These alternatives have all the flavor and fewer drawbacks.
It’s no secret that the refined sugars found in our pantries and hidden in just about every processed food on the market can be harmful to our health when consumed at an unchecked rate. However, giving up refined sugars and all of the delicious things they contribute to outright can seem like the steepest dietary sacrifice you can make—and the chemical-filled artificial alternatives aren’t exactly good for you either.
Luckily for all of us trying to make small improvements to our diets, there’s a bevy of natural sweeteners that have become increasingly popular in today’s anti-refined sugar climate, all of which offer the flavor benefits of processed sugar with fewer consequences.
While natural sweeteners are a healthier option than traditional processed sugars, it’s important to keep in mind that all sweeteners should be used in moderation, as even the healthiest option can affect your blood sugar levels and lead to weight gain. However, most natural sweeteners do also contain added health benefits, like vitamins and minerals, creating a huge leg up on the processed variety.
WATCH: 2 Sugar Substitutes
When integrating natural sweeteners into your everyday cooking and baking as an alternative to the processed stuff, the quantities used can vary from product to product and task to task. Though utilizing these sweeteners in simple tasks like prepping your morning coffee or adding a dash of sweetness to a smoothie are no-brainers, when using as a substitute for baking you’ll want to use a similar product to the sugar that’s called for. If the recipe calls for a dry, powdered sugar, try to find a dry powdered natural alternative that won’t mess with the make up of your baked goods.
Though you might not already have a favorite natural sweetener—or know much about your options—the following products can help de-sugar your life while still allowing you to indulge your sweet tooth from time to time.
Though you might recognize stevia as the trendy sweetener that comes in green packets alongside Sweet’N Low, this product begins its life as a naturally sweet plant originating in South America. The shrub—stevia rebaudiana—tastes like sugar even in its leafy form, and once the saccharine flavor has been extracted from the plant, the result is a zero-calorie sugar supplement that is completely natural and even offers certain health benefits. In fact, studies have found that stevia can actually help lower insulin levels and blood sugar.
Keep in mind when purchasing this sweetener that there are multiple varieties, depending on the balance of the two sweet compounds extracted from the plant (known as rebaudioside A and stevioside). Despite coming from the same shrub, these two compounds have somewhat varying flavors, and can be combined in different quantities to create completely unique tasting kinds of stevia.
While this viscous golden liquid might seem like a naturally sweet no-brainer, the raw and unpasteurized variety of this classic product is both a delicious way to add a little sweetness to your life and an easy way to boost your health. While you’ll want to avoid processed honey, many of which contain added sugar, unprocessed honey extracted straight from the beehive is rich in antioxidants. In fact, bee pollen—which is left behind in their final product—can improve the strength of your immune system, fending off potential illnesses, and the antioxidants contained in the golden liquid can help to boost heart health and lower certain cancer risks.
While many of the most popular mass-market maple syrups are packed with added sugar, pure maple syrup—tapped from the tree and bottled with no additional sugar and minimal processing along the way—is a fantastic way to get your sweet fix naturally. In addition to being delicious poured over pancakes, 100 percent pure organic maple syrup also contains antioxidants and minerals like zinc. To get the most nutritional bang for your buck, look for darker colored syrups—a sign that there are a higher amount of beneficial antioxidants contained in the bottle.
With nutritional benefits like potassium, fatty acids, and zinc, this sweetener—which is extracted from the sweet nectar of blossoms found on coconut palms—is a great healthier alternative to the standard stuff. While this sweetener does have to be processed before hitting the shelves, it has the added benefit of being high in a particular kind of fiber that has been found to improve diabetic health and keep blood sugar levels balanced.
This sweetener, which is derived from the sugar alcohol of certain fruits, has a similar flavor to traditional sugar, all the while being much lower on the calories and easier on the body. For those with blood sugar concerns, studies have found that erythritol doesn’t affect cholesterol or other blood lipids, and doesn’t tamper with insulin or blood sugar levels, making it a great alternative for those with diabetes. This sugar substitute can be purchased from many health stores, and from online retailers like Amazon.
Monk Fruit Sweetener
While there’s a good chance you’ve never tried monk fruit in its whole form—or even seen one—this fruit, found mostly in China and Thailand, contains a low-carb sweetener that’s packed with antioxidants. Monk fruit sweetener is made by fermenting the fruit’s pulp, which eliminates the sugars but maintains the sweet taste. While some store-bought monk fruit sugars can contain additives (be sure to check the label), the pure product has been used in Chinese medicine for ages, thanks to its anti-inflammatory powers. This unique product can be found online or in specialty food stores.
Despite its scientific-sounding name, xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol found in fruits and vegetables. In addition to being a lower-calorie sweetener that doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels, xylitol has also been shown to benefit dental health, even warding off decay and lowering the risk of cavities. This sweetener can be found powdered and should be kept well out of reach of your dogs, as it’s toxic to your four-legged friends.
This under-the-radar sweetener is made from a South American plant grown in the Andes mountains, the yacon. In addition to giving your foods a natural dose of sweetness, yacon syrup—which can be found in health food stores and online—is also rich in a specific kind of fiber that benefits intestinal bacteria, which can help ward off digestive issues like constipation.
There’s a reason these syrupy sweet fruits have become a hallmark of health conscious recipes and a star of the refined sugar-free movement. High in fiber and naturally delicious, dates can add a sumptuous sweetness to any dish you’re preparing, either pureed in paste form, or dried and processed into date sugar. As with any source of high levels of fructose, the natural sugar found in fruits, it’s still important to not overdo it on your date consumption.
While it’s no secret that the majority bottled fruit juices found in the refrigerator section of your grocery store are chock-full of sugar, 100 percent fruit juices with no added sugar can be a great option for those who are looking to add a dash of sweetness to their recipes. Though still high in fructose—which shouldn’t be consumed in massive quantities—it’s a much healthier option than traditional refined sugars.