10 best natural sugar substitutes

TOP 10 best (and worst) Natural Sugar substitutes for health

Sugar - our addictively sweet drug of choice.  While you may not be ready just yet to quit sugar altogether, it's important to know why you should cut back and what better-for-you options exist. 

Sugar has long been integrated into our culture as a reward mechanism but, these sweet treats are now in almost everything we consume and no longer just an indulgence we enjoy once in a while. You may be wondering, what’s so bad about this sweet white powder that we’ve come to crave? Sugar, and its many derivatives, actually trigger the release of opioids and dopamine in the body- the neurotransmitters that trigger the “reward circuit”, and …addiction. Regardless of the trigger, the chemical reward we experience is “the high”— that feeling of euphoria that we’re so naturally inclined to want more of. The addictive quality of sugar compared to prescription (and non- prescription) drugs has been the cause of much debate, however, the easily accessible sugar fix impacts our biochemistry in much the same ways. Like amphetamines and alcohol, too much added sugar can actually change the wiring in the brain and lead to withdrawal symptoms, cravings and binging. 

So why does sugar cause so much harm? To start, refined sugars (i.e. fructose, sucrose), sugar alcohols, and sugar substitutes were absent from the human diet for much of human history meaning we have not evolved to tolerate sugar in the amounts that many Americans are consuming them today. While there are many biological commonalities between sweetened diets and drugs of abuse, the addictive nature of sugar was largely unknown, which is why one study aimed to find out just how troublesome this substance may be… 

“The findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals. We speculate that the addictive potential of intense sweetness results from an inborn hypersensitivity to sweet tastants. In most mammals, including rats and humans, sweet receptors evolved in ancestral environments poor in sugars and are thus not adapted to high concentrations of sweet tastants.”

While sugar addiction is a real thing, there’s nothing wrong with a little sweet indulgence every now and then! Like most things, it's all about balance and understanding that not all sugars are created equally.  By now, it should be no secret that artificial sweeteners like high fructose  

There has been, and always be, a constant debate around sugar consumption and whether natural alternatives are as good for you as they are marketed. 

There might be no right or wrong opinion, but what is most important is to stay well educated and informed, in order to make the best choices for yourself, your health, your family members who are not yet old enough to balance their choices and for your lifestyle. 

Blood sugar imbalances in your bloodstream has many symptoms which are not only harming you directly, because of their manifestation, but are, at the same time, strong indicators that something is not right in your body. Headaches, fatigue, mood swings and cravings are only some of the stages of the addiction to sugar cycle. The main consequences are: obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart problems. [1][2] 

Several other chronic conditions can be triggered by high sugar intake:

- Low Immunity [3] 
- Chromium Deficiency [4] 
- Faster Aging [2] 
- Tooth Decay [5] 
- Stress Increase [2]

An often overlooked effect of sugar on the body is its effect on the digestive tract. However, addressing this issue is mandatory, as dysfunctions in the gut microbiome have been proven to stand at the base of most conditions listed above. 

Being the host of more than 10 trillion resident microorganisms, from fungi and protozoa to bacteria and viruses, the gut microbiome has been proven to play an essential role in the biosynthesis of vitamins and essential amino acids and in the generation of important metabolic byproducts left undigested by the small intestine. Diseases like IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), atopic dermatitis or psoriasis, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis and autoimmune arthritis have been strongly connected to gut microbiome improper functions. Studies have shown that increased sugar diets can alter the functionality of the microbiome, by increasing specific bacterial types related to diabetes associated markers [6] [7] 

Natural sweeteners, the alternative to those spoons of sugar you pour in your daily coffee, or while baking the weekly home-made cake are numerous. You have what to choose from, as well as from artificial sweeteners. However, understanding how they really work and what they add to your body is mandatory. Below, there is a list of natural sweeteners recommended to replace sugar in your dietary regime, which can help you, but only if you understand how they really work!

