Top 10 Best (And Worst) Natural Sugar Substitutes

15 min read

key takeaways:
  • Research shows that sugar is more addictive than cocaine.
  • Ultraprocessed foods — everything from sodas to "natural" foods — are the primary source of excess sugar consumption in modern diets and are directly responsible for the rising obesity epidemic.
  • Some sugars can actually have a nutritive componenet like palmyra blossom nectar.  Used in ayurvedic medicine and Indian culture for centuries, it is one of the few plant-based sources of vitamin B12 on the planet.
NUTRITION

Sugar addiction is the real deal.  Quitting this sweet drug of choice isn't so simple, but knowing which types of sweeteners to choose can make all the difference in how you look, think, and feel.

Sugar has long been integrated into our culture as a reward mechanism.

But, what once was a natural and healthy indulgence has become quite problematic for our health. 

Sugar has been blamed for everything from obesity to mental health disorders.

And, it's no wonder why.

One of the great marvels of modern living in western industrialized societies is the quick and convenient access to "food".

But this desire for convenience and fuel on-demand has come with some ugly and undesirable side-effects.

The main culprit being ultraprocessed foods that are more freakish science experiements than they are nutritive fuel for our bodies.

And the most common ingredient among them?  

You guessed it — SUGAR!

Today, sugar is literally in EVERYTHING we consume.
 
Now, you may be wondering, what’s so bad about this sweet white powder that we’ve come to desperately crave? 

The answer?  Well, it depends.

After all, not all sugar is created equally and the type you choose can affect your mind and body in different ways.

Read on to find out how sugar affects us and how to choose the best natural sugar alternative for your health. 

Or, to skip to a section that interests you most, simply click on one of the topics below.

What makes sugar so addicting?
How does sugar affect the body?
Rising demand for natural sugar alternatives
Top 10 Healthy & Natural Sugar Substitutes
Top 3 sugar replacements to avoid
FAQs

Did you know?

13xThe average American consumes about 130 pounds of sugar every year.  This is a 13-fold increase than the less than 10 pounds annually consumed by our ancestors of the 1800's.

What Makes Sugar So Addicting?

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.

While sugar addiction is a real thing, there’s nothing wrong with a little sweet indulgence every now and then!

Like most things in life, it's all about balance.  

What many don't realize is how addicted to sugar they actually are.

And it's not an easy habit to kick.

For sake of this analogy, you can break a cocaine addiction by changing who you hang out with, but breaking up with sugar is painfully more difficult.

Think about it.

You can't go to a gas station, grocery store, or even office supply store without seeing the checkout isles lined with sugar-filled candy bars, sodas, and packaged foods.

And, the worst part?

The vast majority of "natural" and healthy foods that line our supermarket aisles are no different.

And, that shouldn't come as a surprise.

After all, just a handful of companies control the majority of our food supply.



If you really think Nestle, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, Kraft, and Kellog have your best interest in mind and want the best for your health...think again.

Your dopamine sensors are constantly triggered and fuel your desire for junk food.

While no amount of willpower can withstand the endless temptation that we all face daily, a little education and changing the way you fuel your body can make a massive difference!

It starts by understanding that not all sugars are created equally.

Read to the end of the article to learn how to choose the best natural sugar alternatives for your health and lifestyle goals.

QUESTION:

Is it possible to quit sugar altogether?

ANSWER:

Technically yes, but it would prove quite challenging.  While it is possible to survive without sugar, sugars are the building blocks of carbohydrates, the most abundant type of organic molecules in living things, and the primary source of fuel for our bodies. 

What Are The Problems With Eating Too Much Sugar?

Blood sugar imbalances caused by excess sugar intake can manifest in different ways.

There are the obvious ones that take time to develop like insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity.

And there are the less obvious silent symptoms that often go overlooked or attributed to something else.

These silent symptoms do more damage than you may realize. 

Fluctuating mood swings, volatile energy levels, and unexplained inflammatory responses are more than just an annoying part of life.

These are usually just the first signals we receive as a cry for help.

Just like a "check engine" light on your vehicle, these indicators could be a warning signal that larger health concerns are looming on the horizon if left ignored.

More obvious symptoms might be headaches, fatigue, and uncontrollable food cravings impact us in different ways, most notably the quality of day-to-day life.

Several other chronic conditions that can be triggered by high sugar intake are as follows:

- Low Immunity
- Chromium Deficiency
- Faster Aging
- Tooth Decay
- Stress Increase

The Effect of Sugar on the Microbiome

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, minerals, and essential amino acids.

The gut microbiome is responsible for the generation of important metabolic by-products left undigested by the small intestine that impact health in a variety of ways.

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.

Most notable of these studies are those that have directly linked sugar alcohols as playing a primary role in microbiome imbalances.

No wonder that many people report flatulence and gastric distress when consuming certain health food products that use sugar alcohols.

Sure, your favorite protein bar might show "Zero Sugar" on the label but that's just a gimmicky way to trick you into believing the product is actually good for you.

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

What is the Healthiest Sugar Substitute for Table Sugar?

