New alternatives to sugar are constantly popping up—but are they healthy?

By Renee Cherry
Updated: December 27, 2017
Photo: Akvals/Shutterstock

Sugar isn't exactly in the health community's good graces. Experts have likened the dangers of sugar to tobacco and have even argued it's addictive like a drug. Sugar consumption has been linked to heart disease and cancer, which the sugar industry tried to keep on the DL for decades.

Enter: An increased interest in sugar alternatives. The Specialty Food Association, a trade group that produces research reports to shape the future of the food industry, included alt-sweeteners on its list of top ten trend predictions for 2018.

Because of sugar's bad reputation, people are starting to look for sweeteners with "lower glycemic impact, fewer added-sugar calories, and intriguing sweet flavors as well as sustainable footprints," Kara Nielsen, vice president of trends and marketing for CCD Innovation, stated in the trend report. She predicted syrups made from dates, sorghum, and yacon root will become more popular. (Try these 10 healthy desserts sweetened with natural sugar substitutes.)

In other words, you've got plenty of options for satisfying your sweet tooth. There's now a sweetener made from just about any sweet food-coconut, apples, brown rice, barley-making it easier than ever to cut back on table sugar.

But just because a sweetener is slightly less processed than regular sugar doesn't make it healthy. "People are switching to these alternative sweeteners that have gotten a lot of buzz lately because they think they have more nutritional value," says Keri Gans, registered dietician. Some of the sweeteners do have nutrients you don't get from white sugar but in trace amounts. You'd need to eat a lot of the sweetener to get a good dose of nutrients, which as you might guess, is a bad idea.

Gans recommends choosing a sweetener based on your preference and limiting how much you eat just as you would regular sugar. (The USDA recommends keeping added sugars to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories.) Bottom line: It's better to choose a sweetener for taste and look for a boost of vitamins elsewhere.

While they shouldn't be lumped in with health foods, these new sweeteners mean more textures and flavors to experiment with. Here are some of trendy sweeteners you're likely to see more of this year.

Date syrup

Date syrup is a liquid sweetener with the same sweet, caramel-y taste as the fruit. But when possible, you're better off using whole dates. (Try these 10 desserts sweetened with dates.) "Whole dates a are a great source of fiber, potassium, selenium, and magnesium," Gans says. "But when you make the date syrup and extract the sticky juice from the cooked date, you lose a lot of that nutrient."

Sorghum syrup

Another sweetener option is a syrup derived from sorghum cane. (FYI, sorghum syrup is typically harvested from sweet sorghum plants, not the same plants used for harvesting sorghum grains.) It's thick like molasses, super sweet, and flavorful, so a little goes a long way, says Dana White, nutrition consultant and registered dietician. She suggests trying the syrup in salad dressings, baked goods, or drinks.

Palmyra jaggery

Palmyra jaggery is a sweetener from sap from the Palmyra palm tree that's sometimes used in Ayurvedic cooking. It contains traces of calcium, phosphorus, and iron, and vitamins B1, B6, and B12. It's similar in calories to table sugar, but sweeter so you can get away with using less. (Related: Is the Ayurvedic Diet Right for Weight Loss?)

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup is made by breaking down the starches of cooked brown rice. It's all glucose and has a glycemic index of 98, almost twice that of table sugar. Another drawback worth noting, one study found that some brown rice syrup products on the market contain arsenic, so proceed with caution.

Stevia

Stevia is harvested from the stevia plant. It looks like regular white sugar but ranges from 150 to 300 times sweeter. Even though it comes from a plant, stevia is considered an artificial sweetener because of the amount of processing. Stevia has been a hit because it's zero calories, but it's not without fault. The sweetener has been connected to a possible negative effect on gut bacteria.

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar has a slight brown sugary taste. It's a better choice than table sugar for people watching their blood sugar since it has a lower glycemic index and therefore causes less of an insulin response. It's possible to go overboard, though. "Coconut sugar has gotten a lot of attention because people will associate anything with coconut with health food," Gans says. "But it's not like biting into a coconut; it's still processed."

Monk fruit

Just like stevia, the granular sweetener made from monk fruit is a low-calorie, plant-derived sweetener that has a low glycemic index. Both are also extremely sweet with a slight aftertaste. "Monk fruit has been around for a while but has gained momentum in the last couple of years as the next gen of artificial sweeteners," White says. She cautions that it hasn't been on the scene long enough to determine any negative health implications yet.

Yacon root

Syrup collected from the yacon root plant is getting a lot of hype right now because it contains pre-biotic fiber. (Refresher: Pre-biotics are a substance your body doesn't digest that act as food for the bacteria in your gut.) But once again, because of the empty calories, you're better off looking elsewhere for your pre-biotic fix.

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Comments (3)

Anonymous
January 13, 2019
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oldfool5
January 8, 2018
Instead of telling everyone what not to use, how about telling us what sweetner to use. I'm a diabetic and been told by everyone to stop using artificial sweeteners. But i hate the taste of plain water. Stopped diet sodas. Can someone please tell me what sweetened drink i can have on a regular basis?
Anonymous
January 4, 2019
See a Naturopathic doctor. They will tell you, as a diabetic, the ONLY sweeteners you can use are 1) stevia and 2) erythrotol (not sure on spelling). Many others, I.e. sorbitol, actually serve to continue the insulin resistance that developed type two diabetes in the first place.