What Should I Sweeten With Instead of Sugar?
Word on the street is that sugar may be killing us... or at least contributing to health risks like obesity and diabetes . But when it comes to choosing an alternative sweetener, the options can get a little sticky.
Sugar Overload — Why It Matters
Americans consume a ton of sugar. Actually, make that 10,000 tons every year — a rate that's increased steadily over the last decade. And sugar finds its way into everything — sodas, baked goods, and even savory foods like pasta sauce and potato chips. This increasing consumption has been consistently linked to health threats like obesity, diabetes, and even sugar dependency (craving something sweet?) . But who wants to completely skip out on those occasional sweet treats? While it's probably best to cut down on refined white sugar, alternatives can be a great way to satisfy that sweet tooth without going too far overboard in the calorie and health risk categories. Just keep this in mind: As with many things in life, less is more, and smart sweetener use complements the main course — it doesn't steal the show.
Sweet Somethings — The Answer/Debate
Keep in mind, of course, that the ideal substitute will vary from one situation to the next (I won't be putting maple syrup in coffee or molasses on my pancakes anytime soon — but to each their own). Here are a few effective options to consider:
- All-Natural Plant-Based Sweeteners: Stevia and agave, both derived from South American plants, are getting a lot of buzz these days — and for good reason. Neither of these natural sweeteners spike the body’s blood sugar to the degree that white sugar does, so there's much less chance of experiencing drastic mood or energy ups and downs.
- Stevia is usually sold in powder or liquid drop form and can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar. That said, it can also pack a punch on the grocery bill, costing up to 5 times more than its artificial counterparts like Sweet-n’-Low. But lucky for us, liquid stevia can last months, since sweetening a drink, sauce, or salad dressing only requires a few drops each.
- Agave is a great substitute too — but because it's made up of almost all fructose, only use in moderation (dangerfood alert!). The upside? Moderation shouldn't be a problem, since agave is sweeter than sugar, so it requires less to reach the same sweetness level. Plus, it's milder in flavor than many other sweeteners (including sugar!). If fructose consumption is a concern, abstaining from agave may be a good idea . Though the body can have difficulty processing fructose, small amounts (like a teaspoon with coffee or the natural fructose in a piece of fruit) are generally harmless. But consuming large doses of fructose (like in heavily sweetened drinks) may have negative effects on liver function and cause weight-gain, and has also been tied to obesity, diabetes, and kidney and heart diseases  . The bottom line? While white sugar has negatives, so do some sugar alternatives, and fructose is one of the worst offenders.
- Honey: A classic, tried-and-true option. While it does have slightly more calories than sugar, its strong flavor means a little goes a long way. Honey also boasts numerous health benefits, such as antibacterial properties, especially in its raw form.
- Brown rice syrup and maple syrup: For baking, these make great lower-calorie sweeteners. Brown rice syrup, popular in many natural and “health food” brand granolas and snack foods, is made by cooking brown rice until it turns into syrup. We embrace maple syrup as the time-tested topping for pancakes and waffles, but using a tablespoon or two to sweeten baked goods has become a popular trend (like this basic chocolate cake recipe from 101 Cookbooks, e.g.).
- Fruit and fruit products: For those who want to replace table sugar completely, using ripe fruit or fruit products like apple sauce or jams (just watch out for added sugar!) can add that subtle sweetness to a baked good or plain yogurt snack.
Originally posted May 9, 2011. Updated June 2012.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. MB, Schulze., Manson, JE., Ludwig, DS., et al. Department of Nutrition. Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA. The Journal of the American Medical Association 2004 Aug 25;292(8):927-34.⤴
- Evidence for sugar addiction: behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake. Avena, NM., Rada, P., Hoebel, BG. Department of Psychology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 2008;32(1):20-39.⤴
- Fructose consumption as a risk factor for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Ouyang X, Cirillo P, Sautin Y, et al. Division of Nephrology, University of Florida. J Hepatol. 2008 Jun;48(6):993-9. Epub 2008 Mar 10.⤴
- Lipid metabolism of orchiectomised rats was affected by fructose ingestion and the amount of ingested fructose. Makino, S., Kishida, T., Ebihara, K. Department of Biological Resources, Faculty of Agriculture, Ehime University, Matsuyama, Japan. The British Journal of Nutrition. 2011, August 1: 1-9.⤴
- The impact of fructose on renal function and blood pressure. Kretowicz, M., Johnson, R.J., Ishimoto, T., et al. Department of Nephrology, Hypertension, and Internal Medicine, Collegium Medicum in Bydgoszcz, Nicolaus Copernicus Unvirsity in Torun, Bydgoszcz, Poland. International Journal of Nephrology, 2011;2011:315879.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
Please remove Agave from your list. Kate, I suggest you read up on fructose and its effects on the body.
Coconut sugar would have been significantly more appropriate for this list.
Also, you should note that the effects of high GI foods aren't as negative for non-diabetics or those who don't have heightened insulin resistance. That being said, there are lots of foods, such as wheat, that aren't good for you and have a high GI.
I just don't know of an instance when agave is a good option. Fructose is going to hammer the liver no matter what. And if GI is an issue, there are alternatives (coconut sugar).
