is another sweetener with a low glycemic index, which can be helpful in losing weight by natural means. Agave extract has even been shown to support the immune system, relieve inflammation, and lower the risk of cancer.
4. Maple Syrup
No, maple syrup is not just useful in pancakes, it makes an ideal sugar substitute for most cakes, cookies, and other sweets, and requires a smaller dose since it is a liquid. As with honey, organic maple syrup is the healthiest kind, and may boost the immune system, promote better cardiac health, and lower the risk of certain types of cancer.
5. Date Sugar
Despite the name, date sugar is actually not a form of sugar, and is made from an extract taken from dehydrated dates, which is then ground into a powder. Through this process it maintains most of the nutritional benefits of dates, and serves as a great substitute for brown sugar, particularly in baking recipes. Date sugar will not dissolve, but its high fiber content slows absorption, and the extract is rich in iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc, thus supporting good blood pressure and the immune system.
Molasses is produced as a by-product of the sugar production process. Through the process, many nutrients remain in molasses, and blackstrap molasses is a particularly good source of iron and calcium. This thick liquid is great for baking, and is sweeter than sugar, so you do not have to use as much of it.
7. Brown Rice Syrup
This syrup is made from boiling brown rice, and is both gluten and wheat free. Brown rice syrup is best used for cooking, baking, and in some drunks, but can also be used as a condiment on many foods, and even in muffins and salad dressing. It is only half as sweet as white sugar, but it has a mild flavor that is similar to butterscotch. Although it is processed, it still maintains many of the benefits of brown rice. Look for brands that do not include barley malt or corn syrup.
More Substitutes and Cooking Tips
In addition to these seven choices, check out this spreadsheet for even more sugar substitute options, and for some tips on how to use them in your recipes and foods. Cutting sugar from your diet does not have to be extremely difficult, and can significantly improve your health. Try using some of these substitutes the next time you are looking for a sweetener.
Derek is a technical writer and editor with 10 years of experience in the health care field, having first earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware. He is a contributing author on a number of textbooks in the medical field, ran a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and has written a variety of other pieces from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal interest in health and wellness by playing multiple sports and running marathons. An insatiable traveler, he spent 16 months working and living abroad while traveling through South America, Europe, and Southeast Asia.