How 4 Natural Sugar Substitutes Stack Up Against the Real Deal

By , SparkPeople Blogger
These days, sugar can seem like a four-letter word, especially if you're trying to lose weight or adopt a healthier lifestyle. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an excess of added sugars is one of the main culprits behind not only weight gain and obesity, but also an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The FDA recommends consuming no more than six to 11 teaspoons of the sweet stuff each day.
The problem is, the sweet stuff is practically everywhere, and it doesn’t always come in obvious forms, like when you sprinkle it in your coffee or drizzle chocolate sauce on strawberries. The practice of adding sugar to packaged foods is rampant—it can be found in everything from veggie snacks to juices and sauces.
As part of the anti-sugar trend, many people are turning to substitutes as a lower-calorie way to sweeten things up. But are sugar swaps any better than the real deal? SparkPeople nutritionist Becky Hand gives us the skinny on today's trendiest sugar substitutes.

Agave Syrup

Derived from the nectar of agave plants, this syrup can sometimes be sweeter than white table sugar, but it contains more calories (60 per tablespoon as opposed to 48). "The nutritional boost of agave syrup is very minimal," says Hand. "There are only trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium." In addition, while most sweeteners contain around a 50/50 mix of glucose and fructose, agave syrup is around 90 percent fructose—and some research has shown that high fructose consumption is linked to higher body fat and lower physical activity.

Coconut Sugar

Also known as coconut palm sugar, this sweetening agent is made from boiling down the nectar of flowers from the coconut plant. It contains the same amount of calories (16) and carbohydrates (four grams) as white table sugar.
Although it's touted as more nutritious than regular table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, Hand points out that coconut sugar contains only trace amounts of nutrients like zinc, iron, potassium, vitamin C and thiamin. It also contains almost as much fructose as regular sugar.
Is coconut sugar a good option for diabetics? According to the American Diabetes Association, it's fine to use coconut sugar as a sweetener, but it should be treated the same as regular sugar in terms of consumption.

Brown Rice Syrup

To produce this natural sweetener, enzymes are used to break down the starch in brown rice into simple sugar. The liquid is then boiled down into syrup.
Depending on how it's processed, brown rice syrup can contain anywhere from 55 to 75 calories per tablespoon. With only trace nutrients of magnesium, zinc and manganese, it offers little to no nutritional value.
Although brown rice syrup is made up of three different types of sugars, it is broken down into glucose during digestion, so it ultimately has the same effect on the body as regular sugar.

Date Sugar

Date sugar is different from other natural sugar substitutes in that it's not an extract, but is instead made by grinding dried dates into a fine powder. It contains the same nutrients as whole dates—potassium, calcium and several antioxidants—and has only 30 calories per tablespoon. Hand points out that under the latest FDA draft guidelines, whole fruit, fruit pieces and dried fruit don't fall into the category of added sugars.
However, Hand warns that date sugar has some restrictions. Because it doesn't melt well, its uses are limited. "It can primarily be used as a replacement for brown sugar in quick breads and bar cookies, sprinkled in yogurt, added to a smoothie or used to top a hot cereal," she says.

To Sweeten or Not to Sweeten?

While some sugar substitutes may be marketed as healthier or more natural than others, Hand cautions that the body can't distinguish between these and regular white table sugar.
"There is no nutritional boost to these sweeteners," she says. "If you like the flavor, then make the substitution—but don't assume that you're giving your body a health-promoting boost. Like the real thing, substitute sweeteners should be consumed in moderation."

What do you think of sugar substitutes?
Join us each month as we sift through the so-called life hacks and miracle cures to get to the bottom of the latest buzzworthy trend. Get the facts and decide for yourself if you should Spark It or Scrap It.

