You’ve heard the message before: Most of us in the U.S. eat too much sugar, and it leads to a whole range of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, and poor oral health. If you already have diabetes, then you know about the link between sugar and your body. Because of the effects that sugar can have on your body, you may wonder what healthy sugar substitutes you should consider.
FIrst, a little refresher on sugar. A teaspoon of sugar (4 grams) has 16 calories. Sugar naturally occurs in some healthier foods, such as fruit and milk. The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your added sugar consumption — including sweet treats and sodas and other foods where sugar is added — to 6 teaspoons (25 grams/100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons (36 grams/150 calories) for men.
Contrast that with the average American who consumes 77 grams of sugar a day! Nearly half of that comes from beverages, including sodas, fruit drinks, and energy drinks.
You can read food labels to find out about sugar content, but the tricky part is that added sugars go beyond just the simple name of sugar. Sugar also can be named:
- With words ending in “ose” such as sucrose
- High fructose corn syrup
- Honey and molasses
- Raw sugar
- Fruit juice concentrates
So, what can you do to reduce your love of sugar and instead rely on healthy sugar substitutes? Here’s a breakdown of some of the sugar alternatives by category–and which ones may be the best choices for you.
4 Types of Sugar Alternatives
Just like identifying sugar in products isn’t always easy, it’s not easy to make a blanket statement about the healthiest type of sugar substitutes. That’s because the sugar substitutes fit in several categories, and research is still evolving on some of them. Plus, each sugar alternative has its pros and cons. Here’s more information about the four types of sugar substitutes:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Sugar alcohols
- Novel sweeteners
- Natural sweeteners
One type of theoretically healthy sugar substitute are artificial sweeteners. As the name implies, these are not natural sweeteners, but they are made from natural products such as herbs and even sugar. Examples include aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. Artificial sweeteners can be intensely sweet, so you typically use less of them than you do with sugar. Artificial sweeteners are low-calorie or zero-calorie. You’ll see artificial sweeteners used in sodas, baked goods, and sweet treats.
Artificial sweeteners can help with weight management. That’s because they have virtually zero calories compared with sugar-filled products. Artificial sweeteners also can help if you have diabetes because they do not have carbohydrates. Too much sugar and carbohydrates raises your blood sugar.
On the other hand, artificial sweeteners are surrounded by controversy for a supposed connection with certain types of cancer, as identified in previous research studies, according to Mayo Clinic, which is why we only refer to them as “theoretically” healthy sugar alternatives. However, the National Cancer Institute says there is not reliable evidence to prove this, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that artificial sweeteners are generally recognized as safe when consumed in limited quantities. The FDA provides some guidance here about daily limits for artificial sweeteners.
Some people do not like the aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners.
Sugar alcohols are not a form of alcohol, despite their name. They are actually a type of carb that can be made or that occurs naturally in some fruits and vegetables. Sugar alcohols have calories, but less so than sugar. Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol and xylitol. Sugar alcohols can be as sweet or less sweet than sugar. Chocolate, chewing gum, and toothpaste are examples of products that may include sugar alcohols as healthy sugar substitutes.
Sugar alcohols can help with weight management and diabetes control, just like artificial sweeteners. However, overconsumption can make you feel bloated and as if you need to use the bathroom a lot more. If bloating is an issue, you actually might want to consider a low FODMAP diet, like the one that WayWiser CEO, Lindsay Faeder, used with her mom while she was recovering from surgery.
If you’ve heard of Stevia, then you know about one type of novel sweetener. Novel sweeteners are made from several types of sweeteners and have become rather popular in the world of healthy sugar substitutes. For instance, Stevia that is sold at the supermarket contains a sugar alcohol and a type of glucose. The Stevia you find for sale comes from the extract of a highly refined stevia leaf extract, not the whole leaf. The processed form of Stevia, also called Reb-A, is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia can help with weight management and diabetes control, just like artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. The FDA recognizes novel sweeteners like Stevia as generally safe. However, if you have diabetes, you should ask your doctor if it’s safe for you. That’s because it’s sometimes mixed with other products, like dextrose, that can raise your blood sugar. Some people like Stevia’s licorice-like taste while others do not like it.
Monk fruit sweetener/monk fruit extract, made from a fruit originally from China, is another trendy example of a novel sweetener because it is often mixed with other products to lessen the intensity of its sweetness.
Natural sweeteners include products you’ve heard of frequently, including honey, maple syrup, molasses. Date syrup, made from dates, is also considered a natural sweetener. Natural sweeteners can contain a slight amount of vitamins and minerals. For instance, maple syrup has calcium, potassium, iron, and other nutrients. You may prefer the taste of natural sweeteners over other types of sweeteners. However, your body will process natural sweeteners similar to the way it processes sugar. Plus, they are not calorie-free.
Healthy Sugar Substitutes: The Bottom Line
As you can see, a dive into healthy sugar substitutes does not always provide easy answers. Yet one message is clear: Do your best to consume sugar in small amounts, if at all. Get in the habit of reading labels so you know how much sugar your food and drinks have. You can try different sugar substitutes to see which ones suit your taste buds and health the best. The more you can wean your body away from sugar, the bigger step you’ll be taking for your health.