So now that we've covered some of the reasons to limit sugar intake and why you should consider healthier and more natural sugar substitutes for health, you're probably wondering what are the best options for satisfying your sweet tooth. Let this list of the 10 best natural sugar substitutes be your guide.  

Top 10 Healthy and Natural Substitutes for Sugar

1. Palmyra Blossom Nectar
Known as the “Sugar of Life”, this sugar replacement is the pure, unrefined nectar of the Palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer). From this list, it is the highest ranking replacer of sugar, with added benefits that put even date sugar into second place. Having high levels of B-complex vitamins, iron, potassium and magnesium, it not only adds benefits to our dietary intake, but also replaces the false sensation of energy given by sugar with high energy levels due to components it bring to our body. As reviewed by “The Women’s Health Magazine” in the UK:

“Palmyra Jaggery is a traditional Ayurvedic ingredient that is nutrient dense – 1 tablespoon provides 133% of daily vitamin B12 requirement, 222% of vitamin B6, 665% of your vitamin B1. It also has a glycemic index of 40 making it less disruptive to blood sugar levels - by comparison, white sugar has a GI of 100 and no added nutritional benefit. Palmyra Jaggery is also organic, ethically sourced and a sustainable business for the communities who farm it.”

INSIDER SECRET: Beginning in 2019 with the launch of LYFE 2.0, LYFE FUEL will be using wild harvested organic palmyra blossom nectar as the exclusive sweetener in our ESSENTIALS and RECOVERY shakes, which makes us the first plant-based nutrition company on the market using this nutritionally-dense sweetener

2. Date Sugar 
Made from dehydrated, ground dates, this type of sugar is the richest in antioxidants, with more content than nearly a dozen of the substances in the same category. It also has a high potassium concentration, making it a perfect alternative to sugar. Yet, it still contains fructose, meaning it's not the best choice for those trying to keep their blood-sugar low (which should be EVERYONE!)

PRO TIP: Although date sugar is less processed than conventional sugar and therefore a bit healthier as it contains added nutrients, we still advise to consume it in moderation. Additionally, date sugar can be a bit more tricky to work with because it does not dissolve or melt like regular sugar. To maintain the full nutrient density, opt for using the full dates instead of the granulated sugar substitute.
 

3. Maple Syrup 
Harvested from the maple trees, in late winter, maple syrup is one of the most common alternatives to sugar, preferred in many households, and made popular all around the world by the famous “maple syrup pancakes” photos. In it's pure form, it is one of the most natural and unprocessed forms of sugar, AND, the majority of it is produced right here in the U.S. Yes, it is natural, and the only processing it goes through is boiling the maple tree sap, harvested with the aid of a spike. The quantity of maple syrup you get is only one tenth of the original amount of sap you collected from the trees. It can successfully replace sugar in any recipe, bringing its own palette of antioxidants to the table, but remember it still contains around 30% fructose, which gets turned into energy deposits in your body.

PRO TIP: Although maple is one of our favorite natural sweeteners, due to the high caloric content, use in moderation. Also, be sure to avoid maple-flavored syrups like Mrs. Butterworth's which actually contain almost zero maple and are simple sugar bombs that use high fructose corn syrup and artificial maple flavoring to trick you into thinking it's the same thing.

4. Honey 
Probably the oldest replacement for sugar all around the world, honey (please read “raw honey”, not the commercial type) is made without any processing. Yes, it is almost half fructose, but its benefits as a cleansing substance, even having antibiotic properties, both in internal and external usage make it one of the best choices for a healthy alternative to sugar. 

PRO TIP: Due to the antioxidants and B vitamins, honey has been used as an additive to teas as a cold remedy, which is a great choice to add a little sweetness to your drink, but don't overdue it. Honey also is an excellent choice as a face wash due to the antimicrobial properties.