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


Well I will not be buying coconut sugar anymore. Report
Well I will not be buying coconut sugar anymore. Report
MUSICNUT 4/25/2020
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
QUEENFROG 3/1/2020
Most of it is the same. Report
GREEN_EYES2 10/14/2019
Interesting information! Report
PLATINUM755 9/21/2019
Thx! Report
I get seriously ill if I invest artificial sweeteners. ARTIFICIAL means not real. I use sugar or honey in my tea, they’re both delicious! Report
I get seriously ill if I ingest Report
Thanks Report
Thank you for sharing the story. Report
Date sugar is good for baking in quick breads, & on oatmeal. Mostly I do without but will use whole leaf stevia, not the processed kind, if I'm having in an item over time like a cake that I will eat from over a week's time. If I don't use it often or much then figure it won't matter. Truvia & Splenda are as bad or worse than sugar but you must know, scientific laboratories are always 100% fatal to rats used for testing. They autopsy each one & if you don't raise your own food then you're a lab rat just like the rest of us. Report
Beet or cane sugar are about as natural as you can get. Report
Seems that moderation of regular sugar has the same results as moderation of substitutes. I will stick with regular sugar and learn to monitor my intake and cut back. Report
Monkfruit and stevia! Report
Interesting article but I do not use artificial sweeteners, I use regular sugar but cut the amount way back. Report
I was so stubborn about giving up sweetners; even when I did the Whole 30 I refused to give up Stevia. Until last October, when I learned about "insulin resistance" from Dr. Jason Fung's podcasts and how insulin is released all day long as I drank coffee with sweetner in it. I gave it up and started Time Restricted Eating and burned fat like crazy off my trouble spots--hips and thighs, and dropped those stubborn pounds that would creep up as I struggled to maintain my goal weight. My advice: give up sweetner, wean yourself off of it. Treat sugar as a rare indulgence. Report
Stevia is my choice when using a sugar substitute, more so in summer in iced tea Report
Interesting information! Report
My physician suggested using Truvia/stevia, so I'm following his advice. I rarely use it anyway, only a third packet in the occasional cup of tea. Report
Wow. Think this article should be updated. Report
All I know is, when I eat anything with Artificial Sweeteners in it, my arms start itching. I discovered that after I stopped drinking Diet Soda and the weird itch I'd been suffering with for years just vanished. Now if I accidentally eat artificial sweeteners I'll know within half an hour. Report
I'm more confused about sugar now, than before I read the article. Not up to usual standards. Report
Good information to know. Report
I don’t mind natural sugars (which excludes Stevia in my book) but I almost never add sugar Report
Honey and Maple syrup have such strong flavors I do not think they are good substitutes for most purposes, which may be why they were left out. The article was about natural substitutes, so splenda et al are not listed. For most cooking purposes I just use regular sugar, but don't bake as much as I used to. No bad foods, just incorrect portion sizes, you know. I have no problem with whatever they use in diet cokes etc. I drink sugar free cokes and sugar free Tang (the Philippines has some great Tang flavors!). Report
Being diabetic when I really need to sweeten something, like rhubarb, I use Splenda. Most things are fine just the way they are, no sweetening needed. Report
Now days everything is bad for you today will say ok tomorrow will say kills you who do we trust. Report
Great info! Thanks! Report
Splenda is so bad for you & I cant stand the taste Report
I use Stevia, it's a plant and almost no calories. Someone commented that it was likeneed to cancer and is sticking to splenda...That is the one linked to health problems. At any rate sticking get to what is natural is the best in my opinion. Report
I recently started eating agave in place of honey in my tea. I thought it was suppose to be lower glycemic?
It says so on my bottle. Which is why I bought it because it wouldn't raise blood sugar the same way as honey or table sugar. I guess only one way to find out. Use a glucose meter. I do not have diabetes anymore but had it in the past so I always watch my glucose. Report
I enjoyed the comments more than the article, though I thought the article was fine. The comments helped me see how others deal with finding sugar substitutes. Wish I could just quit eating sweetners altogether. Report
This article is incomplete.
The article should have included maple syrup and honey, as they are two sweeteners that do have higher nutritional value.
Another annoyance is the only time the mention the calories per teaspoon is for date sugar. They also mention that date sugar is primarily glucose, and then continue talking about date sugar in a way that dismisses it, when it is the only sugar discussed that has far more glucose than fructose.
To be a good article, it should have include the calories per teaspoon and the proportion of

