The Best Sugar Alternatives
Sugar, Sweeteners, and Stevia, Oh My!
When you want to sweeten the deal…er, meal…there’s no shortage of options out there. And since we’ve all been told that sugar is the enemy, it’s natural to wonder if any of these alternatives are healthier for you. While agave, honey, stevia, and others each have a different nutritional profile, most have only a slight—if any—advantage over regular sugar. Read on to learn more about each sweetener and the best way to use them, and remember: Regardless of which one you choose, added sugar is added sugar, and you should limit all forms of it in your diet.
60 calories per tablespoon
Even though it contains 25 percent more calories than sugar, agave is also 50 percent sweeter, so you tend to use less of it, yielding the calorie difference a non-issue. Agave is considered by many to be a healthy alternative to sugar, as is it commonly marketed as being “natural” and has a low glycemic index. However, the low GI is because it is 90 percent fructose—way higher than table sugar (50 percent fructose) and even high-fructose corn syrup (the kind used in most carbonated drinks is 55 percent fructose). Some say that agave is therefore worse than HFCS, but the fact is, neither is good for you. While some fructose in your diet is fine, excessive amounts of this sugar should be avoided because diets very high in fructose can lead to insulin resistance very quickly.
Best used: In baked goods, says Matthew Kadey, R.D., author of Muffin Tin Chef. He recommends using 2/3 cup agave for each cup of sugar called for, or else your dessert will be too moist and won’t set.
52 calories per tablespoon
Not to be confused with the “pancake syrup” (which is basically dyed corn syrup) many people use on their breakfasts, real maple syrup is often touted being a nutritious added sugar (as if there is such a thing) because it is “all natural” and “unrefined” and contains more manganese, riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, calcium, and potassium than other sugars. However, you’d have to drink most of a bottle for any real benefit. A quarter-cup of maple syrup contains a scant 5 milligrams of calcium—less than 1 percent of your daily recommended intake.
Best used: “In oatmeal, yogurt, salad dressings, glazes, and chocolate sauces; on roasted root vegetables; and, of course, on pancakes and waffles,” Kadey says.
64 calories per tablespoon
The sugar make-up of honey if different from agave, as it contains a larger proportion of glucose, the simplest form of sugar, making it a good option for post-workout snacks such as smoothies. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported similar effects on the performance of cyclists who fueled themselves with honey and those who consumed pure glucose. And while you may have seen “raw” or “unfiltered” honey being touted as superior to traditional honey, which undergoes a heating and filtering process, don’t fall for this labeling trick: Research shows that the processing of honey actually increases its antioxidant capacity. Check out five more health benefits of honey.
Best used: Mixed in tea, yogurt, salad dressings, smoothies, sweet breads, and muffins. As with agave, honey cannot be used as a replacement for sugar in baked goods, Kadey says. Use 3/4 cup honey per cup of sugar called for in those recipes.
58 calories per tablespoon
A byproduct of the sugar-making process, molasses comes in several different grades, which are determined by when it’s extracted during that processing. Blackstrap molasses is the darkest and most nutrient-dense grade: A tablespoon provides more than 10 percent of your daily recommended intake of copper, iron, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. However, the lighter grades of this thick syrup are less nutritious and contain more sugar.
Best used: “Molasses is great for foods that can benefit from its robust flavor, such as baked beans, mashed sweet potatoes, smoothies, meat glazes and marinades, spice cakes, and cookies,” Kadey says.
0 calories per tablespoon
A zero-calorie sweetener derived from the leaves of its namesake plant, stevia may have a beneficial effect on blood sugar. It’s very popular due to the fact that it is considered all-natural and is calorie-free, but despite it being natural, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t approve stevia to be used as a sweetener until 2008. Overseas, the European Union banned the use of stevia as a sweetener until the end of 2011 due to concerns about it being pro-carcinogenic. Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar, so you’ll need to adjust how much you use to reach your desired sweetness.
Best used: “Since stevia is so much sweeter than sugar, a little goes a very long way in beverages and baked goods,” Kadey says. Follow the manufacturer’s directions when using it in place of sugar in recipes.
45 calories per tablespoon
Sugar in the Raw is the brand name for turbinado sugar, which gets its name from the processing it undergoes—yes processing; don’t let the “raw” in the name fool you. This sugar is made by drying juice from sugar canes and spinning it at high speeds (hence “turbinado”) until crystals form. The brown tint comes from trace amounts of molasses. The difference in processing between turbinado sugar and regular table sugar yield negligible nutritional differences, and it should be used in moderation.
Best used: “These sugars will add more complex flavor to your desserts,” Kadey says. “And while the larger-sized crystals can add a nice crunch when sprinkled on top of cookies and muffins, grind the sugar to a finer consistency if you’re adding it to batter.” Try it in pie crusts, muffins, cookies, cakes, sweet breads, crisps, and barbecue sauces.
52 calories per packed tablespoon
The misperception surrounding brown sugar is that its dark color means that it is a less-processed and more natural alternative to table sugar. While the brown-verses-white, unrefined-verses-refined comparison works for brown and white rice, it doesn’t translate to sugar. The brown variety gets its color from the addition of molasses, not because it’s less refined. It’s no healthier than table sugar, just different.
Best used: The little bit of molasses adds flavor and moisture that’s good for baked goods and glazes.