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Are you wondering what is the best alternative sweetener? As more sweeteners become mainstream, I often wonder the same. Depending on your criteria, each can have its pros and cons. I’ll review the most popular alternative sweeteners in this article.
Not to date myself, but I remember when Equal and Sweet ‘N Low were the top artificial sweeteners in the ‘80’s. I recall Splenda then dominating the artificial sweetener sphere after the late ‘90’s.
My dad was diabetic, so we sampled products containing all of those artificial sweeteners when I was growing up. When I was older, I grew leery about artificial sweeteners after studies showed conflicting information about their safety.
If you’re like me, you may wonder whether to trust any “alternative sweetener,” whether its labelled artificial or “natural.” Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll have a better idea of which sweetener is best for you and your family, if the need arises.
What are Artificial Versus “Natural” Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are made from chemicals, meaning not from ingredients found in nature. Manufacturers first made and marketed artificial sweeteners for people who needed to limit sugar consumption (e.g. diabetics) and/or wanted to limit calories.
Artificial sweeteners are either nutritive (containing calories) or non-nutritive (containing insignificant or no calories). The FDA has approved five non-nutritive sweeteners (Ace-K, Advantame, Neotame, Saccharin, Sucralose) and one nutritive (Aspartame).
Many consumers are increasingly shying away from artificial sweeteners, however, because of publicized side effects and possibility of increasing the risk of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and desire for sugar. (Yes, even though companies promoted these sweeteners for diabetics or pre-diabetics, the sweeteners may do more harm than good!)
The term “natural sweetener” has become more widespread, where more consumers are wanting foods with “natural” ingredients.
However, the problem lies in defining “natural.” The FDA gives no clear definition of what can constitute a “natural” sweetener. Thus, no strict guidelines apply to manufacturers’ use of the term.
Per the FDA, “natural” can mean any ingredient derived from a natural source (e.g. a fruit), but not necessarily derived through a natural process. The FDA once solicited public opinions on what “natural” should mean, but never came to a conclusion.
An example of a natural source but unnatural process is xylitol. Xylitol is a chemical compound originally derived from wood and agricultural waste (e.g. corn cobs). Manufacturers chemically process the sugar from the wood/waste into alcohol.
Thus, we consume a substance not innate in nature, but which companies can call a “natural” sweetener per the FDA.
What About Different Kinds of Sugars?
In their quest to find what is the best alternative sweetener, many people consider other forms of sugars (i.e. not regular table sugar, a.k.a. sucrose.
Let’s discuss some popular “natural” sugars:
Coconut Sugar (a.k.a. Coconut Palm Sugar)
Most producers make coconut sugar by allowing coconut palm sap to evaporate. Some studies suggest coconut sugar contains more iron, zinc, and calcium than regular table sugar. However, the actual amounts are minimal, so I would not use coconut sugar as a source for these minerals.
Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index (GI) than table sugar, but by a disputed disparity. Higher GI estimates pit coconut sugar just below regular table sugar. Thus, if you’re trying to avoid blood sugar spikes, coconut sugar is not a magic bullet.
Agave syrup (commonly called agave nectar) comes from the blue agave plant, where processing extracts the plant’s juice and converts it to a syrup consistency.
Although proponents tout agave syrup’s significantly lower glycemic index (GI) versus table sugar (20 versus 60), it contains way more fructose. Agave syrup has almost double the amount of fructose as high fructose corn syrup – way more than regular table sugar.
Studies have shown that high fructose consumption can contribute to metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Your blood sugar doesn’t spike from fructose because your body can’t process fructose well. This can damage your liver and contribute to the conditions listed above.
Thus, to be safe, you should avoid agave syrup.
Some of the touted benefits of raw honey over regular table sugar are its antibacterial and prebiotic properties (i.e. promoting the growth of healthy bacteria). Note: this applies to raw (i.e. unprocessed) honey. It’s health and immune benefits are also why some people use honey for medicinal purposes (e.g. See our Easy, Homemade Elderberry Syrup Recipe, which uses raw honey).
Honey has a lower GI than table sugar. However, it is still a form of sugar, so you should limit your consumption if you are trying to restrict your sugar intake.
Maple syrup is another relatively unprocessed sweetener, where producers boil or evaporate maple tree sap.
The GI of maple syrup is lower than table sugar (54 to 65). One study also showed that maple syrup contains more than 20 antioxidant compounds, including ones with anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, or anti-diabetic properties. These benefits are in addition to maple syrup containing minerals like zinc, thiamine, and calcium.
However, maple syrup is still a form of sugar. So, if you are trying to avoid sugars, don’t interpret “anti-diabetic properties” as a green light to consume freely!
All of the above natural sugars affect your blood sugar or body’s response somehow. Even though agave syrup ranks low on the GI index, it’s high concentration of fructose makes it a controversial choice.
What is the Best Alternative Sweetener of “Natural Sweeteners”?
