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The Sweet Life: 8 Top Sugar Alternatives

January 2, 2013

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You’ve probably heard by now that too much refined sugar (and its “corny” counterpart, high fructose corn syrup) can contribute to health problems from obesity to diabetes. But signing on for a life without another cookie, slice of birthday cake or sip of hot chocolate can sound like, well, a bitter pill to swallow.

So I’ve rounded up eight of my top alternatives to refined sugar. With fewer of the harmful qualities of refined sugar and HFCS and some bonus nutritional attributes, these are sweeter swaps.*

1. Coconut Palm Sugar

Derived from coconut tree blossom nectar, this isn’t the same as palm sugar—not all palm sugars are made from coconuts. The ingredient list should say 100% coconut palm or sap. Coconut palm sugar is preferable thanks to its low glycemic index and minimal processing.

Health Benefits: Much smaller percentage of blood sugar-spiking fructose than most other sweeteners; contains B vitamins, potassium, chloride, and other vitamins, minerals and enzymes that aid in slower absorption into the bloodstream.

Flavor: Comparable to brown sugar in appearance and taste, with caramel notes.

How to Use It: Adds depth to baked goods, sauces, coffee and tea; can be used instead of brown sugar.

2. Coconut Nectar

This is a thick syrup made from coconut tree sap. Unlike maple, it doesn’t require intense heating to bring out its sweetness. This allows it to be enzymatically alive and for its naturally high amino acid profile to remain intact. 

Health Benefits: Low glycemic index; high in vitamins and minerals. Also has insoluble fiber, which prevents against sugar spikes in the bloodstream, and a unique medium chain fatty acid, said to help prevent heart disease.

Flavor: Doesn't taste like coconut, but has a light, delicate sweetness. 

How to Use It: In tea or coffee, in raw desserts or on top of waffles or pancakes. Can also be used in baked goods, but heat may destroy some of its nutritional profile. 

3. Date Sugar

This comes from dehydrated dates that have been ground into a coarse powder. While minimally processed, date sugar isn’t one of the lower glycemic alternatives, so those with sensitivities should proceed with caution. It also has a higher fructose percentage; keep in mind that over-consumption of fructose has been linked to liver problems and weight gain. 

Health Benefits: Minimal, raw processing allows for retention of dates’ natural fiber, tannins, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals.   

Flavor: Less sweet than other natural sweeteners, and tastes like dates.

How to Use It: Can be substituted for sugar in baking and works well in breads, muffins and crumbles, creating delicate brown flecks. Does not melt, so blend thoroughly to avoid clumps. Also won’t dissolve in beverages; don't add to tea or coffee, but enjoy sprinkled over yogurt or oatmeal.

4. Stevia

Stevia comes from a shrub native to Latin America, and has been a popular sweetener in Asia for decades. In the U.S., it's commonly found as a clear liquid or a white powder. Look for the green powder (most health foods stores carry it), which is less processed.

Health benefits: In truly unprocessed form, provides beneficial antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Because our bodies can't digest the stevia plant, it offers essentially zero calories and has an extremely low glycemic index. Fructose count also becomes negligible, and it doesn't affect blood sugar levels.

Flavor: 200-300 times sweeter than sugar. The white form can have an anise-like or bitter aftertaste.

How to Use It: In smoothies, salad dressings, ice cream and tea.

5. Yacon Syrup

This is made from the root of the yacon plant, which grows in the Andes region of South America. Thanks to its high fructooligosaccharides level (FOS), a sugar polymer our bodies cannot digest, it has minimal impact on blood sugar levels. Shop for raw forms when possible, or flash pasteurized at a minimum.

Health Benefits: Considered a prebiotic as it aids in the absorption of calcium and other vitamins. Also promotes healthy gut flora, which is essential for good digestion. Because its primary sugar is FOS, which can't be absorbed, it's low-calorie and has a low glycemic index.

Flavor: A more delicate molasses.

How to Use It: In smoothies, atop pancakes or waffles, in raw food treats or drizzled on roasted winter squash or sweet potatoes.

6. Maple Syrup

Maple syrup comes from boiling the sap of maple trees; the water evaporates, leaving concentrated syrup available in different grades, depending on color and taste. Grade B tends to be the most nutrient rich, and more affordable. Choose pure maple syrup to ensure that no HFCS or other sugars have been added (it also tastes cleaner), especially since maple syrup isn’t a low-glycemic index food on its own. While maple syrup is perceived as naturally organic, some of the processes for harvesting the sap aren't. Paraformaldehyde pellets or lead may be used, which are both poisonous. So choose organic syrup whenever possible.

Health Benefits: Excellent source of manganese and good source of zinc, which supports the immune system.

Flavor: Earthy sweetness. Grade A is a lighter color with a more delicate taste. B is darker, has a bolder flavor and shines in baked goods, sauces and cooked dishes

How to Use It: In salad dressings, sauces, on roasted meats and of course, pancakes and waffles. To substitute for sugar in baking, use a .75:1 ratio of maple syrup per cup of sugar and decrease another liquid in the recipe by two to three tablespoons.

7. Raw Honey

Bees make honey using the nectar from flowers, which determines the honey’s flavor. It's essential the honey is raw, as processed honeys can be high in fructose and have a higher glycemic index. Buying local provides the most nutrients; shipping honey long distance requires heating it, which degrades the health benefits. 

Health benefits: Natural antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties; can be used to treat ulcers. Some raw honeys have a number on their labels; the higher this number, the higher the antibiotic properties. Local, raw honey may also help people with seasonal allergies.

Flavor: Takes on the flavors of the flowers the bees visited; a delicate orange blossom honey tastes wildly different than a pungent, funky chestnut honey.

How to Use It: In tea, homemade sorbet, smoothies, raw desserts, and baked goods; try drizzled on berries, fruit, roasted squash and sweet potatoes.

8. Agave Nectar

Agave nectar comes from the agave cactus. While it’s become a popular sweetener among health enthusiasts in recent years and is a popular alternative to honey among vegans, some experts question its health value due to its high fructose levels—higher, in some cases, than HFCS. Also, the popularity of agave nectar in recent years has spurred its mass production, resulting in some cases of questionable manufacturing processes that may contribute unnecessary chemicals. It’s important to know the source and buy organic and raw if you choose to use it.

Health benefits: Provides the body with several nutrients and may be beneficial for digestion. Because it's very sweet, a little goes a long way.

Flavor: Tastes similar to honey, but more neutral.

How to Use It: Can be used as a replacement for most liquid sweeteners; because of the issues above, use sparingly.

If you use a sweetener that isn’t on this list, opt for the least refined: Choose raw sugar, Sucanat or turbinado sugar, all of which are less processed than white sugar and thus retain more nutrients. Whenever you eat something sweet—even fruit—try eating some protein or a high quality fat (like nuts) at the same time; this helps to slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream.

* Remember that while these are all better than refined sugars, they still aren’t “health foods”—be sure to use any sweetener in moderation. Also, natural sweeteners affect each person differently, so I suggest you experiment to find the ones that feel best in your body. Avoid ones that make you jittery, or cause the high-low of a sugar crash; those are signs that your blood sugar is spiking and then plummeting, leaving your body feeling depleted. 

Jared Koch, founder of Clean Plates graduated pre-med from the University of Michigan and is a nutritionist and health coach certified by the Teachers College of Columbia University, Global Institute of Alternative Medicine, and the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Whether you’re a conscientious carnivore, a vegetarian, or going gluten-free, Clean Plates has restaurant reviews, news and tips to help boost your health and keep your taste buds happy.