Are Natural Sugar Alternatives Healthier than Real Sugar?
By Bryony Crane, RD, CDE, Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator
Virtua Diabetes Care
Sugar is one of the most talked-about topics in nutrition today. Experts agree that eating too much refined sugar is unhealthy and contributes to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues. There’s still a lot of discussion regarding the safety of refined sugar vs. artificial sweeteners, but now we’re adding natural sugar alternatives to the conversation.
As more natural sugar alternatives become available on grocery store shelves, it can be difficult to decode which sweetener is best—especially for people trying to lose weight or those with diabetes who are trying to control their blood sugar.
Here’s what you need to know.
What’s “added sugar” and how much should you have?
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar per day for men and 6 teaspoons per day for women to maintain or achieve peak health. But, limiting ourselves to those numbers is difficult. American diets are full of foods with added sugars. For example, one 12-ounce can of regular cola alone contains a little more than 9 teaspoons of added sugar.
Also, it can be tough to decipher what’s actually sugar in what you’re eating. Here’s the AHA’s list of “added sugars” you might see on a food label or ingredient list:
- Brown sugar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup
- Fruit juice concentrates
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt sugar
- Raw sugar
- Sugar molecules ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose)
What are “natural” sugar alternatives?
To cut back on added sugars or to improve the nutritional value of the sugars they’re consuming, some people are turning to natural sugar alternatives. Because many natural sugar alternatives are sweeter than refined sugar, it’s possible to use less and still achieve the same taste.
Here are some of the most commonly used natural sweeteners and their health benefits.
Sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, xylitol and erythritol have lower calories than sugar. Although they still contain carbohydrates, they minimize blood sugar spikes because they’re harder for the body to digest. Sugar alcohols often are found in foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.” It’s important to note that excess consumption of foods containing sugar alcohols can cause digestive problems such as gas and diarrhea.
Monk fruit extract is a natural sweetener that has no calories, carbohydrates, sodium or fat, and it has no effect on blood sugar. Monk fruit sweetener is 150 to 200 times sweeter than refined sugar, therefore, less is definitely more.
Stevia is an almost calorie-free natural sweetener made from a highly refined extract of the stevia plant. Some brands of stevia contain other additives, such as dextrose, sugar alcohol or maltodextrin, which add tiny amounts of carbohydrates and calories.
Honey is considered an “added sugar” but it’s still a natural alternative to refined sugar, and it doesn’t contain additives or preservatives. Because it’s much sweeter than sugar, you can use less to achieve the same taste.
Honey often is used to sweeten yogurt or smoothies and has a lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning that it takes the body longer to break it down.
Although date sugar resembles brown sugar, it’s actually made from granulated dried dates. Because it’s made from the whole fruit, it has more fiber and antioxidants than regular sugar.
Date sugar works well as a substitute for brown sugar in baked goods, but it’s difficult to blend into beverages because of its grainy texture.
Coconut sugar has more antioxidants and nutrients than refined sugar and contains a prebiotic called inulin that supports gut health. Like honey, it’s a lower-glycemic sweetener, but it’s still mostly sugar and should be used sparingly.
Baking and cooking with sugar alternatives
Each natural sugar alternative functions differently when used in cooking and baking. Because natural sugar alternatives have different flavors and consistencies (some even available in liquid form), they may alter the taste and appearance of your favorite recipes.
Since some natural sugar alternatives are sweeter than refined sugar, you may want to reduce the amount you add to recipes. Or, follow the manufacturer’s recommended equivalent sugar measurement.
You also can experiment with adjusting other ingredients to achieve the best taste, texture and browning, particularly in baked goods.
To talk to a Virtua registered dietitian about reducing your sugar intake, make an appointment by calling 1-888-VIRTUA-3.
Updated December 29, 2017