In the age of processed foods, the American diet has changed rapidly. Sugar intake, especially the added and refined sugars that aren’t naturally part of the foods you consume, has increased dramatically, leaving many of us addicted to sweets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult consumes 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, far above the recommended levels. An ideal diet consists of no more than 10 percent of calories from added sugar, which would be 12 teaspoons in an average intake of 2,000 calories.
Many people already agree with what the data confirms: we eat too much sugar. If this is you and you’re looking for ways to cut added sugar out of your diet, read on to learn some of the best alternatives to sugar.
What are Sugar Substitutes?
Before we get into sugar alternatives, it’s important to clarify that sugar isn’t inherently bad for you. In fact, it’s vital to your health. Your body turns carbohydrates into glucose, a form of sugar, and this is a primary source of energy to keep your body moving and your brain functioning. Despite what some popular diet fads claim, no carbs and sugars, you may experience health problems and symptoms such as low energy, sleep problems, and brain fog.
The goal shouldn’t be to avoid sugar but to consume the right amount of it types of sugar. Much of today’s American diet is made up of added sugars, which are processed and refined to add intense sweetness without much substance. Ultra-refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup are common ingredients in sodas, pastries, breads, and condiments. These are delivered quickly to your bloodstream without adding any other nutritional value along the way. Excessive consumption of these sugars can lead to serious health complications, including high blood pressure, diabetes and fatty liver disease.
You can find the amount of added sugar on the nutrition facts label and ingredient list of any food. The more sugar added in the ingredients list, the greater the amount of sugar in the product. Added sugars go by many different names, such as brown sugar, corn sweeteners, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, glucose, high fructose corn syrup, malt syrup, maltose, and sucrose.
In contrast, natural sugars are unrefined or poorly processed and occur naturally in many foods. Fruit contains fructose, for example, but it’s also high in fiber, providing a balanced combination of nutrients for your body. Honey and maple syrup are naturally sweet but also full of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
There are also various natural sweeteners and sugar substitutes you can add to foods and beverages that provide sweetness without the downsides of refined sugars. Examples of these alternative sugars include sugar alcohols like sorbitol, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and natural sweeteners like stevia.
The best natural alternatives to sugar
Here’s the good news: If you want to cut back on sugar, you still have plenty of options to keep things sweet. Below are six of the best natural sugar alternatives that you can add to your diet in place of refined sugars.
Honey has long been valued not only for its natural sweetness but also for its nutritional value. Because it is produced by bees from plant nectar in the process of pollination, honey contains a number of beneficial plant compounds and antioxidants.
Raw, darker honeys, which are minimally processed, are rich in flavonoids and phenolic acids, in particular. These offer many benefits, including positive effects on cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and respiratory health. It has also been shown to reduce seasonal allergies.
Another popular natural sweetener, maple syrup, has earned its place atop many pancakes. If you’re cutting back on sugar, you may want to skip the pancakes but stick to the syrup, which is made from the sap of sugar maple trees.
That’s because maple syrup, like honey, contains antioxidants and minerals that can be beneficial to your health. Many of the unique compounds found in maple syrup have, in fact, been shown to help fight cancer and diabetes. The darker the maple syrup, the less refined it is and the more benefits it can provide.
If you’re not a fan of the flavor of maple syrup or honey, but still want a way to sweeten drinks and recipes, stevia is a great natural sugar alternative to try. This sweetener is made from the Stevia plant and is 200 to 400 times sweeter than table sugar.
As a sugar substitute, stevia is non-nutritive, meaning it contains almost no calories. It adds sweetness without much else, and may be just what you’re looking for when cutting back on sugar. Stevia has also been linked to lower blood sugar and cholesterol. Keep in mind that many stevia products on the market contain other processed ingredients or sugar alcohols, so it’s important to do your research before using them.
If you’re looking for a more nutritionally balanced form of sugar, it’s hard to beat raw fruit. The dietary fiber found in raw fruit aids in digestion and slows sugar metabolism, reducing blood sugar spikes you might see from fruit juices or sugar additives. Eating high-fiber foods can also help you reduce your total calorie intake and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Pureed fruits give you many of the same benefits and can serve as a sweetener to add to other foods. Applesauce works as an egg substitute in many recipes, for example, and pureed berries are a great addition to plain, unsweetened yogurt.
Monk fruit is another plant-based sugar alternative. This is extracted from monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, a small round fruit commonly found in Southeast Asia. Although monk fruit itself contains fructose and glucose, these are actually removed during the extraction process, creating a non-nutritive sweetener that is approximately 100 times sweeter than table sugar.
Monk fruit is relatively new to the market, so it needs more study to determine all of its potential health benefits. However, research on other non-nutritive sweeteners shows promise in terms of weight management and diabetes prevention. The naturally sweet mogrosides in monk fruit also contain antioxidants, which may help with immune health and cancer prevention.
Fruit juice is a natural sweetener that you can drink on its own or add to other drinks or condiments or even use in cooking. 100% fruit juice is a much better option than refined table sugar or high fructose corn syrup because fruit juice is natural and unprocessed. It also contains loads of vitamins and nutrients.