Article By: Maria Tucker, MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES
Maria Tucker is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator with over 20 years of experience assisting patients with diabetes, obesity, and nutrition-related conditions. Maria is also the Founder of MyBiyaya.com, a site dedicated to healthy recipes and kitchen shortcuts.
You’ve heard it before, “Sugar is not good for you!” But, what even is sugar? Sugar is a general term for several types of simple carbohydrates. Sugar can occur naturally in food but can also be made from beets and sugar cane (think sugar crystals you put in your coffee). Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is the most common sweetener used for beverages such as sweet tea, coffee, and sodas as well as for desserts and sweet treats. Sugar naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables is not bad for you. On the other hand, added sugars used in baked goods, desserts, and beverages — when consumed frequently or in large amounts — can be harmful to health leading to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and even dental cavities. At 4 calories per gram, many people can consume close to 270 calories in a day from added sugar (considered to be “empty calories”) which can hinder one’s efforts to lose weight.
What about sugar substitutes? There are so many options now for table sugar substitutes you can use for sweetening drinks, baking, and cooking. Which substitute is right for you? Here is a list of sugar substitutes, both natural and artificial, to help you decide which meets your needs.
Caloric Sweeteners: These sweeteners provide calories (just like table sugar) in various amounts and may be rated low, moderate, or high on the glycemic index (GI). The Glycemic Index refers to how food affects blood sugar when consumed by itself.
- Agave nectar – made from the sap of the crushed leaves of the agave plant, this sweetener provides ~21 calories per teaspoon, is ~30-40% sweeter than real sugar, and is low GI.
- Brown rice syrup – made from rice, this sweetener provides 16 calories per teaspoon but is high on the Glycemic Index. It is 30% less sweet compared to sugar.
- Coconut sugar – this sweetener is not made from coconut flesh but from its blossom! It provides 15 calories per teaspoon and is low GI. It is just as sweet as sugar and may retain some micronutrients despite it being considered a partially refined form of sugar.
- Date sugar – made from dates, this sweetener is actually less sweet than sugar and is low GI. It provides only 11 calories per teaspoon, making it one of the lower calorie natural sweeteners available on the market.
- High fructose corn syrup – used in sodas and baked goods, this sweetener is 120-160 times sweeter than sugar and is made by converting glucose from cornstarch into fructose. It is moderate GI.
- Honey – made by bees from the nectar of various flowers, such as white clover or alfalfa, this popular sugar substitute provides 20 calories per teaspoon. Its sweetness compared to sugar as well as its rating on the Glycemic Index can vary based on where the honey was collected. Commercial honey, typically made from a blend of different nectars, may be high GI.
- Maple syrup – a popular syrup used to top pancakes, this sugar substitute is made by extracting the sap from the maple tree and boiling to reduce the sap to concentrate its sugar. Less sweeter compared to sugar, it provides 17 calories per teaspoon and is low GI. It does contain some insignificant amounts of vitamins, minerals, and organic compounds.
- Molasses – This sweetener is produced as a by-product of refining sugar but is 25-50% less sweet than sugar. It contains trace amounts of minerals, such as calcium, iron, and phosphorus and is moderate GI.
Low Calorie and Non-Caloric Sweeteners: These sweeteners provide a lot fewer or no calories compared to sugar and typically do not affect blood sugar (and therefore have no GI ratings).
- Allulose – this is a low calorie sweetener commercially made from corn but also naturally present in wheat and fruits such as raisins and figs. It is a new kid on the block or rather the grocery store aisle and only provides 1.6 calories per teaspoon. It is 70% as sweet as sugar and can be bought in granulated form at grocery stores.
- Sugar alcohols – these very low calorie sweeteners are made from sugars but can occur naturally in foods. They provide 0.6-8 calories per teaspoon and can be 30-100% as sweet as sugar. Considered "caries-preventive", some sugar alcohols such as xylitol have been studied for their positive effect on remineralizing tooth enamel and reducing constipation. However, consuming sugar alcohols in excessive amounts can cause gastrointestinal irritation and diarrhea. Sugar alcohols are most commonly used in sugar-free gum but are available in granulated or powder form as substitutes for table sugar or confectioner’s sugar.
- Acesulfame potassium – this sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar and when sold as a substitute for table sugar, is usually combined with another ingredient (such as sucralose) to reduce its sweetness. It has no GI rating since it provides 0 calories.
- Aspartame – this is an artificial sweetener consisting of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is often combined with other sweeteners when used as a granular substitute for table sugar or as an ingredient for sweetening beverages such as flavored waters and diet sodas. It provides 0 calories and therefore, has no GI rating.
- Monk fruit extract – made from a small melon and also known as Lou Han Guo, this natural non-nutritive sweetener is becoming a popular alternative to stevia due to its stability in heat and acid. It provides 0 calories and is 100-250 times sweeter than sugar. Its sweetness comes from a compound called mogroside.
- Neotame and advantame – these non-nutritive sweeteners are at least 7,000-13,000 times sweeter than table sugar and are approved for use by the FDA as general purpose sweeteners and flavor enhancers for foods under certain conditions, except for meat and poultry. These sweeteners are heat stable and therefore suitable for use in baked goods.
- Saccharin – this sweetener has been around for at least 100 years, made by oxidizing the chemicals o-toluene sulfonamide or phthalic anhydride. It is 300-500 times sweeter than sugar but has a metallic taste. It provides 0 calories per teaspoon and is considered safe by the FDA for human consumption.
- Stevia – derived from the leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana plant native to South America, this zero-calorie sweetener has gained popularity as a natural alternative to table sugar but has been used in food and medicinal purposes for centuries. It is 200-400 times sweeter than sugar but because of its bitter aftertaste, it is often combined with erythritol or sugar to reduce its bitterness. Several popular brands are available on the market, including generic store brands.
- Sucralose – made by the chlorination of sucrose or table sugar, sucralose is not table sugar. It is a non-nutritive sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than table sugar and is used to sweeten diet sodas, baked goods, sugar-free desserts, and treats. It is the most popular sweetener across the globe. Sucralose provides 0 calories, but some sucralose brands also contain dextrose and maltodextrin, thus providing ~3 calories per gram.
Sugar substitutes can be part of a healthy diet and satisfy the desire for sweets and sweet drinks. Whichever sweetener you use, it is important to remember that sugar-free does not always mean calorie-free and using a sugar substitute is not meant to justify overindulging in your favorite sweet treat.
BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.