Indeed Kate - Agave Nectar has a low GI, and is an excellent replacement for sugar. Ever since some pseudoscience blogs picked up a torch against it in an attempt to boost artificial sweeteners and coconut *everything*, there's a lot of people who simply don't understand - or care to understand - that it's actually good for you, and the myths have been long debunked.
Personally, I use agave happily because after doing the research it turns out that it's a great option for people looking to control their sugar intake. I'm happy it's on the list.
I have been hearing a lot lately on the benefits of cocnut sugar. do you have any idea howit compares to the alternatives above like stevia or honey?
@ksmorin Yeah I totally agree, I actually wrote a recent post myself on the hidden dangers of artificial sweeteners but when coming up with substitutes I only used stevia and honey because those are my 2 default options. I haven't tried coconut sugar yet but it is on my to do list. Here is my article if your interested, I am always looking for good feedback. http://phatburn.com/2012/06/the-facts-about-artificial-sweeteners/ Thanks for the great response :) Paul
It may not be sugar ... sugar from sugar cane, not corn or beets may be fine. It's the manufactured sugar that might just be the fat maker! It's not just the calories, but how your body views the sugar. Honey for instance is known to be a good way to help you burn calories while you sleep. And, types of honey matter too. Squeezable honey bears are often (not always, let price be your guide) not honey from bees, but sweetener like corn syrup, and a touch of flavoring, like honey. The same is true for inexpensive maple syrup! Look at the ingredients list. The key is there shouldn't be a list!
I know you said you wouldn't put maple syrup in coffee, but I'd say give it a shot. I don't drink coffee put I put maple syrup in my tea if it's out already and it's awesome.
What's the verdict on artificial sweeteners like Splenda? I use it in everything, but there are so many mixed messages about using substitutes.
@ksmorin Thanks for the speedy reply - articles are very helpful!
@ksmorin great article, do you have any opinion on coconut sugar?
Next time you are in a supermarket, look at the Nutrition labels for sugar and Agave and compare the carbohydrates and sugars in both. Agave is high in both carbs and sugars. It is not a good sugar substitute. Like sugar cane, it is high in sugars. it is not Low on the glycemic Index as you stated. By the way, sugar has 15 calories per teaspoon, and agave has a bit more. Non-nutritive sugar substitutes are those that contain no sugars or carbs, such as sucralose (Splenda), and many others. There is also a category called Alcohol sugars. But Agave and honey are not sugar substitutes because they contain "sugars" such as fructose and sucrose..
And in addition to what I posted below, Maple Syrup is also not a sugar substitute as it is a nutritive sweetener that contain sugars, carbs and calories that are equal or greater to cane sugar and will raise your blood glucose. I also mentioned below that Non-nutritive sugar substitutes are substances like aspartame, sucralose and also steviol glycoside in the Stevia plant, that will not raise your blood sugar levels, (though stevia does to a small degree in some people).
In response to some people below, honey and maple syrup will raise your blood sugar and will cause you to release insulin very quickly. There is no difference between sugar, honey, Agave and maple sugar, when it comes to raising your blood sugar levels, and the calories and carbs are the same or more. However, it also comes down to portion size. One teaspoon of brown sugar is 'only" 15 calories and 4 grams of "sugars". most people do NOT keep their portions to a teaspoon.
The real question is: are non-nutritive sugar substitutes safe, and do they have side effects. Well, most people do well with splenda, but other types cause headaches ad other symptoms in some people. Most people find Stevia the most natural but it has a bitter after taste to some.
So if you want a real natural alternative to eating sugar- don't eat sugar! drink herbal teas without sugar, drink coffee without sugar. Don't eat cakes and cookies. don't eat sugar-cereals. Eat fruit and berries- the fiber in the fruit helps to slow the release of glucose into your blood. But do not drink fruit juice. The only substitute to sugar is foods without added sugars, and the "sugars" on the nutrition label has to be 3 grams or less.
coconut Sugar is very similar to cane sugar in terms of grams of "carbs" and "sugars". It will raise blood glucose levels in diabetics and prediabetics about as much as sugar will. Since it is equal to sugar in calories, it is equally "fattening". Also any "sugar" like this, coconut or cane, will trigger hunger and block feelings of satiety.
look into the production and processing of honey. here's a hint: China.
This is a great article Kate! The only thing that seems missing is a 'metabolic' clarification around why sugars cause such a ruckus in our bodies. I feel understanding this goes a long way in making better diet choices.
In simple terms, because of glucose's high affinity to react with other molecules, our bodies strictly regulate blood glucose levels to a limited amount of only 5 grams in total.
Insulin is secreted to manage glucose levels in the blood (insulin also does many other things). More importantly, studies have shown that insulin has 3 effects as it relates to weight management: 1. insulin stimulates lipogenesis. 2. insulin inhibits gluconeogenesis. 3. insulin inhibits autophagy.
Each of these 3 effects contribute to the chronic deterioration of your body's metabolic processes.
I recommend all readers to look each one of them up on Google (or whatever search engine you use) and learn more about them.