Sweet as Sugar: Sugar Alternatives That Are Naturally Sweet
From agave and dates to stevia, coconut sugar, and more, we’ve got the scoop on natural sweeteners. Read on for health benefits, recipes, and substitution tips.
“With true friends, even water drunk together is sweet enough.” Alternately attributed as an African or Chinese proverb, there’s truth to that quote, though to look at modern food systems and recipes, it’s easy to forget. Until relatively recently in human history, sugar was a very expensive indulgence, valued as both a medicine and — as weird as it may sound today — a spice.
The ugly backstory on sugar
Sugar’s current status as an abundantly available, cheap commodity has a brutal backstory. Sugarcane is notoriously difficult to cultivate; the desire for its sweet product — and the potential for huge profits — was a major driver of the slave trade. That we developed a collective taste for the intensely sweet came at an extreme human cost.
How much sugar do Americans consume?
Sugar beets ultimately proved easier to grow than cane; most of the table sugar found in home kitchens today comes from them, and as it turns out, we consume quite a lot of it. Generally speaking, Americans eat and drink far more added sugar than is healthful, and it comes from many sources — think high-fructose corn syrup, maltose, dextrose, etc. — beyond the granulated white stuff in our pantries. When it comes to commercially available products, the fewer of these added, often hidden sugars we eat, the better.
Estimates of just how much added sugar we consume vary wildly, and the real number is hard to pin down, but it’s sufficiently shocking to note that in the 1800s, the average American ate about 6 pounds of refined sugar per year; according to the University of California, San Francisco’s SugarScience website, that figure is closer to 66 pounds today, or about 19.5 teaspoons per day. In baking terms, that’s between 1/3 and 1/2 cup per person per day!
So just how much added sugar is safe to enjoy?
The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend that added sugars comprise less than 10% of calories per day (presuming an individual’s caloric intake is appropriate in the first place). That translates to about 12 teaspoons in a 2000 calorie diet, though the American Heart Association has long advocated capping daily added sugar intake at 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men.
To be clear, these statistics refer to sugars added during food manufacturing or processing, not those that naturally occur in produce, grains, legumes, and other foods. There’s no need to get hopped up about the sugars in a carrot, for example, since carrots also contain lots of nutrients and fiber (the latter slows the absorption of those sugars in the bloodstream). An abundance of research has shown that diets rich in whole fruits and vegetables are undeniably health and wellness promoting, so the focus should really be on reducing added sugars, not avoiding that bowl of berries.
What's the scoop on artificial sweeteners?
Does that mean we ought to rely on artificial sweeteners, like saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal), asceulfame K, or sucralose (Splenda)? Not really. Though these sweeteners are either zero-calorie (non-nutritive) or very low in calories, they’re also generally between 200-700 times sweeter than sugar, and studies have shown that consuming them regularly may derail our ability to appreciate less intensely sweet foods. Other research demonstrated that diet soda drinkers appeared to be at significantly higher risk for developing metabolic syndrome or type 2 diabetes. Perhaps counterintuitively, they don’t tend to promote long-term weight loss, either. On the contrary, regular consumption of artificial sweeteners may be linked to weight gain; some researchers hypothesize that they may disrupt the gut microbiome, with a negative impact on metabolism.
From a culinary standpoint, they’re not ideal either; while sugar and other conventional sweeteners add bulk and texture, high-intensity sweeteners are used in quantities too small to lend structure or volume to baked goods or desserts. Splenda is sufficiently heat-stable for baking, so in a clever marketing move, the company has turned out baking blends made with sucralose and real sugar (sucrose). While these have half the calories of sugar, you also have to reduce the quantity by half in recipes. If you’re cutting the amount anyway, it may be better to forgo the brain tricking hyper-sweet boost, and get acclimated to the flavor of foods with less sugar (more on that later).
A better way: Natural sugar alternatives
That brings us back to sugar — and the question of sugar alternatives. Some dietitians point out that to our bodies, sugar is sugar. Whether it comes from sugar beets or cane, maple syrup or honey doesn’t really matter — it’ll be metabolized to produce glucose, our preferential fuel. And yet, there are some differences that make it worth getting acclimated with natural sugar substitutes. After all, sweet treats can signal celebration, symbolize love, mark fun moments, or make us smile. And it’s definitely possible to satisfy a sweet tooth with less impact on blood sugar.
