According to the American Heart Association (AHA), adults should consume between 25-38 grams of added sugar every day. Unfortunately, the average American consumes 3-6 times of the recommended amount.
Because sugar is everywhere and easily available, we often unknowingly consume far more sugar than we ought to. For instance, sweet potatoes are rich in natural sugars like fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Meanwhile, a chocolate fudge cake for dessert is more than enough to meet your daily quota for added sugars. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics advised parents not to feed fruit juices to babies who are not yet a year old due to the beverages’ high sugar content.
While the human body doesn’t need sugar to survive, most natural sugars present in whole foods occur alongside nutrients required for your overall health and wellness. In that sense, it can be impossible to skip sugar entirely, which is why it’s important to focus on cutting down on added sugar whenever possible.
Sugar consumption is only an issue when you overdose on it. One of the most effective ways to reduce your daily sugar intake is to use natural sugar substitutes.
The Chronic Dangers of Sugar Overconsumption
We all know that sugar consumption is the epitome of “too much of a good thing.” Overloading on sugar can lead to:
- Weight gain and obesity
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
- Neurodegenerative disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease
- Poor oral health
Research also indicates a high-sugar diet alters the gut microbiota to promote systemic inflammation in your body. This can lead to digestive and non-digestive ailments, like inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) and metabolic syndrome.
What Else Can You Use Instead of Sugar?
If you are ready to step off the sugar train and try your hand at natural sweeteners instead, you’re in for a treat. Before we go any further, let’s talk about what natural sugar substitutes stand for.
Unlike refined sugar (also known as added sugars) and artificial sweeteners (for example, Aspartame), natural sweeteners are the healthier alternatives to indulging your sweet tooth. Natural sugar substitutes are minimally processed and typically consist of a single ingredient. Common examples include coconut sugar, pure maple syrup, and raw honey.
The Best Natural Sugar Substitutes
The good news is, replacing conventional sugar with natural sugar substitutes is easier than you might expect. For one, there are various options to suit individual needs. If you need dry sugar for your recipe, Coconut sugar and Stevia instantly come to mind. Liquid alternatives like Molasses and Yacon syrup are great for cooking and baking, too.
Natural substitutes for sugar are widely available everywhere. From your local health food store to Walmart to Amazon, there are endless choices to cater to different budgets and taste buds. Below, we share some of the best natural substitutes to go sugar-free.
Coconut sugar (or coconut palm sugar) is extracted from the sap of the coconut tree. The sap is dried to create crystallized coconut sugar particles.
Coconut sugar ranks high on the list of natural sugar substitutes because it’s unrefined and dissolves the same way as table sugar does. This makes it easy to work with when cooking and baking. If you like the scent of coconut or brown sugar, use it as you would with regular sugar in your coffee and tea. If the recipe calls for it, you can melt coconut sugar to form a syrup.
Because coconut sugar is minimally processed, it contains some of its natural micronutrients, such as vitamins, fiber, and minerals. Its antioxidative properties are also more formidable than sugar palm and sugarcane juices, making it a healthier alternative.
As a bonus, this natural sweetener has a low glycemic index (GI) of 35, much lower than table sugar’s GI of 65. In other words, coconut sugar is less likely to raise your blood sugar levels, making it ideal for diabetic individuals.
Although touted as a natural sugar substitute, too much coconut sugar consumption can increase your risk of health problems like obesity and heart disease. So, it’s best to practice moderation when using coconut sugar in your meals.
Pure Maple Syrup
Did you know that pure maple syrup has at least 24 types of antioxidants? This is why it’s one of the most popular natural sweeteners out there. It’s used in a wide variety of recipes as a liquid sweetener, from foods to drinks. Case in point: Breakfast pancakes drenched in 100% pure organic maple syrup.
Pure maple syrup comes from the sap of the maple tree. This natural sugar substitute is a good source of minerals like phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. It also contains sucrose, glucose, and fructose. This is why maple syrup is healthier than regular sugar while still satisfying your cravings for sweets.
A recent study published in the Journal of Nutrients found that natural sweeteners, like maple syrup and molasses, reduced the likelihood of insulin resistance in rat models. In another study, scientific evidence suggests that “maple syrup may have a lower glycemic index than sucrose,” helping to prevent Type 2 diabetes. In other words, you have every reason to swap table sugar for pure maple syrup in your quest for healthy eating.
Pure honey is another nutrient-rich sweetener that’s healthier than table sugar. The former boasts a rich phytochemical profile as it contains phenolic acids and flavonoids in abundance. It also possesses amino acids, vitamins (such as vitamin C and the B vitamins), and minerals.
Depending on where the honey is harvested, this sugar substitute contains fructose and glucose in varying compositions. Research explains that “fructose-rich honey varieties may be considered as a beneficial alternative to high GI sweeteners” when managing diabetes and heart diseases.
Compared to regular table sugar, pure honey also enjoys a lower GI. In recent years, scientists have made a strong case for honey as a potential anti-diabetic agent. More research is still pending regarding the exact dosage for diabetic patients.
