Added sugar is probably the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.
It has been associated with many serious diseases, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
What's more, most people consume way too much sugar and often have no idea.
Fortunately, there are many ways to sweeten foods without adding sugar. This article explores eight healthy alternatives you can use instead.
Why Sugar is Bad for You
For starters, there is simply nothing good about sugar. It contains no protein, essential fats, vitamins or minerals. There really is no need for it in the diet.
In fact, there is a long list of reasons why you should avoid it.
Sugar interferes with hormones in your body that regulate hunger and satiety. This can lead to increased calorie intake and weight gain (1, 2).
It also harms your metabolism, which can lead to increased insulin and fat storage. In fact, many studies have found a strong link between sugar and obesity (3, 4).
Simply put, people who consume the most sugar are far more likely to become overweight or obese than those who consume the least.
High sugar intake is also associated with some of the world's most deadly diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer (5, 6, 7).
What's more, sugar is addictive. It causes dopamine to be released in the reward center of the brain, which is the same response activated by addictive drugs. This leads to cravings and can drive overeating (8).
In short, sugar is incredibly unhealthy and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, consider the following eight alternatives.
Stevia is a natural sweetener that's extracted from the leaves of a South American shrub known scientifically as Stevia rebaudiana.
It contains zero calories and has no known links to weight gain.
In fact, human studies have shown that Stevia is not associated with any adverse health effects (9, 10).
Not only is Stevia considered safe, it's also linked to some health benefits.
Several studies show that Stevioside, which is one of the sweet compounds in Stevia, can lower high blood pressure by 6–14 percent (11, 12, 13).
It has also been shown to lower blood sugar and insulin levels, which may help fight diabetes (14, 15).
It's worth noting that the two different sweet compounds extracted from the stevia plant—Stevioside and Rebaudioside A—have slightly different tastes.
Typically available in powder or liquid form, products labeled "stevia" may contain either or both of these compounds in varying amounts.
That's why some varieties taste better than others and it may take some experimenting to find the right one for you.
All things considered, if you need to sweeten something, Stevia is probably the healthiest choice.
Summary: Stevia is 100 percent natural, contains zero calories and has no known adverse health effects. It has been shown to lower blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar. It's extracted from corn or birch wood and found in many fruits and vegetables.
Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, which is 40 percent fewer calories than sugar.
Also, it does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels (16).
Most of the harmful effects associated with regular sugar are due to its high fructose content. However, xylitol contains zero fructose and thus has none of the harmful effects associated with sugar.
On the contrary, xylitol is associated with multiple health benefits.
Several studies show that it can improve dental health by reducing the risk of cavities and tooth decay (17, 18, 19, 20).
Moreover, xylitol increases your body's absorption of calcium. This is not only good for your teeth but also your bone density, which can help protect against osteoporosis (21, 22, 23, 24).
Xylitol is generally well tolerated, but eating too much of it can cause digestive side effects like gas, bloating and diarrhea.
It's also important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. If you own a dog, you may want to keep xylitol out of reach or avoid having it in the house altogether.
Summary: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that contains 40 percent fewer calories than sugar. Eating it may offer dental benefits and protect against osteoporosis.
Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol, but it contains even fewer calories.
At only 0.24 calories per gram, erythritol contains 6 percent of the calories of regular sugar.
It also tastes almost exactly like sugar, making it an easy switch.
Your body does not have the enzymes to break down erythritol, so most of it is absorbed directly into your bloodstream and excreted in your urine unchanged (25).
Therefore, it does not seem to have the harmful effects that regular sugar does.
Moreover, erythritol does not raise blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol or triglyceride levels (26).
It's considered safe for human consumption and is very well tolerated (27, 28, 29).
Human studies show no side effects of erythritol when consumed daily at one gram per pound (.45 kg) of body weight, though higher doses may lead to minor digestive issues in some people.
Summary: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that tastes almost exactly like sugar, but it contains only 6 percent of the calories. It is an excellent sugar alternative, especially for people who are overweight or have diabetes.
4. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is extracted from the yacón plant, which is native to South America and known scientifically as Smallanthus sonchifolius.
It tastes sweet, is dark in color and has a thick consistency similar to molasses.
It has recently gained popularity as a weight loss supplement after being featured on The Dr. Oz Show, a TV show hosted by a famous American doctor.
While one small study found that yacon syrup caused significant weight loss in overweight women, more research is needed to validate this claim (30).
Yacon syrup contains 40–50 percent fructooligosaccharides, which are a special type of sugar molecule that the human body cannot digest.
Because these sugar molecules are not digested, yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar or about 1.3 calories per gram.
What's more, studies show that fructooligosaccharides can decrease the hunger hormone ghrelin, which may reduce appetite and help you eat less (31, 32).
They also feed the friendly bacteria in your gut, which are incredibly important for your overall health.
Having healthy gut bacteria has been linked to a decreased risk of diabetes and obesity, improved immunity and better brain function (33, 34, 35, 36, 37).
Yacon syrup is generally considered safe, but eating large amounts of it may lead to excess gas, diarrhea or general digestive discomfort.
Another downside to yacon syrup is that you cannot cook or bake with it, as high temperatures break down the structure of the fructooligosaccharides (38).
Instead, you can use yacon syrup to sweeten your coffee or tea, add it to salad dressings or stir it into oatmeal.
