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Learn about the 10 best sugar substitutes to choose when you are watching your sugar intake, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each one.
Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.
It’s no secret that Americans consume a lot of sugar. There are drawbacks to excessive sugar consumption including inflammation, blood sugar dysregulation, and hormonal issues. Sugar is also a simple carbohydrate, which makes it unsuitable for those with diabetes or those on a ketogenic diet.
Everyone can stand to reduce their sugar intake, either by abstinence or by switching to sugar substitutes. Anyone with diabetes, blood sugar problems, hormonal issues, inflammation-based illnesses, mental health conditions, and hypertension may especially wish to replace sugar with sugar substitutes. Going on a lower-sugar diet is also part of the best diet for PCOS.
What is a Sugar Substitute?
A sugar substitute is a substitution for sugar that offers a sweet taste with less of the inflammatory, empty calories of sugar. There are two types of sweeteners: those that contain natural sugars, such as honey, and those that contain no sugar, such as stevia.
There are also man-made sweetener products such as aspartame, as well. However, sugarless sweeteners like aspartame can have negative health effects such as issues with mood regulation. For most people, it’s probably best to avoid overly processed sugar substitutes and stick with real-food ingredients. If you’re looking to go sugar free, you might want to check out my tips. You can also learn about detoxing from sugar.
10 Best Sugar Substitutes (Plus Benefits & Drawbacks)
Erythritol is a zero calorie sweetener that is actually a natural sugar alcohol. It is suitable for those with diabetes, blood sugar issues, and keto dieters because it provides no calories and does not raise blood sugar.
Be sure to purchase organic versions of erythritol, as it is commonly made from GMO corn. It’s also been shown to cause gastrointestinal issues in some people, so be aware if you are new to using erythritol (start with a teeny amount to make sure it works for you).
2. Monk Fruit
This sugar substitute is ideal for those with diabetes, blood sugar issues, and keto dieters, as it’s low in calories and contains no sugar. Monk fruit is derived from an actual fruit found in China and is much sweeter than sugar; thus, you need less of it to achieve a sweet taste. It is also known as Lo Han Guo.
The potential drawback of monk fruit, however, as it may leave an aftertaste or overly sweeten foods. Monk fruit is my favorite non-nutritive sweetener and the only one that doesn’t have any weird side effects for me. I consider it to be the best tasting sugar substitute. But, everyone is different, so you’ll have to try it for yourself!
Similar to monk fruit, stevia is naturally derived from the stevia plant. Keep in mind, though, that much of the stevia on the market is actually processed and sometimes mixed with sugar alcohols. Stevia contains no sugar and won’t raise blood sugar levels, so it’s suitable for keto dieters and diabetics.
If you want to try stevia, opt for organic stevia that is as unrefined as possible. Stevia is about 200-400 times sweeter than sugar, so be careful when substituting. It may cause cravings and leave a bitter aftertaste due to its increased sweetness. I personally do not like stevia, but my husband does.
Xylitol is another processed sugar alcohol that won’t raise blood sugar levels, making it suitable for keto dieters and diabetics. Like other sugar alcohols, xylitol may cause digestive distress in some individuals. It also is commonly derived from GMO corn, so opt for an organic version (made from birchwood if you’re on a grain-free diet). Bonus: xylitol has some evidence that it can be beneficial for oral health and even act as a prebiotic!
5. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a whole food rich in vitamins, amino acids, and antioxidants. It’s better for you than sugar as it is unrefined and contains nutrients. Raw honey won’t raise your blood sugar as quickly as refined sugar will. However, it does contain a significant amount of calories and carbohydrates in the form of glucose.
Individuals with diabetes should be aware that raw honey will still raise blood sugar levels, albeit more slowly than processed sugar. Keep in mind that honey has other benefits for diabetic patients, so it might not be unhealthy in small quantities. Some people consider raw honey to be a healthy sugar. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider to make sure raw honey is appropriate for you.
6. Yacon Syrup
This is another whole food with a sweet taste. Yacon syrup is derived from a sweet-tasting root vegetable and can be used in place of any other liquid sweetener. This syrup is a low-sugar, low-glycemic sugar substitute suitable for those with diabetes or on a ketogenic diet. It also contains nutrients and is an excellent prebiotic. This can mean, however, that it may cause digestive distress in large quantities or for those with any gut dysbiosis.