First it was splenda, then it was stevia, next came xylitol and erithritol, and now it's allulose.  

But, one must ask, are these sugar alternatives even healthy?

They barely check the box of natural, but that's only because the criteria for what it means to be "natural" is so vague and misleading.

Each new sweetener comes with the same inticing allure — zero calories, no impact on blood glucose, and undigestible "good for you" fiber!

Take the energy and proetin bar market as an example.

Many manufacturers have formulate products around the idea that isomalto-oligosaccharide (IMO) is a non-digestible carbohydrate that had zero impact on blood sugar.

The truth?

While true that IMOs are found in certain foods like chicroy root, tapioca, and inulin, the form in commercial production is typically IMO syrups which have a more deceptive impact than their whole food counterparts.

This is because the sugars from the natural source are extracted and concentrated to magnify the sweetness component.

As a result, IMO syrups have been show to spike blood glucose and can cause digestive distress, especially in those that suffer from small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

In summary, the devil is ALWAYS in the details.  

Feeling a bit unwell after sipping a fizzy beverage or snacking on a protein bar?

Check the label to see what type of sweeteners are being used and be especially wary of anything that sounds like a chemical and is difficult to pronounce.

Did you know?

Mexico and other Latin America countries have been at the forefront at using monetary policy to improve public health.  Over 25 countries throughout the world have adopted a sugar sweetened beverage (SSB) tax.  While some cities in the United States have followed suit, no statewide mandates for SSB taxes have been made.

Rising Demand for Healthy Sugar Substitutes

It should be no secret that artificial sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup are detrimental to our health.

When you look at the insidious damage that they have had on health it's shocking to think that they could ever be approved as being safe for human consumption.

It's one of the reasons why some cities and countries around the world have passed soda taxes and have removed vending machines from schools, hospitals, and other public spaces.

This subject is highly politicized and not taken lightly by the Big CPG companies that need to keep their share of your wallet to keep their shareholders happy.

That's why they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying against legislation reform that require taxes on sugary beverages and foods.

But, when you look at obesity rates and other chronic health conditions that are preventable through dietary and lifestyle behaviors it's hard not to argue that every one of these products should come with a warning label like those of alcohol and tobacco.

Change is slow, but it is happening.

But, the biggest catalyst for change has been led by consumer education and demand for better ingredients.

As the cheaper option, artificial sweeteners are the preferred option for big businesses.

But, in addition to just being more expensive, the question remains whether they are actually better for you.

Let's find out!

Top 10 Healthy & Natural Sugar Substitutes

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 natural best sugar substitute be your guide.

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.

Palmyra Jaggery is also organic, ethically sourced and a sustainable business for the communities who farm it.

Did you know?

One tablespoon of palmyra blossom nectar 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.

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 in North America.

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.

Arguably one of the best zero calorie sweetener options for food manufacturers due to it's high mogroside content, a natural antioxidant compound that is metabolized different than sugar and gives it its sweet flavor.

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 a great natural sugar substitute.

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 has a naturally very bitter aftertaste making it somewhat challenging to use as a pure sugar substitute in its most natural form as the stevia leaf.

Due to growing demand, "natural" stevia has become highly commercialized meaning it is not in the natural state that possess the most health benefits with more recent studies linking it to dysbiosis in the gut.

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.

PRO TIP:

Stevia has a naturally very bitter aftertaste making it somewhat challenging to use as a pure sugar substitute in its most natural form as the stevia leaf.

Due to growing demand, "natural" stevia has become highly commercialized meaning it is not in the natural state that possess the most health benefits with more recent studies linking it to dysbiosis in the gut.

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.

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 and raising larger concerns about how they may impact our health in other ways.

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.   

Did you know?

Splenda a.k.a. sucralose was originally discovered by a team of scientists trying to create an insecticide. An assistant mistook instructions to "test" the compound as being asked to "test" it.

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 just 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.   

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 things to keep in mind when evaluating different sweeteners are:

- Glycemic Index
- Calorie Count
- Fructose Content
- Processing Methods

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.

Top 10 Healthy Sweeteners Ranked:

chart of the best natural sugars

FAQs

References:

  • National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2016). A review of recent evidence relating to sugars, insulin resistance and diabetes. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174139/ (Accessed: 12 February 2021)
  • Nature. (2013). Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature12820 (Accessed: 12 February 2021)
  • Journal of Translational Medicine. (2017). Influence of diet on the gut microbiome and implications for human health. Available at: https://translational-medicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12967-017-1175-y (Accessed: 12 February 2021)
  • Frontiers In Immunology. (2017). Fructose: A Dietary Sugar in Crosstalk with Microbiota Contributing to the Development and Progression of Non-Alcoholic Liver Disease. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2017.01159/full (Accessed: 12 February 2021)

Disclaimer: The LYFE Fuel blog is for informational purposes only. The information does not serve as a replacement for professional medical advice or treatment. We kindly ask you not to ignore professional medical advice because of any information you’ve read on https://lyfefuel.com/. If you have any concerns about your health, please consult a physician or appropriate health care expert.