These days, sugar is often blamed for causing obesity, high blood pressure, poor cholesterol, and even chronic conditions. With all the negativity surrounding added sugar, alternatives are becoming increasingly popular in recipes and store shelves. Stevia, date sugar, and erythritol, a sugar alcohol, are three popular natural sweeteners found in food.
Some of these sweeteners offer added benefits, like fiber, and don’t spike blood sugar levels. In diabetics, high blood sugar can be dangerous, but people without the condition don’t need to stress about the types of sweeteners they eat, says J. Wesley McWhorter, MS, RD, LD, CSCS at UT Health Science Center in Houston.
“It’s better to look at how much sugar you’re consuming as a whole rather than look at specific type of sweetener,” he tells Men’s Health.
McWhorter believes it’s best to pick a sweetener you like and enjoy it in moderation.
That said, here’s a look at some popular natural sweeteners:
Chances are, you’ve tasted agave in a “skinny margarita” from your local Mexican joint. