High sugar intakes have been linked to chronic inflammation, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a host of other modern diseases. The more sugar we eat, the fatter and sicker we get.
Fortunately, health-conscious people are growing increasingly aware of the harms of excess sugar consumption and they’re seeking out alternatives. But not all sugar substitutes are created equal. Many are simply other forms of sugar, not much different from the stuff in a diner.
Thankfully however, there are a few healthy options available to choose from that we’ll cover today. One important thing to keep in mind: repeated exposure to sweet flavors calibrate our taste buds to prefer sweetness. So while great alternatives to sugar do exist, our best bet is to use them sparingly and put sweet flavors in their place as a mere afterthought.
That said, I hope this science-backed analysis of common sugar substitutes comes in handy! Spoiler alert: my preference is stevia. It provides the sweet taste of sugar without the health risks, and it has some potential health benefits. But in this article, I’ll cover many more high-carb, low-carb, and artificial sweeteners, supporting my claims with published evidence along the way. Let’s get started.
Higher-carb sugar substitutes
Many sugar substitutes aren’t actually alternatives to sugar. They’re just sugar masquerading under a different name. Sure, they might contain more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. But when you get down to business, they’re digested and metabolized in the same way as table sugar.
#1: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High fructose corn syrup is a type of refined sugar used to sweeten foods and beverages. This corn-derived sweetener is the main source of added sugar in the American diet. Just like sucrose (table sugar), HFCS is a blend of glucose and fructose. The main difference is that high-fructose corn syrup is a bit higher in fructose. Who’d have thought?
Fructose seems to be the most problematic form of sugar. Animal evidence suggests HFCS may drive cancer growth. And that’s just the tip of the fructose iceberg.
When you ingest fructose, it travels straight to the liver to be converted into fat. Our ancestors who developed this fructose-to-fat mutation tended to fare well compared to those who did not. They needed to bolster their fat stores in preparation for periods of caloric deprivation—much like a bear preparing to hibernate through the winter. In today’s environment of sugar abundance however, this mutation is simply fueling the obesity epidemic.
If you want to take a deep dive into this stuff, I recommend reading Fat Chance by Dr. Robert Lustig. It’s an eye-opening exposition of the dangers of fructose in the modern diet.
Verdict: HFCS is bad news. It’s a liquid form of refined sugar that’s making us fat and sick.
#2: Agave syrup
Made from the agave plant, agave syrup is often marketed as a healthy sugar substitute. Allow me to break the news: it’s not healthy, it’s about 85% fructose. That’s a greater percentage than both sucrose and HFCS.
Verdict: Substituting table sugar with agave syrup is like substituting a Danish pastry for a donut. It’s not any better, and it might even be worse.
Made by bees, honey is a preferred sweetener of many who adhere to a Carnivore diet. It’s the only animal-based sweetener on this list and it has some cool properties, especially if it’s raw.
Compounds in raw honey like bee pollen, royal jelly, and propolis may improve immune function and reduce allergies, but more rigorous research is needed to solidify these claims. Honey also contains flavonoids with potent antioxidant effects. Ingesting these flavonoids may help with wound healing, blood glucose regulation, immune health, and more.
However, much like sucrose and HFCS, honey is mostly fructose and glucose. It’s sugar.
Verdict: Honey may have health benefits, but it’s still a sugar bomb. Use wisely such as before or after a workout.
Molasses is a thick, brown syrup made by boiling down sugar cane. It’s simply a reduced form of sugar.
Anything to like about molasses? Actually, yes. It’s high in iron, potassium, manganese, magnesium, and copper—all of which are essential minerals for heart, bone, and immune health. Manganese, for instance, helps your blood vessels stay dilated to support healthy blood pressure.
Verdict: Molasses contains more minerals than sucrose, but if you’re avoiding sugar, it’s not a good choice.
#5: Coconut sugar
Here are the pros and cons of coconut sugar, a type of carbohydrate made from coconut sap.
- Contains antioxidants, zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium
- Has a lower glycemic index than sucrose (in other words, it raises blood sugar more slowly)
- Contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that can feed beneficial gut bacteria and improve digestion
- Equivalent in calories to sugar
- Contains loads of fructose, the fat-forming sugar we covered earlier
Verdict: Coconut sugar is just sugar with a few extra nutrients.
#6: Maple syrup
Most people think of maple syrup as an essential topping for pancakes and waffles, not a vehicle for antioxidants and oligosaccharides—but maple syrup is high in both.
It’s reported to have more antioxidant force than honey, while its oligosaccharides (a compound sugar molecule) may improve glucose regulation. When rodents were fed maple syrup along with sucrose, it curbed their blood sugar spike compared to sucrose alone. Despite these beneficial properties, maple syrup is still mostly sucrose.
Verdict: Maple syrup is healthier than table sugar, but it’s no health food.
#7: Yacon syrup
From the Yacon Plant native to South America comes yacon syrup—a thick, saccharin goo similar in taste and texture to molasses. Yacon is part sugar, part fructooligosaccharides (FOS).
What are FOS? They’re prebiotic carbohydrates that aren’t digested through normal routes, but instead by gut bacteria. Consuming FOS may have health benefits (such as increased satiety), but gas is a SUPER common side effect. Don’t give yacon syrup a test drive before a first date.
Yacon has about one-third the calories as sugar, so that’s a plus. But unless it’s used sparingly, it’s not compatible with a low-carb or keto diet.
Verdict: Yacon syrup is lower in calories than sugar, but it may give you gas.
A Word On Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharine appear to be generally safe for human consumption. (The aspartame cancer scare is way overblown.) And since they don’t contain calories or carbs, they don’t derail a ketogenic diet.
Still, I’m not a big fan of these lab-synthesized sweeteners. In one observational study, people consuming diet soda daily had a 67% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-consumers. This doesn’t prove causation, but I’m also not about to ignore it outright.
Also, there’s evidence that consuming artificial sweeteners during pregnancy negatively impacts the baby’s body composition and augments their sweet tooth. So I don’t recommend them for pregnant or nursing women.
Verdict: I generally avoid artificial sweeteners. I don’t think they’re poison, but there are certainly better options out there.
Low-carb sugar substitutes
Now for the good stuff: the natural sugar alternatives that sweeten without the calories and blood sugar spikes of sugar.
Extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia extract doesn’t raise blood sugar, has powerful antioxidant properties, and it’s 200–300 times sweeter than sugar.
All of stevia’s characteristics—including its sweetness—are driven by molecules called glycosides. The most active glycosides are:
- Rebaudioside A
- Rebaudioside C
I’ll also note that stevia has been used for hundreds of years to treat diabetes in South America. Today it’s being studied for similar purposes.
#9: Monk fruit
Similar to stevia, monk fruit extract is 250 times sweeter than sugar, contains zero calories, and is powered by antioxidant compounds called mogrosides.
Monk fruit has been deemed safe by the FDA, but stevia has a bit more data behind it. Both are good low-carb sweeteners.
Verdict: Monk fruit is a great alternative sweeter to sugar.
Last but not least, we come to allulose. Of all the low-carb sweeteners, allulose is probably the most similar to sugar in taste and texture. It even browns.
Found in figs and jackfruit, allulose is technically a sugar, but it’s not metabolized like sugar. Most of it gets excreted through urine, which is why it’s non-caloric. When taken with carbs, allulose has been shown to reduce the resulting blood sugar spike by an average of 10%. And one small study also found that allulose increased fat burning.
Verdict: If you’re looking to replace sugar (in recipes or otherwise), using allulose is a decent way to accomplish that goal.
These last two are sugar alcohols—which, by the way, are neither sugar nor alcohol. They’re carbs that aren’t digested or metabolized, similar to fiber. Sugar alcohols’ primary downside is the potential to upset your stomach. Nausea, laxation, gas, and bloating are possible, so keep an ear out for your grumbling stomach.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol produced by yeast fermentation. It’s about 70% as sweet as sugar, has a cooling aftertaste, and features a glycemic index of 0. When you consume erythritol, about 90% is excreted intact through urine. That’s why it doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels, making it keto-approved. It also has antioxidant properties and interestingly, it’s been shown to improve blood vessel function in a small group of type 2 diabetics. That said, recent literature indicates that erythritol may not be heart healthy. I wrote a full article dissecting that study’s pros and cons if you’re curious.
Verdict: It’s probably best to consume less erythritol while we wait for more data.
Like erythritol, xylitol is a sugar alcohol. As for cons, it has a glycemic index of 13 and folks tend to report more digestive distress with xylitol than erythritol. But on the positive end, xylitol hasn’t been linked to cardiovascular disease and it’s well-documented to improve oral health. (Hence why it’s a popular choice of sweetener in gum.)
Verdict: If your gut tolerates xylitol well, it’s a healthier option than sugar.
Final Thoughts On Sugar Substitutes
If you’re minimizing added sugars, that’s wonderful. Minimizing sugar intake is one pillar principle of healthy eating. Just remember that many “sugar substitutes” are just sugar by another name—save yourself the trouble and stick with stevia, monk fruit, or allulose when possible.
I wish you positive health outcomes along with all of the fun that comes with them. Happy healthful sweetening!