Some Healthy Alternatives to Sugar

sugarOK, we admit it;  we hate sugar.   More specifically, we LOVE sugar but hate what it does to our bodies.  As we’ve noted in other blogs, sugar is highly addicting, very fattening and royally messes up your metabolism.  One word pretty much sums up our concerns about sugar:  diabetes.   But take sweetness from our lives and we are left with…….bitter.  According to a study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, 71.4 percent of adults in the U.S. consume 10 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugars. If you’ve never seen Jamie Oliver’s presentation on sugar we invite you to spend a few minutes with this very knowledgeable and passionate chef.  He calls sugar “the next tobacco” and it’s not hard to see why.

More recently,  a perspective published in PLOS Biology argues the sugar industry buried a 1960s study showing that sugar harms heart health—but the trade group that originally sponsored the study says “potential research findings” had nothing to do with its decision to end the research.  The perspective is based on internal industry documents that researchers at the University of California, San Francisco uncovered and reviewed. The UCSF researchers last year published a review of industry documents revealing that the sugar industry in the 1960s paid prominent nutrition researchers to downplay sugar’s connection to heart disease, casting blame instead on saturated fat.  From what this paper says, the sugar industry was not interested in answering open-ended questions about whether sugar might be harmful to rats or, given preliminary suggestions of possible harm, doing further studies to find out one way or the other.  Instead, it stopped the research when the results looked unfavorable.

But rather than just condemn sugar, we began exploring healthy alternatives to the sugar demon and we found some that are worth your attention:


Stevia is extracted from an herb native to Central and South America, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar.  It also has very few calories and has been used for centuries. It’s now in sodas and sports drinks, as well as tabletop packets (usually green), liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, and spoonable products, as well as baking blends. Among brand names, SweetLeaf is a sweetener made from stevia extract, and both Truvia and Pure Via are stevia-based. Some stores have generic stevia products. The taste of the various stevia brands differ:  some can be slightly bitter, leaving an aftertaste.  So you’ve got to experiment a bit and find one that suits your taste.   If you succeed, you’ve found an excellent non-addicting sweetener that has no calories and doesn’t contribute to diabetes.  Importantly, stevia extracts used in sweeteners have been designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the Food and Drug Administration.

Monk-Fruit Extracts

Monk fruit-based sweeteners come from a melon native to Asia.  Nectresse, produced by McNeil Nutritionals, is a bit more expensive and not quite as sweet. Nectresse, however, isn’t simply monk fruit; it also contains molasses, sugar and erythritol. The sugar alcohol erythritol interferes with your body’s absorption of sugar, further lowering caloric intake. Some have found that it contributes to a chemical taste to lemonade and coffee. (Its sales in supermarkets has recently been discontinued but it is available online.) Other brands still on the market include Monk Fruit in the Raw and a liquid from Skinny Girl.

Sugar Alcohols

Oddly enough, there’s no alcohol in these alcohols.  These sweeteners, found in some fruit spreads, chocolate, baked goods, and even mouthwash,go by the names xylitol and sorbitol. They’re made from plant products. They have fewer calories than sugar.   Unfortunately,  sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and can still raise your blood sugar, so they can still bother diabetics. They can also act like laxatives or have other digestive symptoms in some people, so you need to be sparing in your use of these sweeteners.


Honey is sweeter than table sugar, so less of it is needed to sweeten foods. It contains some proteins that may improve immune function, and it has high levels of several antioxidants.  Honey can be pretty healthy, except that the main components of honey are in fact sugars (mostly fructose and glucose), so using too much of it may lead to the same health problems as consuming too much sugar.   We use honey in combination with stevia and have found the merger of the two is quite satisfying.

Agave nectar

Made from syrup extracted from the agave plant, agave nectar is high in fructose and thus touted as a low-glycemic alternative to table sugar (and honey)—meaning that it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike as much as other sweeteners. But concentrated sources of fructose might cause other problems, such as increased levels of blood tri­glycerides, which might negatively affect heart health. While the term “nectar” sounds wonderful, like it’s from the gods, but don’t be fooled by the name; it isn’t any better for you than other sugars.

Fruit-juice concentrate

It’s made by heating juice to remove water, treating the juice with enzymes, then stripping all color and natural flavor from it. That process can remove some of the valuable nutrients found in whole fruit. Fruit-juice concentrate is sometimes used in baked goods, jams and jellies, and frozen confections.  However, fruit-juice concentrates can be high in fructose, so the best advice is to consume food and drinks with them in moderation.

Evaporated cane juice

Evaporated cane juice as “basically table sugar.” The only difference is that table sugar is stripped of all traces of molasses during the refining process and evaporated cane juice might still retain some specks of molasses that give it a darker color.   Because the name sounds more natural, people feel better about using it.  But don’t kid yourself;  it’s the same as refined white table sugar.  Ugh.

You may have noticed that we haven’t included other artificial sweeteners like Aspartame, Saccharin, Splenda or similar pharma-faux sweeteners.   They are all pretty nasty laboratory-birthed Frankenstein-variations of sugar with some questionable long-term health impacts.  In fact, recent studies suggest that these artificial sugars may actually increase the risk of diabetes.  In particular, Splenda users were found to have had higher blood levels of glucose and insulin.    We strongly recommend you avoid these artificial alternatives.

One other issue is that alternative sweeteners can be misused.   Diet soda drinkers in the San Antonio Heart Study gained twice as much weight as people that didn’t ingest artificial sweeteners over a seven to eight-year period. This also proved true in studies of women by the American Cancer Society and the Nurse’s Health Study.

2 thoughts on “Some Healthy Alternatives to Sugar”

    • A good point, Bob.  100% maple syrup is pretty good stuff, but it has gotten so gosh-darned expensive.  Plus, it doesn’t appear to have some of the nutritional/healing properties of honey.  And, for diabetics, its glycemic levels are too high.  Still, for many of us, a little drizzle of 100% MS on ice cream or pancakes is hard to beat. 


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