For years, there’s been a tug-of-war over sugar substitutes — are they a boon for health issues like weight loss and diabetes management or an industrial scourge that’ll hand you a one-way ticket to cancer? Clearly, there’s a lot to break down around these foods.
Whether you’re going keto, trying to reduce your refined sugar intake, or just can’t find your usual supplies at the store right now, here’s a guide to all your options for replacing sugar, including commercial alternative sweeteners and natural swaps.
Sugar substitutes and alternative sweeteners can be separated into two main groups: natural sweeteners and artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that are very low in calories or contain no calories at all. Natural sweeteners are made from a range of different trees, fruits, and plants. Some are rich in carbohydrates and calories, while others are just as low in calories as artificial sweeteners.
You’ve probably heard of sucralose but by a different name: Splenda®. Sucralose is a very popular artificial sweetener that’s made from sucrose (sugar). Unlike sucrose, though, it has 0 calories.
Huh? How can it have no calories if it’s made from the same ingredient as sugar? A chemical process replaces hydrogen-oxygen groups with chlorine atoms, eliminating its calories.
Despite being 600 times sweeter than sugar, sucralose and sugar taste very similar. You can find sucralose in a range of different foods, including commercially prepared baked goods, dairy products, and drinks.
You can use sucralose in your own baked goods, too, at a ratio of 1:1 for regular sugar — but it might make things bake faster, so check them for doneness a little earlier than the recipe indicates.
First discovered in 1879, saccharin was the first artificial sweetener to be commercialized. It’s now used to make popular brand name products like Sweet Twin®, Sweet’N Low®, and Necta Sweet®. Saccharin is a zero-calorie sweetener that’s 200-700 times sweeter than sugar.
You’re likely to find it in beverages, processed foods, and certain medicines, like chewable aspirin. It’s stable at cooking temperature so you can use it in baked goods, but be careful about how much saccharin you add when cooking. It’s known for having a bitter, metallic aftertaste when used in large amounts.
Aspartame tastes similar to sugar but is 200 times sweeter. Brands like Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin® are all made with this artificial sweetener.
You’ll find aspartame in desserts, dairy products, breakfast cereals, and diet drinks like Diet Snapple, Coke Zero, and Minute Maid Light.
You won’t find this artificial sweetener in any baked goods, though, since it loses its sweetness when heated. Still, you can feel free to use smaller quantities to taste in un-heated recipes like lemonade, iced tea, or even pudding.
Like sugar, aspartame has 4 calories per gram. (It’s the only FDA-approved high-intensity sweetener that adds calories to your food.) However, it’s still considered to be a low-calorie sweetener, given how little of it is required to sweeten food.
Advantame is a fairly new artificial sweetener that’s derived from aspartame. However, it’s 70-120 times sweeter than aspartame and — get ready for it — around 20,000 times sweeter than sugar, making it one of the highest-intensity artificial sweeteners you can find.
Unlike aspartame, advantame can be heated and used in cakes, cookies, and other baked goods. In fact, it can be found in any type of food product except meat and poultry. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, it’s not sold as a brand name product, so you can’t experiment with it at home.
Acesulfame potassium is the artificial sweetener used to make Sunett® and Sweet One®. But on nutrition labels, you might see it listed as acesulfame K or Ace-K.
This artificial sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar. It has a strong, bitter flavor like saccharin, so you’re unlikely to find it used on its own. It’s usually combined with sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. Because of this bitter aftertaste, you also can’t use it 1:1 for regular sugar in baking.
You can find acesulfame potassium in lots of different foods and beverages, including Coke Zero, Fanta Zero, Minute Maid Light, Pedialyte, and Yoplait Light. You’re also likely to find it in candies, baked goods (since it doesn’t lose sweetness when heated), and frozen desserts.
Commonly known as Newtame®, neotame is 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than sugar. This zero-calorie sweetener is good at masking bitter flavors. It’s often used alongside other popular artificial sweeteners, like sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium.
Neotame is commonly used in supermarket-brand chewing gums, dairy products, and baked goods. You’ll find it mixed into salt substitutes and used in brand name items like Goya diet nectar and Mrs. Butterworth’s Sugar Free Syrup. But it’s not easy to come by for home use.
Stevia sweeteners come from the leaves of the stevia plant, Stevia rebaudiana, which is native to South America. However, the FDA doesn’t allow stevia leaves or “crude” extracts to be sold as sweeteners. (In animal studies, high dosages led to fertility problems.)
Only high-purity isolates of the stevia plant, known as steviol glycosides, can be integrated into your food.
There are several different types of steviol glycosides, including Rebaudioside A, Rebaudioside D, and Stevioside. However, most nutrition labels only state the words stevia leaf extract, stevia powder, or stevia liquid. They don’t usually specify which steviol glycosides were used.
Stevia sweeteners are around 200-400 times sweeter than sugar and have 0 calories. They’re also extremely ecologically friendly compared to other natural alternative sweeteners, thanks to the plant’s low carbon and water footprint.
