In the never-ending, always-confusing battle of “good versus bad” foods, there’s one thing we would all probably agree on: Added sugar isn’t a health hero. (We may not be sure where wheat and saturated fats stand, but that is a different argument for a different article.)
And since we love our sweets (in fact, humans innately crave sweet flavors), it would be best to ban the white stuff and appease our appetites with so-called “natural” sweeteners.
It makes sense if you believe the hype: Some of these sugar substitutes have vitamins and minerals. Others prevent the roller-coaster blood sugar response that’s typical of sugar.
And — of course — all of them are natural! So they’ve got to be better for you. Right? Except that they’re still sweeteners — and many of those “health benefits” are minuscule (at best) for the recommended doses.
Plus, not everything works in every recipe. Go ahead. Try sweetening coffee with whole dates. We’ll wait.
Let’s break down some of the most common types of natural sweeteners so you can decide what’s best for you.
There’s plenty to choose from, but you might have some of them on a pedestal just because they’re natural.
1. Sugar in the raw
What is it? Since it doesn’t undergo bleaching and some other processing, sugar in the raw is darker in color and has a richer, more caramel-like flavor than table sugar.
You might find it under the names turbinado sugar, demerara sugar, or natural cane sugar.
Best uses: Anywhere you’d use white sugar at a 1:1 ratio.
Is it better for you? Less processing also means it retains tiny amounts of minerals like calcium and iron — but there’s less than a milligram of either in a teaspoon, says culinary nutritionist Rachel Begun, RDN.
No offense, Sugar in the Raw, but that’s a puny effort.
Like white sugar, that teaspoon also comes with 18.4 calories, and both sweeteners are made by boiling and evaporating cane sugar juice to form solid sugar crystals, so your body processes them in the same way, Begun says.
Sorry, Sugar in the Raw. You’re delicious, but still no good for us. Next.
2. Agave syrup
What is it? A syrup derived from the agave plant (yup, the same one that’s used to make tequila). It’s about as sweet as honey, but with a slightly thinner consistency.
Best uses: Stirred into tea or drizzled over yogurt or oatmeal, though you can bake with it too. Since it’s slightly sweeter and contains more moisture than sugar, use about a third less than you normally would.
Is it better for you? Nutrient-wise, agave doesn’t have much to offer, and it’s slightly higher in calories than white sugar, with 21.4 per teaspoon.
Your body also processes this liquid differently: White sugar (aka sucrose) is 50 percent fructose, whereas agave nectar contains around 84 percent fructose, though exact amounts can vary by brand.
High-fructose sweeteners have a low glycemic index (GI), so it’s less likely to cause rapid blood sugar spikes than other sugars.
The catch (and there always is one, especially with sugar)? Only your liver can process fructose. When you take in more fructose than the liver can handle, the extra load gets turned into fat.
“People think agave is healthier because it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels. But some emerging research shows a connection between high fructose intake, insulin resistance, and cardiovascular disease,” says Alexandra Caspero, RD, founder of the Delish Knowledge blog.
“The fructose disrupts normal liver metabolism, leading to higher rates of lipogenesis and higher triglycerides — both of which can lead to heart disease. I recommend avoiding agave when possible.”
Back of the line, agave.
What is it? Honey is a syrup that bees make by regurgitating flower nectar and letting it evaporate. (That’s right, it’s dried bug puke. Mmmmm. Appetizing.)
It’s also a cracking dance movie starring Jessica Alba, but that does nothing to your blood glucose, we checked.
Best uses: The same as agave.
Is it better for you? Whether raw (unpasteurized) or not, honey provides 21.3 calories plus trace amounts of vitamin C, magnesium, and antioxidants per teaspoon.
“It’s often considered a better choice than refined sugar, but it isn’t a significant source of nutrition,” Begun says.
Honey does contain more fructose than table sugar, but not by a landslide, so Begun says it’s no worse than the white stuff.
If you have trouble digesting fructose, though, honey may cause you to experience gas or bloating, in which case you may want to limit or avoid it completely, Begun adds.
Honey may well be a better bet than table sugar, but it’s still not the sweet cure-all some people claim it is. Damn you, dried bee vom. We thought you had our backs.
4. Maple syrup
What is it? Sap from the maple tree that’s been boiled until thick. (Note that it’s different from pancake syrup, which is basically table sugar in liquid form.)
Best uses: Maple syrup has a rich, distinct flavor that’s delicious in both sweet and savory dishes. As with other liquid sweeteners, cut down the amount of sugar you’d use by a third to substitute it in baked goods.
