9 Healthier Alternatives to Refined Sugar

(Last Updated On: August 3, 2018)

Sugar. It’s the poison that we willingly gobble up. We don’t slap a skull and crossbones label on it, we don’t put a warning on the bag to call poison control if it’s ingested, and we don’t lock it away in a cupboard out of the reach of our children.

The problem with sugar is that it tastes so darn good and it takes it sweet time before it manifestly ruins our health. If our teeth started dropping out after our first taste we’d have kicked sugar into the long grass 2000 years ago, shortly after the process of sugar granule production was figured out in India.

It rots our teeth, makes us fat and lays waste to our cardiovascular system, our brain goes blah blah blah and it has zero nutritional value. Zip, zilch, nada.

Have you ever completely cut sugar out of your life only to give in to temptation again after 6 weeks or 6 months? If you’re like the majority of people who fall off the wagon, you probably got a ‘sugar headache’ and a foggy brain after your first hit. That was your body telling you, “cut it out, this isn’t good.”

I’m going to take you through some healthier alternatives to refined sugar but please take note that healthier doesn’t always mean healthy. It’s healthier to drink 5 glasses a wine a day than 5 bottles of whiskey, but you wouldn’t say that 5 glasses of wine a day was in any way healthy would you? While some of these suggestions are natural sugar substitutes, you should only use them in moderation.

Okay then, let’s take a look at just how dangerous sugar really is and then we’ll get to work and find out how to get our sweet fix without causing too much damage along the way.


Sweet And Sinister

Dr Robert Lustig, author of Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease, and Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, has spent years treating childhood obesity. He’s also conducted meta-analysis of the research on large-cohort studies aimed at finding out what sugar does to populations across the world. It’s his quest to publicize his own clinical observations along with the findings of these meta-analysis that have caused him to be credited with starting the war on sugar.  

And it is a war, with health advocates on one side and the industrial food producers on the other.

Lustig says that

“”Politicians have to come in and reset the playing field, as they have with any substance that is toxic and abused, ubiquitous and with negative consequence for society,” he says. “Alcohol, cigarettes, cocaine. We don’t have to ban any of them. We don’t have to ban sugar. But the food industry cannot be given carte blanche. They’re allowed to make money, but they’re not allowed to make money by making people sick.”

Sugar, says Lustig, creates an appetite for itself by a hormonal mechanism. A cycle, he says, that you could no more break with willpower than you could stop feeling thirsty through sheer strength of character.

Doctor Robert Johnson agrees with Lustig, he says that sugar activates its own pathways in your body and those metabolic pathways become ‘upregulated’. Meaning that the more sugar you eat, the more effective your body is in absorbing it; and the more that you absorb, the more damage it will do.

Sugar is addictive and that’s why it such a problem for us. We’re rarely satisfied with just a little bit of that sweet, sweet flavor every now and then. Back in the 1700’s the average person consumed about 4 pounds of sugar per year and some of that would have been from fruit consumption. Sugar was expensive in those days and was considered a ‘fine spice’.

Today 50% of Americans gorge on half a pound of sugar a day which works out to over 180 pounds of sugar a year, and I’m willing to bet that not much of that can be attributed to fruit consumption.

Soft drinks, fruit juices, and sports drinks are loaded with sugar, and it’s hidden in almost all processed foods, in everything from deli meats to chips, to ketchup to cheese spread. It’s even in infant formula. If you eat processed food of any kind, you’ll have a hard time avoiding sugar.

Apart from creating an addiction cycle which holds us in its thrall and allowing the sugar that we eat to be absorbed more effectively, sugar

  • Overloads and damages your liver.
  • Affects your insulin and leptin signaling tricking your body into eating more which leads to insulin resistance and weight gain.
  • Causes metabolic dysfunction whose symptoms include weight gain, abdominal obesity, decreased HDL and increased LDL, elevated blood sugar, elevated triglycerides, and high blood pressure.
  • Increases uric acid levels which are a risk factor for heart and kidney disease.

Okay enough about the bad guy, let’s meet the good (well, good-er) guys.


1. Raw Honey

Raw honey has been used as a sweetener, source of nutrients and as a potent antimicrobial healer for thousand of years. It’s rich in enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Together, nutrients help to neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract.

Pure honey has a typical ranking of 58 on the glycemic index although it can be lower, depending on the fructose levels present. Honey with a fructose content of 35 – 45% for example scores lower on the GI, at 35-48.

Its lower glycemic index value means that it will have less effect on blood sugar than regular sugar, while providing many essential nutrients. And for the maximum nutrients choose darker honey’s over lighter ones.

While a good source of nutrients, honey shouldn’t be used as your major sugar substitute (unless you already consume only small amounts of sugar), but it’s certainly one to add to your food pantry for occasional use.

2. Stevia

This natural sweetener is truly amazing. Stevia is around 300 times setter than sugar but it has zero calories!