5. Organic Coconut Sugar 
We love all things coconut, coconut sugar included! While this isn't number one on our list it does rank high on our list for the top sugar substitutes. Coconut sugar actually comes from the nectar within the coconut blossoms which then goes through a natural processing technique to evaporate the water from the sap, allowing the nectar to crystalize. The fructose content of coconut sugar is around 39% which is an unfortunate downside considering the other nutrients like zinc and iron plus the added bonus of some antioxidants and a small amount of inulin fiber which works as a prebiotic to promote gut health.

  PRO TIP: The rich brown sugar-like flavor and easy swap for sugar in recipes make this a great alternative to regular sugar but consumption should be limited due to the high amount of fructose content.   

6. Lo Han Go (Monk Fruit) 
Sourced from monk fruit, or Lo Han fruit, from China, this natural sweetener has been used for centuries to treat diabetes and obesity, adding antioxidants and bringing no calories to the table. It has a downside though, creating the need for sweets, like Stevia.

PRO TIP: With 150 to 200 times the sweetness of sugar, you can use a lot less of this to meet your sweetness needs with the peace of mind knowing that it won't spike blood sugar or add excess calories because it is a zero on the glycemic index and contains no calories. Just be sure to read your labels and avoid using blends that contain added ingredients like corn sugar and sugar alcohols that compromise the health benefits of this natural and better-for-you sugar.

7. Stevia 
This sweetener is made from the leaves of the Stevia Rebaudiana plant, which grows only in warm climates. Without any carbohydrates or calories, stevia doesn’t raise blood sugar, making it, apparently the perfect substitute for sugar. You can get dried leaves to ground and add to your cooking or coffee, or more processed, as a powder, or syrup made from that powder. However, it still has a downside, perpetuating the desire for sweets, tricking your gut micro-organisms to crave more.

PRO TIP: Stevia is naturally very bitter making it somewhat challenging to use as a pure sugar substitute. Additionally, stevia is not well tolerated by some people who are hyper-sensitive to it. Due to growing demand, "natural" stevia has become highly commercialized meaning it is not in the natural state that possess the most health benefits.

8. Yacon Syrup 
This natural sugar substitute comes from the Yacon plant, which is native to South America. It has been a trendy sugar alternative due to some hype it received in regard to assisting with weight loss. The empirical evidence to back up this claim is limited so don't expect it to be some miracle cure for obesity. You can get excited about some of the other health benefits, which are the fructooligosaccharides (FOS) which make up 40-50% of the contents. There is some science that shows since FOS cannot be digested, it reduces the caloric impact and also works as a prebiotic to fuel the good bacteria in the gut, however, emerging research suggests that the body does in fact metabolize some of this as sugar, meaning this may not be as low cal as we once thought. Another downside is that high quantities can lead to undesirable gastric distress when higher quantities are consumed. 
 
PRO TIP: Use in moderation but don't overdue it or you'll be running to the bathroom! Yacon is somewhat limited in its applications due to the fruity flavor and the fact that you can't cook or bake with it because heat breaks down the structures of th FOS.

9. Blackstrap Molasses 
The sugar-cane refining process creates this by-product, which is, in more ways than one, healthier than the final product, white sugar. It contains minerals like iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and zinc, often recommended to those with low blood iron levels. However, it contains the same dangerous substance, fructose.

PRO TIP: While some might claim that black strap molasses is the secret to beautiful hair and glowing skin, the science simply doesn't support these claims. Its unique flavor profile makes it an interesting choice for some recipes, but the high fructose content means to use sparingly.

10. Xylitol, Erythritol and Other Sugar Alcohols 
The above sweeteners are processed from plant fibers, like birch, berries and, most often, cornhusks. They have very few calories and no carbohydrates, eliminating the risk of raising blood sugar, making them good options for diabetics. Still, since most of these sweeteners are derived from cornhusks, this could imply inherent GMOs, causing gastric problems to some users.

PRO TIP: Many packaged food companies and supplement companies are turning to sugar alcohols as "healthier" alternatives to sugar, however, these are not without their own share of problems. Since it isn't required for companies to disclose the amount of these zero calorie sweeteners you may be consuming extremely high amounts that can destroy your gut, which opens up pandora's box of health problems. We suggest using with caution and reading labels very carefully as the science is still emerging about whether or not these sugar alcohols are actually any healthier than sugar.   