There are lots of reasons to look to sugar alternatives, and some are straight-up culinary ones. There are other benefits as well. Some, like stevia or monk fruit, are lower in calories than sugar. Others, like molasses, maple syrup, or date sugar contain vital minerals, and have a lower glycemic load than sugar, which means they tend to raise blood sugar less aggressively. Sugar alcohols such as xylitol may help prevent tooth decay (that’s why you’ll find them in chewing gum and toothpaste), though the jury is out on whether they’re friendly to the gut microbiota. (As a side note, xylitol is toxic to dogs, so if you’ve got a pup, choose another option.)
Of course, take outsized praise about the healthfulness of any sweetener with a grain of salt (just not too many — excessive sodium intake isn’t a hot idea either … ). But if you want to give them a try, we’ve got the skinny on lots of natural sweeteners, their potential health benefits, and how best to use them. And of course, we’ve got fabulous recipes to help you find your favorite sugar alternatives.
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Choose a natural sweetener to get started:
Overview and recipes
Agave syrup or nectar comes from a succulent native to Mexico. The terms are used interchangeably, though some companies process their agave nectars at lower temperatures (these are usually labeled “raw”). For a while agave got a lot of buzz because it has a relatively low glycemic index and glycemic load, which would seem to make it ideal for those with diabetes. Unfortunately, it also contains much more fructose than other sweeteners. Fructose, aka “fruit sugar,” isn’t a big concern when it’s packaged in a fiber-rich whole fruit — in that case, the benefits of consumption generally outweigh any negligible risks. But served straight up, excessive fructose may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. That’s not to say you need to avoid agave altogether — just don’t lean on it as your primary sweetener.
Agave is about 25% sweeter than sugar, so you can use less. If you try it in baking, use 2/3 cup agave to replace 1 cup of sugar. Keep in mind that since it’s liquid, you’ll need to reduce the amounts of other liquids in the recipe (or bump up the dry ingredients). Agave browns quickly when baked, so if you’re substituting it in a recipe, lower your oven temperature by 25° F, and extend the baking time a bit.
More recipes with agave:
Overview and recipes
Stevia rebaudiana is a shrubby herb native to South America; its leaves have a long history of use among the indigenous GuaranÍ of Paraguay and Brazil as a sweetener, tea, and medicine. While stevia is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, the leaves also contain bitter glycosides. (Some theorize that the bitter aftertaste may naturally help inhibit stevia overconsumption, though this potential benefit is lost in the more heavily processed commercial preparations.)
Stevia is available in many forms. Extracts (which usually have a dropper) work well for sweetening drinks or salad dressings. Cup-for-cup sugar replacements, such as SweetLeaf or Truvia brands, contain relatively little stevia — the bulk of what’s in the bag is a sugar alcohol (no, it’s not intoxicating) called erythritol, which is used as a bulking agent. Stevia (and erythritol) won’t increase blood sugar, so may be an attractive option for those with diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Just be aware that some studies have found stevia may lower blood glucose levels; if you use it regularly and take insulin or an oral antihyperglycemic agent (antidiabetic medicine) be sure to monitor your blood sugar regularly and discuss any changes with your doctor in case your medication dosage needs adjustment. If you’re using a cup-for-cup product and have digestive diseases such as IBS, Crohn’s or SIBO, take care and start slow, as sugar alcohols can cause bloating and digestive upset, and may alter the makeup of the microbiome.
More recipes with stevia:
Dates, date syrup, & date sugar
Overview and recipes
Antioxidant-rich dates, aka “nature’s candy,” are among the world’s oldest sweeteners. They’re a good source of potassium and magnesium, and provide trace amounts of many other important nutrients. They’ve got a low glycemic index and, thanks to their fiber content, a relatively low glycemic load.