Made from the leaves of stevia rebaudiana, stevia is a plant native to Paraguay in South America and is part of the sunflower family.

Stevioside, the element in the leaves that provides the incredible sweetness, is available in liquid drops, powder, dissolvable tablets and baking blends. As you would expect from a zero calorie food, stevia has zero carbohydrates and importantly it has none of the nasty side effects of artificial sweeteners.

Using stevia won’t raise your blood sugar levels or give you tooth decay which makes it a perfect natural sugar substitute. The only downside is that some people find the taste carries a hint of licorice, which they don’t like, and some people report a slight metallic aftertaste in the mouth.

The best thing to do is try several brands until you find one that suits you.

The best form of stevia to use is green stevia, which is made only from the leaves of the plant, while other types go through varying degrees of processing.

Stevia is heat stable, so you can use it for pretty much all of your sweetening needs, but you will need to make some adjustments in your baking recipes to makeup for the loss of the bulk that sugar provides.

To alter recipes when using stevia, use ⅓ to ½ cup of any of these bulking agents to replace the sugar.

  • fresh fruit puree
  • yogurt
  • roasted winter squash
  • two beaten egg whites
  • One to two tablespoons of coconut flour

If you use coconut flour, add it slowly as it absorbs a lot of moisture. You’ll need to use some trial and error to get your recipes just the way you like them. If you head over to youtube, you’ll find lots of people sharing their recipes and tips, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a stevia friendly version of the recipe that you want to make.

Stevia makes a perfect substitution for sugar in any drink, just be sure that you only use a tiny bit since it’s so sweet.


3. Xylitol

Xylitol traditionally comes from the bark of a silver birch tree and is widely used in Scandinavia, however much of the xylitol produced now is sourced from corn cobs. Xylitol contains about 40% fewer calories than standard refined sugar making it a good choice if it need to lose some weight. It’s low in fructose (good) and has a glycemic index of just 7 so it won’t spike blood sugar.

Xylitol can be used as a direct sugar substitute in baking, or add it to drinks and desserts.

Sometimes xylitol needs to be powdered first as it doesn’t dissolve as easily as refined white sugar does, so for some recipes it’s best to grind it with a coffee grinder or high-powered blender so it’s more like powdered sugar.


4. Agave Nectar

Agave Nectar

The most common use of the Agave plant is fermenting the sugars in it to produce tequila, but it can be used in another way.

Agave syrup originates in Southern Mexico. It has a flavor similar to honey and like honey contains fructose. Although it’s 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, agave nectar has a low glycemic index and won’t spike blood sugar. However, this is due to its fructose content and fructose has other undesirable health impacts. As a short-term fix to help stabilize blood sugar, agave nectar can be helpful, but for a long term sugar substitute you would be better served by an alternative.


5. Date Sugar / Syrup

Date syrup is a natural sweetener made from pureed dates so you could even try making your own. Dry out pitted dates then run them through your food processor to get date sugar which you can substitute directly for regular sugar or add some water to get syrup. Simple!

Date syrup is popular in the Middle East due to the abundance of dates in the region.

This sugar substitute is great for baking, having a treacle-like consistency and a deep caramel flavor. You can add it to oatmeal or smoothies or use it in dressings and sauces.

Although completely natural date syrup won’t help you cut any calories, the benefit from using date sugar/syrup is that it still contains all of its nutrients.

Date sugar is rich in vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, A1 and C, proteins, fiber, iron (11%), potassium (16%), calcium, manganese, copper, and magnesium. The soluble and insoluble fibers and amino acids present can also help to improve the digestive system.


6. Maple Syrup

Maple syrup contains some important antioxidants, and minerals like zinc and manganese.

While table sugar and maple syrup are both made of about two-thirds sucrose, maple syrup supplies less total sugar to your diet, along with some nutrients. The glycemic index score of maple syrup is around 54.

Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees and is an unrefined product, unlike sugar which undergoes a great deal of processing. The medical journal Pharmaceutical Biology revealed that pure maple syrup contains 24 different antioxidants, and these antioxidants, in the form of phenolic compounds, reduce the free radical damage that causes inflammation. For the greatest antioxidant concentration, choose darker, grade B maple syrups since these contain more beneficial antioxidants than the lighter syrups.

Many maple syrups sold in stores aren’t the real thing, they’re made from sugar, so check your labels for the words ‘pure maple syrup’, and it’s also a good idea to buy organic to ensure that the trees haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals.

Maple syrup is a heat-stable sweetener that works as a sugar substitute in many types of recipes. You can use it in marinades, dressings, glazes, your baking, on oatmeal and as a sweetener in your tea or coffee.


7. Blackstrap Molasses

Molasses is the gooey syrup left behind after the sugar has been boiled out of crushed sugarcane and sugar beet. This is done in several stages, which produce light, dark, and finally blackstrap molasses, as all the sugar is gradually extracted and the syrup and remaining nutrients are concentrated.

