According to the American Heart Association’s heart-healthy guidelines, people should not consume more than 100 to 150 calories from added sugars. Added sugars are the sugars and syrups added to foods during processing or preparation.
Every organ in your body from head to toe is affected by sugar. It can lead to diabetes, tooth decay, obesity, heart disease, certain types of cancer and even poor cognitive functioning.
Refined sugar is a common form of added sugar that should be avoided. Instead of refined sugar, you should opt for natural sweeteners to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are healthier options than processed table sugar or other artificial sugar substitutes.
In fact, fruits make a healthy option to satisfy your sweet tooth, but you cannot add fruits to most beverages and many recipes that call for sugar.
There are many natural sweeteners that are healthy sugar substitutes, which can be used in many ways.
Here are the top 10 natural sweeteners and sugar alternatives.
1. Raw Honey
Raw honey is one of the best natural sweeteners, and it is also healthy for your mind and body.
It is made from the nectar of flowers and collected by honey bees. It has 80 percent natural sugars, 18 percent water and 2 percent minerals, vitamins, pollen and protein. Fructose and glucose make up 70 percent of honey’s natural sugar content.
Honey is packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Due to the presence of powerful antiseptic, antibacterial, antimicrobial and healing properties, honey is also used as medicine to treat many common health problems, from acne to the common cold.
Always use honey that’s been organically and locally produced to reap the full benefits.
Simply drizzle honey on breakfast cereals, toast and yogurt. You can even use it for salad dressings. Also, you can add honey to lemon water, tea or coffee. As honey contains calories, it should be used in limited amounts.
Note: To maintain as many of its nutrients as possible, never heat raw honey. Also, do not give raw honey to children below 1 year of age.
Stevia is another healthy sugar alternative. It is made from the leaves of the warm-climate stevia rebaudiana plant. It is more than 200 times as sweet as sugar and is available in different forms, such as liquid drops, packets, dissolvable tablets and baking blends.
This natural sweetener has antioxidant and antidiabetic properties. It can suppress your plasma glucose levels and significantly increase glucose tolerance. It has no calories, contains no sugar or carbohydrates and boasts a low glycemic index, making it ideal for people who are trying to lose weight or those who have diabetes.
According to the World Health Organization, the acceptable daily intake of stevia is 4 mg per kilogram of a person’s body weight.
The best way to consume stevia is to grow the plant yourself and use the whole leaves to sweeten foods. Highly refined extracts of stevia that are commercially available are not too healthy as the processing methods change the herb’s properties. Plus, they tend to increase the desire for sweet foods and drinks.
Unlike raw honey, stevia can be heated and hence can be used in cooking as a sugar substitute.
Dates are the sweet fruit from the date palm tree that can be used as a healthy alternative to sugar. The sugar content of ripe dates is about 80 percent, and the quality of dates depends on the glucose, fructose and sucrose content.
Along with the dates, you can use the sugar made from dried dates. Retaining many of the nutritional benefits of dates, it has a rich sweet flavor that is very similar to brown sugar.
Both the dates and the sugar are rich in iron. They are also good sources of potassium, protein, dietary fiber, calcium, B vitamins as well as vitamins A and C. They also have trace minerals including copper, magnesium, manganese, selenium and zinc.
Due to their anti-infective, anti-inflammatory and antihemorrhagic properties, this natural sugar alternative is immensely good for your health. Dates are easily digested and help metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
Due to the sugar content, it is recommended to eat dates in moderation. You only need a handful daily to enjoy the health benefits.
4. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is made from the sap, a sugary fluid, of maple trees.
The process of making maple syrup is long and complicated. It involves drilling a hole in the maple tree, hanging a bucket to catch the sap, boiling it to evaporate out the water and finally filtering out any sediment.
There are several different grades of maple syrup, depending on the color. Grade B is the darkest and has the strongest flavor.
This natural sweetener is comprised of 70 percent sucrose, with a low fructose level. It is very healthy, containing a good amount of manganese, calcium, potassium and zinc. It is also rich in antioxidants, which help neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative damage, potentially lowering the risk of chronic diseases.
Maple syrup is heat stable, hence it can be used to make marinades, sauces and baked goods. You can also use it to sweeten coffee, tea, smoothies and even your morning bowl of oatmeal.