7. Dates, Date Sugar or Date Syrup
Dates and their derivatives have a naturally sweet taste. Although dates contain sugar and carbohydrates, they boast an impressive nutrient profile. Dates are especially high in fiber, so your blood sugar won’t spike as quickly as it would with refined sugar.
Due to the fiber content, the net carbohydrates in dates may be suitable for keto dieters depending on unique carbohydrate goals. Those with diabetes should stick to smaller servings, due to the higher carbohydrate and sugar content. I use dates to sweeten a lot of my healthy dessert recipes.
8. Blackstrap Molasses
Molasses is a byproduct of sugarcane, but the extraction and production process renders it higher in nutrients. Blackstrap molasses has an especially impressive nutrient profile but does have a significant amount of calories, carbohydrates, and sugar per serving (similar to raw honey.)
Blackstrap molasses is in the middle of the glycemic index, so it’s not as troublesome as refined sugar for diabetics, but will still raise blood sugar. Those on a ketogenic diet may want to avoid it depending on daily carbohydrate intake.
9. Fruit Purees
Fruit purees are another whole food sugar substitute which is especially good for baking. These are fruits such as bananas, berries, stone fruits, or apples that are mashed into a puree, suitable for baking or for topping oatmeal, pancakes, etc. I often use sweet potato puree to help sweeten my desserts, and the moisture often means I can cut back on the oils as well.
Fruit purees aren’t really a 1:1 replacement for other sweeteners, but still lend a sweet taste to baked goods. The fiber content in fruit purees makes them a better choice for diabetics. Berry fruit purees may be suitable for ketogenic dieters, but fruit purees with higher sugar/carbohydrate contents may not fit dietary guidelines.
10. Maple Syrup or Coconut Sugar
Maple syrup is a pure sugar from the sap of maple trees, while coconut sugar is dehydrated coconut sap. Both maple syrup and coconut sugar are whole food sweeteners with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Coconut sugar can be used as a 1:1 replacement with processed sugar but it contains more fiber and nutrients. Maple syrup is high in vitamins and antioxidants. Both contain a significant amount of calories, carbohydrates, and sugar, so keto dieters and diabetics may want to be careful with these options.
Which sugar substitutes should I avoid?
Depending on your specific health needs, you may choose to avoid different types of sugar substitutes. Those with diabetes may wish to avoid sweeteners containing sugar and instead stick with non-caloric sweeteners including monk fruit, stevia, erythritol, and xylitol. If you have issues with gut health, you may want to avoid sugar alcohols. In general, avoid relying upon overly processed sugar substitutes and reach for whole food sources of sweetness.
Which sugar substitutes won’t raise blood sugar?
Non-caloric sweeteners typically won’t raise your blood sugar. These include monk fruit, stevia, and sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol. However, in some particularly sensitive individuals, non-caloric sweeteners may still prompt an insulin response as the body anticipates calories from the sweet taste. It is best to eat anything sweet in moderation, keeping both caloric sweeteners and non-caloric sweeteners as occasional treats.
What can I use instead of sugar on a keto diet?
If you’re on a ketogenic diet, it can be helpful to first determine how many carbohydrates you want to allow yourself per day. This number will be different for everyone, and you may find you’re able to eat more carbohydrates and still remain in ketosis. Read my article with the dangers of a keto diet.
Once you know how many carbohydrates you can eat per day, determine if caloric sweeteners are appropriate. You may be able to eat a small amount of honey or fruit puree, for example. If you don’t want to limit your daily intake of sweetened foods but still want to remain in ketosis, consider non-caloric sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, or sugar alcohols.
What are the side effects of sugar substitutes?
Some find that non-caloric sugar substitutes have a bitter aftertaste; stevia, especially, is known for its aftertaste. Non-caloric sugar substitutes are also often much sweeter than actual sugar, making them hyper-palatable foods that you can become reliant upon. Sugar alcohols like erythritol and xylitol can cause digestive distress for sensitive individuals.
Caloric sugar substitutes like honey or blackstrap molasses can raise your blood sugar, which has an array of side effects, especially for those with diabetes or blood sugar regulation issues.
There are so many great options for sugar substitutes now. Based on your specific needs, you might want to experiment with different options and see which works best for you. Almost everyone would benefit from cutting back on refined sugars. Rather than using sugar substitutes, it might make sense to go completely sugar free. Be sure to check with your doctor if you have questions about what would be best for you.