Natural Sugar Substitutes: 10 Healthier Alternatives to Refined Sugar

Sugar is the main ingredient in most of the foods and beverages we consume – even fruits and milk. But it is the refined sugar found in processed foods that is contributing to the obesity epidemic in the U.S. today and the rise in Type 2 diabetes. 

Eliminating refined sugar from your diet can help you improve your health and lose weight. Artificial sweeteners such as Splenda, Sweet ‘n’ Low and Equal are the most common sugar substitutes because they are so easily available in grocery stores and restaurants. Yet many experts claim that artificial sweeteners are toxic because they are made from chemicals and therefore should be avoided. If that’s the case, what other alternatives are there?

The good news is that there are a number of natural sugar substitutes, some of which even have nutritional properties and lower glycemic index than others. Below is a list of ten natural sugar substitutes you can experiment with when cooking, baking and adding to already prepared meals and drinks.

Stevia

In its natural state, stevia is an excellent healthy sugar alternative. This sweetener is up to 300 times sweeter than table sugar, yet its glycemic index rating is negligible. That is, it doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar, which is why it is popular among those with diabetes. In December 2008, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved rebaudioside-A, a compound extracted from the stevia plant, as a food additive. Since then, a number of commercially-available stevia-based sweeteners have been introduced, including popular brand names Truvia™ and PureVia™.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol sweetener found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables. Like other sugar alcohols, this sweetener may cause indigestion, bloating and diarrhea upon initial consumption. However, it has few calories and a low glycemic index, so it is considered a healthy sugar alternative for those with diabetes. Xylitol also helps fight cavities and is commonly an ingredient in chewing gum.

Raw Honey

Many alternative health experts consider raw honey a superfood. Raw, unprocessed honey is packed with antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates and phytonutrients. However, processed honey is stripped of these nutrients and no better than white table sugar, so be sure to read labels when shopping for honey. Some types of honey, such as red clover honey or orange blossom honey, have a lower glycemic index. That is, they dissolve more slowly into the bloodstream and have less effect on blood sugar levels.

Agave Nectar

Sweeter than honey, agave nectar is a combination of fructose and glucose sugars. This syrup is obtained by extracting and purifying the sap of the blue agave plant. The syrup from this native Mexican plant blends quickly and is popular in both hot and cold drinks. In addition, agave nectar has a low glycemic index, so it does not have much effect on blood sugar levels.   

Maple Syrup

This naturally-occurring sweetener is another excellent substitute for refined sugar. High in trace minerals like zinc and manganese, maple syrup can help balance cholesterol levels. However, it has a fairly high glycemic index, which can cause blood glucose to spike, so diabetics should be aware of this and consume in moderation.

Brown Rice Syrup

While far less refined than table sugar, this sweetener is approximately 45% maltose, a type of sugar with a high glycemic index value. Foods high on the glycemic index tend to cause spikes in blood sugar. If you have diabetes, be sure to read the nutrition label and if this ingredient is listed, consume the product in moderation or avoid it altogether.

Barley Malt Syrup

This natural sugar substitute is made by malting barley grains, which produces a type of sugar known as maltose. The sweetener, which is about half as sweet as refined sugar, has a unique molasses-like flavor and a distinctive rich, dark color. It is popular for use in cooking, baking and brewing beer. However, barley malt syrup is 65% maltose, which is high on the glycemic index, so if you have diabetes, be aware of this when reading nutrition labels and consuming products or baked goods with this sweetener.

Evaporated Cane Juice

This healthy alternative to white table sugar does not undergo the same degree of processing that refined sugar does, so it retains more of the nutrients found in sugar cane. When consumed in moderation, evaporated cane juice is a natural source of sweetness that can be a part of a healthy diet. This natural sugar substitute can be used just like sugar for sweetening foods and beverages, which is why you may find it in a host of processed foods. If you’re reading nutrition labels, you may also see it listed by other names including dried cane juice, crystallized cane juice or milled cane sugar.

Black Strap Molasses

White refined table sugar is sugar cane minus all the nutrition, whereas black strap molasses contains all the nutrition that was taken away. When sugar cane is processed, its juice is extracted and boiled three times. The first boiling produces the crystallized sugar we know as table sugar. Black strap molasses is the concentrated byproduct of the third boiling and contains nutrients such as iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese and potassium. This sweetener is a popular alternative to refined brown sugar in baked goods and baked beans.

Organic Sugar

As you would expect, organic sugar is derived from sugar cane grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides. It is typically darker in color than table sugar because it is not processed to the degree that white sugar is, and it contains some molasses. 

Choose Your Sugars Wisely

There are plenty of healthy alternatives to refined white table sugar, but some may be better than others regarding their effect on blood glucose levels. If you have diabetes, be sure to read the nutrition label on any product you buy so you can make an informed choice when it comes to the source of sugar in the food you eat. And if you do try a product with a type of sugar you’ve never had, be sure to test your blood sugar to determine its effect.