5. Agave Syrup
Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, is a healthy alternative to sugar. This sweetener is commercially produced from several species of agave plants. The taste of this syrup is comparable, though not identical, to honey.
This nutritive sweetener contains carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.
It is best to use agave in limited quantities because although it ranks relatively low on the glycemic index, it has a high content of fructose. Fructose does not readily raise blood sugar levels, but excess intake can affect liver function and lead to weight gain.
Agave syrup is 1.4 to 1.6 times sweeter than sugar. It is one of the best vegan alternatives to honey for those who choose to exclude animal products from their diets.
As the syrup dissolves quickly, it can be used as a sweetener for cold beverages as well as hot breakfast cereals.
Jaggery, also called gur, is another natural alternative for sugar. It is a by-product of sugar cane processing and is used as a traditional Indian sweetener.
As it is processed without chemicals, jaggery retains several minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium.
It keeps the body warm and activates enzymes that aid in digestion and prevent constipation. Plus, jaggery improves immune function, treats flu-like symptoms, regulates high blood pressure, promotes liver detoxification, purifies the blood, relaxes muscles, reduces headaches, and relieves menstrual pains.
Being rich in iron, it is also good for treating iron-deficiency anemia.
Although jaggery has numerous health benefits, it should not be considered as a safe sugar substitute for diabetics. Nonetheless, it is definitely a healthier option than your regular table sugar.
7. Blackstrap Molasses
Blackstrap molasses is a by-product of the sugar production process. It comes from the third boiling of raw sugar cane, concentrating its nutrients and providing its deep, rich flavor.
It is rich in all the nutrients extracted from sugar during the refining process. It is a good source of iron and calcium. It also has copper, magnesium, zinc, selenium and potassium in it. Plus, it’s free of fat and cholesterol and contains negligible amounts of sodium.
As it has a moderate glycemic load of 55, it is a good sugar substitute for diabetics and people who are trying to lose weight.
It has a unique, rich flavor and can be used for topping toast, porridges or other concentrated applications. It is also a perfect sweetener for marinades and to use in baking.
8. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar, also known as coco sugar, coconut palm sugar or coconut blossom sugar, is a type of natural sugar produced from the sap of cut flower buds of the coconut palm. This natural sugar substitute has been used as a traditional sweetener in the South and Southeast Asian regions for thousands of years.
The sugar is made by making a cut on the flower of the coconut palm, collecting the liquid sap and heating it to allow the water to evaporate.
It has a subtly sweet taste, almost like brown sugar but with a slight hint of caramel. The major component of coconut sugar is sucrose, followed by glucose and fructose. It has 16 calories per teaspoon.
It is a good source of potassium and vitamin C. It contains relatively low content of essential nutrients, such as iron, zinc, calcium, phosphorous and other phytonutrients.
Coconut sugar is available in the market in crystal or granule form, blocks or liquid. It can be used in the same quantity as refined table sugar in recipes. As coconut sugar is also an added sugar, make sure you use it sparingly.
Xylitol is another natural alternative for sugar. It is made from plant fibers that can include those of berries, birch and, most often, cornhusks.
This naturally occurring sugar alcohol is commonly used in gums, candies, toothpaste and other items.
As xylitol is a five-carbon sugar, unlike most other sugars that have six, it can prevent the growth of bacteria. The California Dental Association reports that xylitol has been proven to prevent tooth decay by reducing cavities and strengthening tooth enamel.
It is good for your teeth, has very few calories and does not raise blood glucose levels.
It is equal in sweetness and volume to sugar, and the granular form can be used in similar ways as sugar, including to sweeten cereals and hot beverages and for baking.
10. Yacon Syrup
Made from the root of the yacon plant that grows in the Andes region of South America, yacon syrup is a healthy alternative to sugar.
The juices are extracted from the roots, then filtered and evaporated in a chemical-free manufacturing process. The final product is a thick, dark syrup that resembles molasses.
Being a prebiotic, this natural sweetener aids the absorption of calcium and other vitamins, and promotes healthy gut flora. This is turn promotes good digestion.
With an extremely low glycemic index score and a high concentration of indigestible inulin (a prebiotic fiber), yacon syrup is a great option for diabetics and those trying to lose weight.
You can use yacon syrup in baked goods, smoothies, desserts, sauces and dressings. You can have 4 to 5 teaspoons of yacon syrup a day.