The Truth About Sugar Substitutes: The Good, the (Not So) Bad, and the Downright Ugly

sugar substitutes

The FDA recently recommended that no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugar. That’s double the recommendation of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which is 25 grams or a little over 6 teaspoons per day. Suffice to say, those of us with a sweet tooth are on the hunt for something to replace the sweet stuff — but beware: not all sugar substitutes are created equal.

The Good

The best sugar substitutes are the most natural products, and unfortunately, that means that they all do contain glucose, fructose, or both. In other words, even if you’re subbing these ingredients in for regular granulated cane sugar, they will still contribute to your daily intake of added sugar. That said, they also contain some added benefits that make them a better choice.

1. Maple Syrup

Pure maple syrup (we’re not talking about pancake syrup) is definitely sugary, but it also contains a few other things that regular sugar doesn’t: nutrients. Not only is maple syrup filled with antioxidants (according to Pharmaceutical Biology, up to 24 different ones), it’s also packed with riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and potassium.

“Everything the tree filters out from Mother Nature and all of the good minerals, antioxidants, and everything it is doing for the food for the tree, stays in the sugar,” explains Helen Thomas of the New York State Maple Association.

2. Raw Honey

Raw honey, like maple syrup, is more than just sugar. It also contains essential amino acids, antioxidants, and antimicrobial compounds. Local raw honey may also reduce seasonal allergy symptoms, according to research in the International Archives of Allergy and Immunology.

Just be sure that you’re buying the real stuff: a 2011 study showed that about 76 percent of supermarket honey contained no pollen whatsoever, essentially making it equivalent to corn syrup. Buy your raw honey from a trusted local source, and use sparingly.

3. Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar, much like maple syrup, contains trace amounts of minerals. But this isn’t the only reason it’s a better choice than sugar.

“Because coconut sugar contains less fructose than white sugar, your liver metabolizes it in a healthier way,” Alexandra Caspero, R.D., founder of the Delish Knowledge blog, tells Greatist. “That means less potentially turns into fat. But since coconut sugar is higher in sucrose, it still raises your blood sugar.”

That said, it raises your blood sugar much less than table sugar. According to the Phillipine Department of Agriculture, the glycemic index of coconut sugar is nearly half that of table sugar.

We also love coconut sugar because of how easy it is to swap in for cane sugar. You can swap coconut sugar in baked goods recipes cup for cup for granulated sugar.

The (Not So) Bad

There are a few sugar substitutes that aren’t quite as good for you as our favorite sugar substitutes above, but they’re also not quite as bad as the chemical sugar substitutes you’ll find in little blue, pink, and yellow packets.

1. Agave Nectar

Agave was a very popular alternative sugar a few years back, but while this relatively neutral sweetener derived from the agave plant is a natural alternative, it’s not the healthiest. It’s slightly higher in calories than white sugar, teaspoon for teaspoon, and it doesn’t have much to offer nutrient-wise as compared with maple sugar or coconut sugar.

Agave syrup originally rose to popularity because it was said to be lower on the glycemic index, but a growing number of experts, including Dr. Axe, say that there just isn’t enough information to confirm this. In fact, some experts, including Dr. Jonny Bowden, claim that because mass-produced agave syrup is so processed, it’s about as good for you as high-fructose corn syrup.

Dr. Oz, one of the early fans of agave nectar, recently called for people to eliminate the syrup from their kitchens.

While agave nectar is better than chemical sweeteners, we can’t condone using it as a regular sugar substitute.

2. Stevia

Stevia has been used as a natural sweetener for centuries in South America, with few side effects, though some tests in the 1980s showed that stevia may have a negative impact on fertility.

Leaf stevia and stevia extracts like Sweet Leaf are both far sweeter than sugar, though they also have a slightly bitter aftertaste. With no calories and a few notable health benefits thanks to stevioside (the bitter portion of the leaf), these products are a fairly good option for those looking to cut back on sugar intake.

Heavily processed forms of stevia, however, are far more widespread ever since they were granted FDA GRAS status in 2008. These highly refined, processed forms of stevia are far removed from the natural plant — in fact, brands marketing themselves as stevia, such as Truvía sweetener, contain less than one percent stevia leaf extract, which is combined with other ingredients like erythritol to balance the flavor. Dr. Axe notes that many stevia products contain genetically modified ingredients and may cause side effects like gastrointestinal problems.

One other reason we’re not huge fans of stevia is that it has a chemical sort of aftertaste, though some blends, for example Whole Earth’s stevia product, combine stevia with other ingredients like agave, honey, and cane sugar to create a sugar substitute with half the calories and a less bitter flavor.

Whole Earth Spokesperson Bobby Valastro notes that the company’s baking blend, which combines half sugar and half organic stevia leaf extract, masks the aftertaste effectively and bakes like sugar, making it a pretty good option as a sugar substitute.

3. Raw Organic Sugar

Raw sugar, while not too far off from granulated white sugar, is actually a slightly better option. Unrefined organic sugar is not only pesticide-free, it also retains the natural nutrients in cane juice, including amino acids, minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. We still prefer less processed sugars, but this isn’t a bad option if you’re really looking for the sweetness of sugar.

The Ugly

These are sugar substitutes we just can’t recommend. More chemical than food, we vote you stay away from them.

1. Aspartame

Aspartame, the sweetener in Equal and NutraSweet, is one of the most frequently used in the U.S., but it’s also one of the most dangerous. After aspartame was linked with carcinogenic effects in 2014, the American Journal of Industrial Medicine recommended re-evaluating the position of international regulatory agencies on aspartame.

A study in Reproductive Toxicology also found that aspartame could have dangerous effects on pregnant or nursing women, specifically predisposing their children to metabolic syndrome disorders and obesity.

2. Sucralose

Sucralose, the sweetener used in Splenda, has been publicized as a healthier version of aspartame, but while sucralose is derived from sugar, it is actually quite far removed from sugarcane.

Sucralose is a chlorinated sucrose derivative that has been shown to contain several hazardous compounds, including carcinogenic chloropropanols, according to a study published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.

3. Xylitol

Xylitol is one of several sugar alcohols used as a sugar substitute, none of which are absorbed very well by the body.

Xylose, from which xylitol is derived, is found in birch bark, but ever since the 1950s, it’s been known that xylose cannot be adequately metabolized by single-stomach animals and this causes digestive issues. In fact, they are often used as active ingredients for over-the-counter laxatives — which isn’t terribly reassuring when you’re using it to bake cookies.

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Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.