I realize they were focusing on natural sweeters, but a discussion of sugar alcohols would have been helpful as well, though that could also reasonably be for a different related article. Report
This is pretty frightening, because Melissa Rudy writes:
"The FDA recommends consuming no more than six to 11 teaspoons of the sweet stuff [sugar] each day."

Could you add this to your article as a point of comparison? - On their website, heart dot org, the American Heart Association has a graphic that shows they recommend a MAXIMUM of no more than SIX (6) total daily teaspoons of added sugar- for women - and a MAXIMUM of NINE (9) teaspoons for men. That's 100 calories for women and 150 for men. I'll go with the AHA, Am. Heart Assoc., but theirs are the UPPER guidelines. Even less is much healthier. Thank you for the article.
Great article! Thanks Report
Thank You for a very informative article. Report
Instead of looking for a substitute, why not just decrease the amount of natural sugar that you use? Report
Instead of looking for a substitute, why not just decrease the amount of natural sugar that you use? Report
I am weaning off aspertame and it's a little difficult with the moods changes. Also I am no longer buying any product high fructose items. There are over 500 products on the shelves that use aspertame for a sweetener. Looking at other options. Report
@archiefit: The title of the article specified natural substitutes. Splenda and Equal (sucralose and aspartame) are synthetic.

That said, all of the listed sweeteners are or contain sugars of one sort or another; some even have a significant sucrose content.

Where's the stevia? The monkfruit? The yacon syrup? The sugar alcohols, esp. erythritol? The chicory root/inulin based sweeteners? Report
This article seems to have been written by someone living on another planet. Coconut suger, rice sugar what the?? Anyone hear of Splenda? Equal perhaps? When's the last time you went to a store and found coconut sugar in a small packet to put in your coffee? What a whacked and useless article. How about an article about which artificial sweetener is better Splenda or Stevia. Recently read Stevia could cause cancer and was banned for decades in America due to that, even though it was available in Europe in the '60's. So much for Stevia being the "good" one. I live in the real world and I'm sticking with Splenda, I think this is the safest of them all and all those sugars mentioned above in the article are real sugars, if you're diabetic forget about it. Report
Steva, Honey and Maple sugar should have been included. Then it comes down to how much you use. :D Too much of a good thing, is still too much. Report
Sugar is sugar--I don't really consider the above sugar "substitutes" since the nutritional label will still list list a sugar content on the sugar line item under "Total Carb". Report
I prefer to use honey and brown sugars sparingly. I seldom bake, and reduce the sugar when I do. Report
Glucose is good for the brain Report
I like stevia, but there is a bit of aftertaste. Honey still my favorite. Report
Why were honey and maple syrup included? I recently read an article that touted the benefits of maple syrup for people with diabetes. Is this true or just an ad for the sticky stuff? Report
Good article--too bad honey was missing. :) I only use sugar when I bake--and never sweeten anything else. Quitting coffee saved me from a LOT of added sugar in my day! (Not to mention it helped me get rid of acid reflux, caffeine headaches, and IBS gut symptoms!)

As a rule, sticking with natural-from-nature foods always beats fake, chemical & processed anything! Report
I would have liked to see honey and pure maple syrup (two of the oldest sweeteners) in this article, then it would have been a complete comparison. I do appreciate the other comparisons, though. I stopped using most all of the ones you have listed years ago because they aren't any better than regular cane sugar and cost a whole lot more. I actually have them still sitting in my pantry-- I'm sure one of these days I'll just toss them. I may try the date sugar one day, but I have been cutting sugar from my diet as much as possible and eating only 1-2 servings of fruit a day for sweetness. Report