Is it better for you? Maple syrup contains minerals like zinc, calcium, riboflavin, and magnesium, as well as a range of antioxidants.
But you’ll only get tiny amounts (we’re talking less than 1 percent of your daily value) in a spoonful of the stuff, so it’s not exactly a health food.
Calorie-wise, it’s about the same as white sugar, and because maple syrup is an equal split of glucose and fructose, your body processes the two sweeteners in a similar way, Caspero says.
You’re deceptively tasty, maple. But we’re not fooled by your natural beauty. You’re still sugar.
What are they? Fruits from the date palm tree. Dates can be eaten fresh, but unless you live in a region that grows them (such as southern California or the Middle East), you’ll usually find them dried.
They’re sticky and chewy, and taste a bit like caramel. Which is a fantastic look for a fruit.
Best uses: In smoothies or homemade nut milks, where it’s easy to purée them in the blender.
Is it better for you? “Dates are a whole food, so they actually contribute nutrients, particularly fiber, to the food they sweeten,” Begun says.
One 19.7-calorie date contains just over 0.5 gram of fiber — not much, but it’s better than other sweeteners, which have none. Their energy boost makes them a great mid-run snacks.
(But don’t get too excited about the small dose. Many foods that would otherwise warrant a sprinkling of table sugar already provide fiber.) Dates also have small amounts of calcium and potassium.
However, they’re not that practical as a sweetener (hark back to the coffee example in the opener), so their uses are limited. And sweeteners only work if you can use them to make something sweeter.
6. Coconut sugar
What is it? Sugar that’s made from the sap of the coconut palm tree.
Best uses: Taste- and texture-wise, it’s a lot like brown sugar — and you can sub it one-for-one in recipes.
Is it better for you? Like maple syrup, coconut sugar contains trace amounts of minerals such as potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium.
But you’d have to eat at least 1/4 cup to reap the nutritional benefits, which is way more sugar than anyone should have in a day, Caspero says.
According to the American Heart Association, women should stick to less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, and men should max out at no more than 9 teaspoons.)
“Because coconut sugar contains less fructose than white sugar, your liver metabolizes it in a healthier way,” Caspero says. That means less of it would potentially turn into fat.
But since coconut sugar is between 70 and 80 percent sucrose, it still raises your blood sugar.
What is it? To make this sweetener, the leaves of the stevia plant are dried, and the concentrated extract is filtered and turned into powder or liquid. The final product is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and some people complain that it has a bitter aftertaste.
You might remember it being switched out for a poison in Breaking Bad. But don’t worry, it’s highly unlikely someone has switched out your supply, unless you happen to have had a run-in with a meth mogul.
Best uses: Smoothies, coffee, or puddings — since it doesn’t caramelize like sugar, it can be tough to bake with. For every teaspoon of sugar, swap in 2 to 3 drops of liquid stevia or 1/4 teaspoon of stevia powder.
Is it better for you? Stevia is probably most known as a natural zero-calorie sweetener — but since it doesn’t contain any calories, it doesn’t deliver any nutrients either.
However, at appropriate quantities, neither do any of the other alternatives on this list.
No calories also means it has no effect on your blood sugar.
If sugar alcohols are problematic for you, look for stevia made without sugar alcohols.
No type of sweetener is a health food — and the fact that one contains minuscule amounts of nutrients isn’t license to eat endless amounts of it.
Put another way: If you’re eating enough honey to get nutritional benefits from its trace minerals, you’re doing way more harm than good with the amount of sugar you’re consuming.
Plus, since most of us aren’t eating sugar by itself, the blood sugar impact of the sweet stuff depends on other factors.
“Mixtures of foods affect blood sugar levels. It’s the whole meal that matters,” Begun says.
For example, a spoonful of honey in protein-rich Greek yogurt will spike your blood sugar less than the sugar in a cookie made with white flour.
So eat sugar sparingly, and pick your sweetener based on what tastes best to you.
“Advocating for one sugar over the other misses the point,” Begun says. “As a society, we eat way too much added sugar, and we should be limiting sugar intake and consuming it in moderation only.”
There you go. Choose your sweetener according to the flavors you like, don’t eat much of it, and, when you do, eat it alongside nutrient-rich foods that balance the sugar hit.
If you’re on a diet that restricts sugar intake, these should be the foods to focus on.
Here’s how to completely avoid sugar in your brekkie without sacrificing flavors.