Summary: Yacon syrup contains one-third of the calories of regular sugar. It is also very high in fructooligosaccharides, which feed the good bacteria in the gut and may help with weight loss.
5–8. "Less Bad" Sugars
There are several natural sweeteners that health-conscious people often use in place of sugar. These include coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup and molasses.
While these natural sweeteners may contain a few more nutrients than regular sugar, your body still metabolizes them the same way.
That being said, the natural sweeteners listed below are slightly "less bad" than regular sugar. Nonetheless, they are still forms of sugar.
5. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is extracted from the sap of the coconut plant.
It contains a few nutrients, including iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, as well as antioxidants.
It also has a lower glycemic index than sugar, which may be partly due to its inulin content.
Inulin is a type of fiber that has been shown to slow glucose absorption (39).
Nevertheless, coconut sugar is still very high in calories, containing the same number of calories per serving as regular sugar.
It's also very high in fructose, which is the main reason why regular sugar is so unhealthy in the first place.
At the end of the day, coconut sugar is very similar to regular table sugar and should be used sparingly.
Summary: Coconut sugar contains a small amount of fiber and nutrients. Therefore, it's slightly "less bad" than regular sugar. However, it's still high in fructose and should be consumed in moderation.
Honey is a thick, golden liquid produced by honey bees.
It contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as an abundance of beneficial antioxidants (40).
Eating honey may help raise the levels of antioxidants in your blood. High levels of antioxidants in the blood are linked to a lower risk of disease (41, 42).
In fact, honey has been shown to improve several risk factors for disease.
One study found that eating honey for eight weeks significantly lowered "bad" LDL cholesterol and blood triglycerides in individuals with diabetes (43).
It also increased "good" HDL cholesterol. However, in the same study, a marker of blood sugar levels called HbA1c increased, which is not good.
Another study found that eating honey decreased levels of C-reactive protein, which is a measure inflammation (44).
It also lowered homocysteine, another blood marker associated with disease.
Furthermore, both of these studies showed that honey had slightly less harmful effects on blood sugar levels and metabolism than regular sugar.
But despite the fact that studies have shown honey to have some promising health benefits, it still contains fructose, which can contribute to a slew of health problems.
In short, honey is still sugar and not completely harmless.
Summary: Honey contains antioxidants and small amounts of vitamins and minerals. It may offer some health benefits, but at the end of the day, it's still sugar and should not be consumed excessively.
7. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is a thick, sugary liquid that's made by cooking down the sap of maple trees.
It contains a decent amount of minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc and manganese.
It also contains at least 24 different types of antioxidants (45).
A couple test-tube studies have indicated that maple syrup may even have anti-cancer benefits, but more research is needed to confirm this (46, 47).
While maple syrup contains some beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, it's very high in sugar. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar, so it may not raise blood sugar levels as quickly, but it will still raise them (48).
Much like coconut sugar and honey, maple syrup is a slightly better option than regular sugar, but it should still be consumed in moderation.
Summary: Maple syrup contains some minerals and over 24 different antioxidants. It's slightly "less bad" than regular sugar, but you shouldn't go out of your way to eat it.
Molasses is a sweet, brown liquid with a thick, syrup-like consistency. It's made from boiling down sugar cane or sugar beet juice.
It contains a handful of vitamins and minerals, as well as several antioxidants.
In fact, blackstrap molasses is higher in antioxidants than both honey and maple syrup (49).
Furthermore, the nutrients in molasses are specifically important for bone and heart health (50, 51, 52).
Overall, molasses makes a fine replacement for refined sugar, but there is no reason to add it to your diet, as it's still a form of sugar.
Summary: Molasses contains nutrients that support bone and heart health and may help regulate blood sugar levels. Nevertheless, it is still high in sugar and should be consumed sparingly.
Avoid Substituting Sugar With These Sweeteners
Some alternative sweeteners may actually cause more harm than good. Some may even be more dangerous than sugar.
Below are sugar substitutes you should try to avoid.
Agave nectar is produced by the agave plant.
It's often marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, but it's probably one of the unhealthiest sweeteners on the market.
It consists of 85 percent fructose, which is much higher than regular sugar (53).
As previously mentioned, high amounts of fructose are strongly associated with obesity and other serious diseases.
Summary: Despite being marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, agave nectar contains even more fructose than sugar and should be avoided.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sweetener made from corn syrup. It's commonly used to sweeten processed foods and soft drinks.
As its name implies, it's very high in fructose.
It can increase your risk of weight gain, obesity, diabetes and other serious diseases like cancer (54, 55, 56, 57).
It is equally as bad as sugar and should be avoided at all costs.
While you won't typically use HFCS as an individual ingredient in your recipes at home, it's commonly found in sauces, salad dressings and other condiments that you may be cooking with.
Summary: High-fructose corn syrup is also high in harmful fructose and should be avoided entirely.
The Bottom Line
Eating too much sugar has been linked to several deadly diseases, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The sweeteners in this article are good alternatives, though the key word here is alternatives—meaning they should be used instead of refined sugar.
Stevia is probably the healthiest option, followed by xylitol, erythritol and yacon syrup.
"Less bad" sugars like maple syrup, molasses and honey are slightly better than regular sugar, but should still be used sparingly.
As with most things in nutrition, moderation is key.