The only two FDA-approved “natural” sweeteners are Luo Han Guo (a.k.a monk fruit) and stevia. Let’s discuss both:
Any stevia sweetener that you buy is processed, because the FDA prohibits the sale of whole stevia leaves or crude leaf extracts. Plus, many people would find stevia bitter without processing or additives.
Thus, when buying stevia sweetener, you should seriously consider what else is in the product (e.g. sucralose or erythritol). Also, keep in mind that stevia products are relatively new, so not a lot of studies exist on long-term effects.
Luo Han Guo (a.k.a. Monk Fruit)
Monk fruit is native to Southeast Asia. Companies use sweet substances called mogrosides in the fruit. However, because monk fruit is expensive to import, most companies mix monk fruit sweeteners with other sweeteners like sugar or erythritol.
Thus, when buying monk fruit sweetener, you should seriously consider what else is in the product (e.g. sugar or erythritol). Here is one product I found online that touts not having any additional fillers aside from monk fruit and its mogrosides.
Just take note that since monk fruit sweeteners are relatively new, not a lot of studies exist on any long-term effects. Otherwise, proponents tout monk fruit for not raising blood sugar levels and having no calories or carbohydrates.
No major studies exist that show negative side effects from consuming either stevia or monk fruit sweeteners. However, you should be particularly cautious about any other ingredients or additives contained in a sweetener. Since companies usually blend monk fruit with other sweeteners (e.g. erythritol), I tend to avoid it.
Personally, I used liquid stevia to sweeten things like yogurt, since I don’t use it in large quantities. Like with any processed sweetener, however, I would just say not to go overboard in consuming it.
What is the Best Alternative Sweetener of Sugar Alcohols?
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a huge fan of alcohol sugars – mainly because of the unknown. Although the starting ingredients are naturally occurring substances, the processing is far from naturally occurring.
Let’s discuss two of the most popular sugar alcohols.
Proponents tout xylitol not only a sweetener, but as good for dental health. No clear studies exist showing health risks associated with xylitol specifically aside from the risk of causing gastrointestinal distress.
Proponents tout erythritol as a “safe” sweetener, but with less calories than xylitol. Like xylitol and other sugar alcohols, erythritol can cause gastrointestinal distress.
Some people detect and dislike a “cool” aftertaste that erythritol produces, where your mouth experiences a somewhat cool/minty sensation after consuming erythritol.
Not a lot of research exists generally on sugar alcohols. Xylitol and erythritol are newer to the mainstream, so we don’t know long-term effects.
Aside from the laxative effects, another documented side effect of consuming a lot of sugar alcohols is that it may cause blood sugar levels to rise in diabetics. The latter may be from the carbohydrates in sugar alcohols, which can raise blood sugar levels.
Also, I find it concerning that xylitol is toxic with dogs, where xylitol produces a deadly insulin response in dogs. Even though studies haven’t found the same insulin response in humans, you have to remember that very little studies have been done generally regarding sugar alcohols and humans.
Because both sweeteners can produce gastrointestinal side effects, I avoid both and don’t trust them with my kids.
What is the Best Alternative Sweetener – Summary
I prefer staying as natural as possible, so use maple syrup, honey, or regular raw organic sugar whenever a recipe calls for sugar. However, I don’t have blood sugar issues, and my diet is relatively low-sugar, so I’m not opposed to using these sweeteners on such occasions.
When I do feel like restricting my sugar consumption and want to add sweetness to wet foods like yogurt or vanilla smoothie, I use liquid stevia. I may also use a little to sweeten kid snacks (e.g. See our article, “5 Guilt-Free, Healthy Kids Snacks for Picky Eaters – with Yogurt!“)
Cautions on Alternative Sweeteners
Regarding heavily processed/refined and artificial sweeteners, I always proceed with caution. The same goes for any alternative sweetener that is newer to the mainstream.
I recall when sweeteners like aspartame (e.g. Equal) and sucralose (e.g. Splenda) became popular, the manufacturers touted them as healthy, risk-free alternatives. However, independent studies later revealed serious health risks and concerns.
For instance, studies have since linked aspartame to cancer, brain tumors, cardiovascular disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s, brain damage, and more.
Plus, it’s no secret that manufacturers fund studies that suggest their products are healthy and risk-free. Thus, you always have to view any positive publicity with a grain of salt.
That’s why I’m still reluctant to indulge in sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol, even if the original sources are “natural.” The documented gastrointestinal side effects are enough to deter me, along with the lack of extensive research.
With any “sweet” food, whether using alternative sweeteners or real sugars, you should remember that it’s still a treat. In other words, don’t view non-caloric, low-GI sugars as an excuse to indulge in more treats than you otherwise would.
Studies have shown that even if you consume sweeteners that don’t produce a glycemic or reward response, your body will still increase its craving and dependence for sugar or other calories. Thus, the increase in the overweight/obese population, despite the increase in consumption of artificial sweeteners.
What is the best alternative sweetener in your opinion? Please comment below with what you use, or your thoughts on alternative sweeteners in general.