Organic blackstrap molasses is highly nutritious and provides a range of minerals and vitamin B6.  Molasses also has the highest phenolic content (antioxidant activity) when compared with regular sugar, rape honey, corn syrup, and dates.

Manganese – Two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses can provide around 18% of your body’s daily need for this nutrient. Manganese is a component of the enzyme superoxide dismutase which serves as an antioxidant by protecting cells from damage caused by free radicals. Manganese is also necessary for the proper synthesis of fatty acids needed in the nervous system.

Copper – Among other functions, copper is involved in iron absorption and utilization, it helps in bone and tissue development, and is used in melanin production. Melanin is the substance that gives your skin and hair color.

Iron – This mineral is one of the minerals that make up the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also a substantial part of your body’s metabolism and energy production processes. Iron is in high demand when children are going through intense periods of growth.

Calcium – As well as being essential for strong bones and healthy teeth, calcium is essential for the proper contraction of heart muscles, transmission of nerve impulses, and blood clotting.

Since most of the sugar has been extracted in the production process, blackstrap molasses is the least sweet of all of the other types of molasses obtained from the previous extractions. But It still holds onto enough sugar compounds to be a viable alternative sweetener.

A tablespoon of blackstrap molasses contains 5.88 g of sucrose, 2.56 g of fructose, and 2.38 g of glucose and has a glycemic index of 55.

Blackstrap molasses doesn’t completely replace sugar in most dishes or baked goods, the typical substitution in baking is one unit of sugar equals half a unit of molasses, plus another half unit of a different sweetener such as maple syrup. This results in a similar level of sweetness as the original recipe and adds a deep, rich flavor.

To get a feel for using blackstrap molasses and the flavors it brings, look for recipes that specifically call for its use, then you can decide which of your own dishes it would work well in.

Blackstrap is particularly good in savory dishes like baked beans or in marinades for meats.


8. Coconut Palm Sugar

Coconut Palm Sugar

This sugar alternative is made from the sap of the coconut palm and is a slow release sugar that won’t spike blood sugar to the same extent as regular sugar and put you on the rollercoaster of ‘sugar highs’ and ‘sugar lows’.

Use coconut palm sugar as a direct substitute to normal cane sugar. You can add it anywhere where you would normally use sugar, from using it in hot drinks, to a fuss-free addition to your baking. While regular sugar has a glycemic index rating of 60-70, coconut palm sugar comes in at a more respectable 50 (which is still quite high) and unlike sugar which is nutritionally empty, coconut palm sugar actually has some nutritional value, containing:

  • polyphenols
  • iron
  • zinc,
  • calcium
  • potassium
  • antioxidants
  • Phosphorous

Coconut palm sugar is a slightly coarser texture than sugar but you can rectify that by giving it a quick grind in your food processor. In recipes that don’t call for creaming butter and sugar together, you can also dissolve the sugar in the liquids called for in the recipe.


9. Brown Rice Syrup  

Brown rice syrup is made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes to break down the starch. The resulting liquid is then heated until a syrup consistency is achieved. This gives a thick, sweet, amber syrup which makes a good substitution in recipes calling for corn syrup and other unhealthy sweeteners.

Rice syrup contains vitamin B, thiamine, niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin K, and is usually gluten free. You should check your labels to be certain if this is a concern for you, as some brown rice syrups are fermented with barley enzymes and will contain some gluten.

Brown rice syrup contains three sugars: Maltotriose (52%), maltose (45%) and glucose (3%)

While high on the glycemic index, brown rice syrup won’t tax your liver because it doesn’t contain any fructose – table sugar is glucose and fructose. While glucose can be used by every cell in your body, fructose can only be metabolized by the liver, which turns the fructose into fat, and this is either stored in the liver causing fatty liver disease or sent out to raise blood triglycerides. Both of these mechanisms lie at the foundation of metabolic disease and it’s why so many people are giving foods and drinks containing high fructose corn syrup the boot.

Brown rice syrup is the perfect replacement in recipes that call for corn syrup – use it in a 1:1 ratio. To replace regularly white sugar, substitute one cup for each cup of sugar called for and decrease liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup.

Use brown rice syrup to make healthier granola bars and to sweeten nut and fruit pies.

Written by Irina Radosevic MD
Irina graduated from the University of Belgrade, School of Medicine as a Doctor of Medicine (MD) and spent over 3 years working in the Clinical Hospital Center Zvezdara, in the Department of Emergency Medicine. She also undertook a postgraduate in Cardiology from the same University and had previously worked for over a year as a Physician and Nutritionist Dietitian for the Fitness club Green Zone. She eventually left her chaotic but fulfilling job in the ER to pursue her passion of writing, travelling and mountain climbing which has included writing a first aid course for the alpine club of Belgrade. Irina currently works as a VA for PintMedia focusing on medical and travel writing. Feel free to connect with Irina on LinkedIn and FaceBook. Her CV can be seen here.