Dates are versatile, too. In recipes that benefit from their sticky, caramel-like texture (i.e. granola bars, energy balls, and cookie bars), they can simply be chopped or pureed and mixed in. Or, try date syrup (silan or date honey) or granulated date sugar. The former is great in smoothies or drizzled over sweet or savory dishes; the latter is ideal for baking. Date Lady, purveyor of an extensive line of high-quality date products, notes that due to its fiber content, date sugar tends to absorb liquid, so it’s a good idea to reduce the flour in your recipe by 25% if you’re swapping it cup-for-cup with regular sugar.
More date recipes:
Overview and recipes
Monk fruit is derived from luo han guo, a melon that grows in China and Thailand. Mogroside, the compound responsible for monk fruit’s sweet flavor, is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, but it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels. Most monk fruit products are mixed with erythritol for bulk in baking or cooking (Lakanto is a popular brand), but there are a few sources for pure monk fruit powder or extract (NuNaturals offers both) — just a pinch or drop is sufficient for sweetening drinks, yogurt, or cereal.
More recipes with monk fruit:
Overview and recipes
Honey is another sweetener that’s been used since ancient times, and may have benefits beyond flavor. Studies have documented its antibacterial and antifungal properties (sterile honey is even used in wound dressings), and local honey may have some utility in easing environmental allergy symptoms. While it has a relatively low glycemic index and load, care should be taken by those with diabetes — a recent study noted weight loss but increased Hemoglobin A1C levels in participants eating 50 grams (about 7 teaspoons) of honey a day for 8 weeks.
Honey’s viscous nature makes it a natural for sweetening beverages or in marinades and dressings. It works well in baking, too, though you may need to reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe. Note that honey (raw or cooked) should never be served to infants under 1 year old due to the risk of infant botulism.
More recipes with honey:
Overview and recipes
Coconut sugar (aka coconut palm sugar) is made from the sap of coconut palm flowers — not from the coconuts themselves. While it contains trace amounts of iron, zinc, calcium, and potassium, it isn’t especially rich in nutrients, and its glycemic index and load are only slightly lower than that of regular sugar. Still, it contains inulin, a prebiotic that supports healthy bacteria in the gut, and may help prevent spikes in blood sugar. The real attraction is its complex, caramel like flavor; try it as a stand in for brown sugar.
More recipes with coconut sugar:
Maple syrup & maple sugar
Overview and recipes
There’s something a little magical about pure maple syrup. The boiled-down sap of maple trees is quite nutrient-rich, which makes sense when you consider its job is to carry nourishment through the trees. An excellent source of manganese and riboflavin, and a good source of zinc, maple syrup is antioxidant-rich and has a low glycemic load. Its flavor is complex, with balanced umami notes, which makes it ideal for both sweet and savory applications. If you’re using syrup to replace sugar in baked goods use a bit less.
Try 2/3 to 3/4 cup in place of 1 cup of sugar; you may need to reduce other liquids by 2 to 4 tablespoons as well. Maple sugar (evaporated, granulated syrup) can be substituted cup-for-cup for white sugar.
More maple syrup and maple sugar recipes:
Overview and recipes
Molasses is a byproduct of sugar making. Thick and sweet, with deep, earthy notes, this is the stuff left behind as sugar crystals are refined out of cane or sugar beet juice. Unsulfured molasses has the best flavor — light molasses is lighter and sweeter, dark molasses is more complex, and blackstrap molasses is the most intense and least sweet.
Molasses is fairly rich in nutrients as well; it’s a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium, among others. It also displays antioxidant activity.
More molasses recipes:
Alternatives to the alternatives: Real sugar, just less of it
If you simply want to reduce the sugar in a recipe, but aren’t that concerned about replacing it outright, here’s a tip I learned from a recipe development professor who grew up in England during WWII, when food rationing required lots of recipe adaptation: Know that you can generally cut the sugar quantity in a recipe by about 1/3, and most folks won’t notice.
Sugar provides structure and desirable browning in baked goods, but if you’re willing to experiment, you can often cut it even more — start with the 1/3 reduction, and see how you like the results. If they’re good, reduce the sugar by an additional 2 tablespoons the next time you make the recipe, until you hit the perfect (not too) sweet spot. Pencil in the changes on the recipe so you’ll remember what you changed.
More low-sugar options
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