Top 3 Sugar Substitutes to Avoid

1. Agave Syrup 
Although agave is a natural sugar, don't be fooled by the marketing hype.  Agave syrup is natural and doesn’t require much processing, being made from the sap of the blue agave plant. It is highly sweet, replacing sugar with success, with lower amounts of the substance required. However, it has 75-90% fructose, even more than high fructose corn syrup, which doesn’t metabolize, raising the blood sugar levels rapidly, which means that skinny margarita that you ordered is actually a lot more harmful than you thought.

PRO TIP: Skip the agave and ask the bartender if they can use a few drops of honey instead. The added antioxidants and nutrients found in honey may also help protect against that impending hangover if you have a few too many margaritas!

2. Artificial Sweeteners
Synthetic sweeteners like Sucralose (Splenda, Maltodextrin), Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), Saccharin (Sweet N' Low), and Acesulfame K (Ace K, Sunette, Sweet One) should be avoided altogether.  Recent scientific studies have linked these chemically derived sweeteners to a number of health problems, including everything from headaches and brain fog to cancer, which is why many brands are scrambling to change their formulas and considering alternative options.  The major problem with all the sweeteners in this category are that they require additional chemicals like chlorine to create their low calorie nature, which pose serious long term health risks.

PRO TIP: Read your labels carefully!  Don't believe the marketing hype on the front of the packaging.  With 500 to 600 times the sweetness of regular sugar, these can be some of the most addictive and harmful sweeteners on the market.  Any company that uses any of these artificial sweeteners in their products does not have your best interest and your health in mind.   
    
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Another example of clever marketing, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) disguises itself as a "natural" sugar but it couldn't be further from the truth.  With corn being one of the highest production crops in the U.S. it shouldn't come as a surprise that they've found a way to include it in almost everything we eat.  Everything these days, from sauces and salad dressing to desserts and pastries, seem to contain this harmful sweetener.  So what makes it so harmful?  With corn being one of the most common genetically modified crops, the majority of HFCS is produced using GMO corn, but that's not the only issue.  The problem is that just as the name suggests, this sugar alternative is extremely high in fructose.  The problem with fructose in highly concentrated forms is that it gets rapidly metabolized by the liver, which has downstream affects that contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), insulin resistance, and obesity.

PRO TIP:   With so many companies using HFCS in their products these days it can be difficult to know what to trust.  To make things easier, try shopping at a natural grocer or farmer's market that don't allow companies that use HFCS on their shelves.  Each dollar we spend casts a vote either for or against the change we want to see.  As more consumers choose not to buy from companies that use HFCS it forces them to adapt by changing their ingredients or lose market share.   

RELATED ARTICLE: All you need to know about GMOs

The Bottom Line

This top ten list should provide you with the education you need to make an informed decision about what type of natural sugar substitutes to consider when making your health a priority.  A few rules of thumb to keep in mind when are the glycemic index, the calorie count, fructose content, and how processed and refined it is.  Like with all foods, the closer to nature you can get the better off and generally more healthy they will be.  The hands down winner and our top choice for the best natural sugar substitute is the Sugar of LYFE - organic, wild harvested, unprocessed, nutrient-dense palmyra blossom nectar. 

chart of the best natural sugars

REFERENCES: 

1. A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174139/ 
2. The scientific basis of recent US guidance on sugars intake - https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/78/4/827S/4690051 
3. Fructose: A Dietary Sugar in Crosstalk with Microbiota Contributing to the Development and Progression of Non-Alcoholic Liver Disease - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5609573/ 
4. Effects of Chromium Picolinate on Food Intake and Satiety - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2753428/ 
5. Which foods cause tooth decay? - https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/dental-health/which-foods-cause-tooth-decay/ 
6. Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5385025/ 
7. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3957428/

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