As much as I go to great lengths to avoid sugar in my diet, I sometimes still need a little something sweet. And Valentine’s Day is one of those times I happily give into the temptation. Who’s with me?
Luckily, we can now be picky about which sweet treat is worth giving into. Natural sugar alternatives are showing up everywhere. But with so many options, it can be confusing to know what’s the best choice for us.
We already know eating too much refined sugar can lead to problems with weight, blood sugar, dental health, gut health, and heart health. Plus, it can wreak havoc on your skin. Acne, aging, and inflammatory issues like eczema and psoriasis can all be aggravated by eating too much sugar.
Indulging in treats on a holiday like Valentine’s Day, however, doesn’t have to involve overloading on refined sugar these days. And knowing a little about the alternatives can help you feel good about having your heart-shaped cake and eating it too.
It’s worth noting that some sugar alternatives might be made to sound like they must be healthy because they come from natural sources. But keep in mind that you can still have too much of them. So, it’s always wise to limit your intake of all types.
To help you choose your indulgence wisely, here’s a list of some of the more common natural alternatives to cane sugar. You’ll find these in many processed foods, and they can be used at home for sweetening your drinks like coffee or tea, and for cooking and baking. The list includes four options with calories and four options with no or low calories, and the good and bad about each.
This sweetener has become very popular over the past few years. It’s made from the sap of coconut palm tree flowers and is minimally processed to create small brown colored granules. The granules retain some of their nutrients, which include minerals like zinc and potassium, and contain small amounts of fiber.
Coconut sugar supplies small amounts of minerals and fiber, whereas refined sugar has none. You can easily swap it in baking as a substitute for regular sugar using a 1-for-1 ratio. It also has a bit of a caramel flavor. Reports vary, but some say that coconut sugar is less likely to spike blood sugar than regular sugar.
Coconut sugar has the same number of calories as regular sugar, so it isn’t better in terms of weight management or dental health. In baking, keep in mind that it’s more like brown sugar and will add some color and flavor to your food.
(Cue images of a forest in Vermont)
Maple syrup comes from the sap of sugar maple trees and is minimally processed. It retains a small amount of vitamins and minerals and is high in antioxidants. Syrups are graded based on how dark they are, and darker ones contain higher amounts of antioxidants.
The taste of maple syrup is rich and distinct. It makes a great addition to foods like oatmeal, pancakes, baked beans, and even some veggies. One of the benefits of maple syrup is that it contains minerals and is especially high in manganese and zinc. It’s also high in antioxidants, which help reduce the damage to your cells that contributes to aging and certain diseases. You can also bake with it and use it as a replacement for sugar, though you might need to adjust the other liquids.
Maple syrup is still high in sugar and calories, so it isn’t helpful for weight management or blood sugar concerns. The rich flavor might not go well with some recipes.
Agave syrup comes from – wait for it - the Agave plant, a succulent that primarily grows in the southwest and Mexico. Agave in its original sap form contains healthy fiber, but the fiber is destroyed after being highly processed to form the syrup. It does retain trace amounts of vitamins including B6, K and folate. It’s low in glucose and high in fructose.
Because agave syrup is low in glucose, it’s very low on the glycemic index and won’t cause a big spike in blood sugar like the above sugars. It’s also sweeter than other sugars so a little goes a long way.
One big negative about agave syrup is that it’s much higher in fructose than regular sugar, which means most of it gets processed through your liver and could be harmful. While it can be used as a sugar sub in recipes, it’s not as simple. It has a thinner consistency and it’s sweeter, so you’ll use less and might need to decrease the other liquid content.
Honey is made by bees (shocking, I know!). It can be purchased raw or processed through pasteurization. It contains small amounts of enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Raw versions also contain small amounts of pollen.
Raw honey has many benefits because it’s unprocessed. So you get small amounts of nutrients, flavonoids (antioxidants), and propolis. Propolis is a type of resin that bees produce, and it might have certain health benefits, like improving cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Raw honey has also been used to help cope with allergies due to traces of pollen in it. You can also use it as a sub in baking pretty easily, but you might have to adjust for the liquid content.
It has more calories per tablespoon than refined sugar and a similar glycemic index to sugar, so it’s not great for weight management or blood sugar. Keep in mind that it should not be given to babies less than 1 year old. It’s also not considered a vegan food.
NO AND LOW-CALORIE SWEETENERS
Stevia comes from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. It has no carbs and zero calories. It’s said to be about 100 to 300 times as sweet as sugar and has a unique aftertaste. Any nutrients are negligible once it’s processed into a sweetener.
Stevia’s biggest advantages are that it’s calorie free and doesn’t contribute to tooth decay. It’s used mostly by those watching their weight or those concerned about blood sugar. It also makes a good substitute for sugar in baking. Some studies show that it might be good for managing blood sugar levels or have other health benefits.
This sweetener comes with an aftertaste that some people don’t like. Since it’s relatively new, research on how it affects health in the long-term is lacking.
This calorie-free sweetener comes from the fruit of a small melon found in China. It’s very sweet at about 150-250 times as sweet as refined sugar.
Monk fruit is good for weight management, doesn’t harm teeth, and it might have other health benefits including being anti-inflammatory and providing antioxidants. It can be used as a sugar sub in baking, but you’ll want to use ½ the amount.
This sweetener also has an aftertaste that might be unpleasant to some. It might be hard to find at the grocery store and is also more expensive than other sweeteners.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol (it doesn’t actually contain alcohol though) that’s about 70% as sweet as sugar and has about 6% of the calories. It’s found naturally in fruits and in fermented foods. It’s made from fermenting glucose from corn or wheat starch to form white crystals.
This sweetener is very low in calories, making it good for weight management. It also doesn’t spike blood sugar levels and won’t contribute to tooth decay. It can be used in baking, but you’ll need to use 1 1/3 cup per cup of sugar.
Erythritol might cause digestive problems like bloating and gas for some people, though it’s not as likely to have this effect as other sugar alcohols.
Xylitol is another naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is low in calories (although not as low as erythritol). It has about 40% of the calories of sugar. It’s extracted from birch wood.
Xylitol is still good for weight management compared to regular sugar. Studies have shown that it also helps reduce plaque and tooth decay, and that it can help inhibit the growth of the certain bacteria. It can also be used in baking, but it tends to absorb moisture, so you might need to add liquid.
Compared to erythritol, xylitol might be more likely to cause digestive issues like bloating, diarrhea or gas in some people.