The only caveat is that when heated, honey loses some of its enzymes and nutrients. This can lead to fewer health benefits once consumed. To preserve its full nutritional value, consume honey at room temperature. You can add a spoonful of honey to cold drinks and foods, like iced lattes and yogurt bowls, in place of regular sugar.
Molasses is a thick syrup that’s formed from boiling sugar cane or beet juice. As a natural sweetener, molasses ranks low on the GI scale. A 2014 study showed that molasses lowered post-meal blood glucose rise by 5-20%. It also noted that molasses is “capable of modifying carbohydrate metabolism and contributing to GI reduction of processed foods and beverages.”
Molasses is generally classified into:
- Light molasses: Created from boiling sugar cane or beet juice once.
- Dark molasses: Created from boiling sugar cane or beet juice twice.
- Blackstrap molasses: Created from boiling sugar cane or beet juice three times.
If you’re using molasses for bakes and beverages, go for the light and dark varieties. While blackstrap molasses is the most nutritious of all three types, it has a slightly bitter taste that may not appeal to everyone.
Yacon syrup is made from the juice of the yacon tubers, a plant native to South America. In folk medicine, yacon roots are used for their blood sugar-lowering properties. Because yacon tastes sweet and crunchy when consumed raw, it’s a popular food among dieters and diabetics.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Nutrients explained that yacon roots:
- Boost glucose absorption in the peripheral tissues,
- Lower glucose production,
- Enhance insulin tolerance in the liver, and,
- Raise pancreatic insulin production
Using yacon syrup will therefore give you the above benefits that regular sugar cannot provide.
Yacon syrup is also highly nutritious as it contains:
- Fructooligosaccharides (FOS): These prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria in your gut to support digestive health. Plus, their subtly sweet taste and low-calorie content make yacon syrup a natural substitute for sugar.
- Inulin: This is another type of prebiotic that is often used as a low-calorie sweetener while boosting gut health. It also lowers blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetic individuals.
In a study involving obese and insulin-resistant pre-menopausal women, daily consumption of yacon syrup significantly reduced their body weight and body mass index (BMI). The natural sweetener also increased bowel movements and promoted a sensation of fullness, which could help curb hunger pangs. As such, yacon syrup may aid in weight loss management.
Wondering how to add yacon syrup to your meals? You can use it in place of table sugar in baked goods and smoothies. Just note that the syrup may increase the moistness factor of your cakes and muffins.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
Many dieters swear by monk fruit sweetener as their go-to natural sugar substitute. Native to South China, monk fruit extract is commonly known as “luo han guo” and botanically named “Siraitia grosvenorii.” In fact, the monk fruit has been used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for more than 300 years!
Did you know that monk fruit extract is also 300 times as sweet as sugar? You can credit the bioactive compounds in monk fruit extract — scientifically called mogrosides — for its ultra-sweet profile. Monk fruit extract also features anti-diabetic and anti-inflammatory properties, making it ideal for diabetic people.
A recent study involving rat models backs this up. When diabetic rats ate yogurt sweetened with monk fruit extract, the results showed:
- Improved blood glucose regulation
- Decreased insulin resistance
- Improved gut microbiota
- Diminished liver and kidney damage
The researchers of this study concluded that monk fruit sweetener “may be a good alternative” to sugar for Type 2 diabetic individuals to “delay the progression of diabetes and associated complications.”
The best part about monk fruit sweetener is that it’s versatile as a natural sugar substitute. You can use it to sweeten your drinks, like coffees, teas, and smoothies. Or replace it with regular sugar in baking and cooking recipes. Keep in mind, though, that monk fruit extract is much sweeter than sugar. You may need to reduce its amount to find the perfect ratio that suits your taste buds.
Stevia is another widely used zero-calorie natural sweetener. It’s extracted from Stevia rebaudiana, a plant that’s native to South America. More than 200 years ago, indigenous people chewed on stevia leaves and used them as a beverage sweetener. Now, it’s commercially grown in many parts of the world, such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the United States.
Even though stevia is 50-350 times sweeter than regular sugar, it’s safe to use as a sugar substitute for obese and diabetic people. A few clinical trials have found that stevia significantly lowered post-meal blood glucose levels for healthy and diabetic individuals.
On top of that, a systematic review and meta-analysis highlighted that stevia consumption led to a subtle but significant fall in blood glucose concentration. While more research is needed in this area, this natural sweetener shows potential in slowing down the effects of diabetes.
Because stevia comes in powdered and liquid forms, you can easily incorporate it into your drinks, baked goods, and meals.
Sweeten Things Up the Natural Way
Living a sugar-free life doesn’t necessarily mean the death knell for your taste buds. As you can see, numerous natural sugar substitutes are just as sweet — or even more so — than regular sugar. Most importantly, both healthy and diabetic people can enjoy many of these sweet alternatives.
With that said, the above sugar substitutes are high in natural sugars, like fructose and glucose. As such, natural sweeteners should still be consumed in moderation, just like you would with table sugar.
When looking to buy substitutes for sugar, be sure to read the ingredients list on the package. Some of the above mentioned natural sweeteners are often combined with others that are anything but natural. Ideally, try to get single ingredient sweeteners. If you see that the package contains additional ingredients, be sure to do some research on them in order to get a good idea of how they might affect your health.