A 2015 study found that, compared to beet sugar (the kind usually used to make the standard granulated white crystals), stevia had an 82% lower overall carbon footprint and a 92% lower water footprint.
For many people, the main downside of stevia is its aftertaste, which some describe as licorice-like. Beverages like Blue Sky Zero Sugar Cola and Suja Organic Energy drinks tend to blend it with other alternative sweeteners.
When stevia is sold as a sugar substitute, manufacturers also tend to mix it with other alternative sweeteners. It’s often mixed with sugar alcohols, dextrose (a simple sugar that comes from corn), maltodextrin (a highly processed starch), or cane sugar.
Popular stevia sugar alternatives like Stevia In The Raw®, Truvia®, and PureVia® all mix their stevia with ingredients like these, which makes them suitable for baking and cooking.
You can also find stevia blends with brown sugar and stevia confectioner’s sugar. If you’re keen on pure stevia, it’s most likely to be sold as a liquid concentrate or powder.
Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are a member of the carbohydrate family, but have fewer calories per gram than sugar and other carbs. This is because they’re not completely digestible and your gut can’t fully absorb them.
There are multiple types of sugar alcohols on the market, but they’re pretty easy to identify. You can think of them as the “-ols.” With a few exceptions, like isomalt, most of them have names that end in -ol, like erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol.
Sugar alcohols are naturally found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, and other plants. They can also be made from sugars and starches. The resulting products are about as sweet or a bit less sweet than sugar.
In their processed form, sugar alcohols generally taste a lot like sugar, but have a cooling, minty aftertaste. Part of the sweet-yet-cooling sensation associated with toothpaste and many chewing gums is because of sugar alcohols!
These alternative sweeteners are also used to make candy, cough drops, soft drinks, and a range of other products. And (yay!) unlike sugar, they’re good for your teeth.
Unfortunately, despite their low calorie content and health benefits, most sugar alcohols need to be consumed in limited amounts. They can cause gastrointestinal issues and act as laxatives when consumed in large amounts.
If you’re keen to cook with a sugar alcohol, consider using erythritol. Some research has shown that it’s less likely to cause these unpleasant side effects.
Monk fruit, also known as Siraitia grosvenorii (Swingle) C. Jeffrey (yes, that’s all one name, and no, we don’t know who C. Jeffrey is) or luo han guo, is native to southern China. Extracts from this plant are 100-250 times sweeter than sugar.
Monk fruit sweeteners are similar to stevia: They have 0 calories and are typically only sold as extracts. They’re also not likely to cause any gut issues (though they can when consumed in large quantities).
The main complaint you’ll generally hear about monk fruit extract is its fruity undertone. It may work well in your fruit smoothie or yogurt, but you might not enjoy it in drinks like coffee.
Many monk fruit sweeteners, like Monk Fruit in the Raw® and ZenSweet, mix their monk fruit extract with erythritol, dextrose, or maltodextrin, which can be used in baked goods and other recipes. Luckily, it’s also possible to buy pure monk fruit extract from vendors like Purisure® and Lakanto®.
Inulin and plant-based sweeteners
Inulin is a prebiotic fiber found in various plant-based products. It can also be extracted from certain plants and added into foods. Some sweeteners, like SweetLeaf Stevia®, mix inulin into their stevia rather than incorporating ingredients like maltodextrin or dextrose.
Some alternative sweeteners, like yacón syrup and artichoke syrup, contain naturally-occurring inulin.
Yacón syrup is a fruity liquid derived from a South American tuber called (you guessed it) the yacón. Artichoke syrup, made from Jerusalem artichokes, has a flavor similar to light molasses. Other popular natural sweeteners like pure maple syrup, coconut syrup, and coconut sugar also contain inulin.
All of these syrups have distinct flavors, since they’re made from different plants. They also have different amounts of inulin. Despite their sweetness, they tend to have slightly less sugars and fewer calories per gram than table sugar.
If you’re after a plant-based natural sweetener, make sure that you’re buying the real deal rather than a flavored product. For example, pure maple syrup can be a lower-glycemic alternative to sugar, but maple-flavored syrup is likely just some type of corn syrup or refined sugar.
And in baking, you can use 1 cup of maple syrup for every cup of sugar, but should reduce the other liquid in the recipe by 1/4.
Similar to plant-based sweeteners (but not vegan since it comes from bees), honey is another natural option you’re probably sweet on already.
Honey contains both sucrose and glucose. In baking, you can use it in place of sugar at a ratio of 3/4 cup honey for every cup of sugar, but should also reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe and add 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda (if there isn’t already baking soda in the recipe).
The darker the honey, the stronger its flavor, so you may want to stick to clover and other light honeys for baking. It has slightly more calories than sugar, but is a bit lower on the glycemic index, meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar to the same degree as white sugar.
The world of alternative sweeteners, both natural and artificial, continues to expand. By now, there’s a baker’s dozen (or more!) options for sweetening up your homemade treats — and store-bought ones too. Sprinkle, scoop, sip, and snack your way through this list to see which ones are your favorites.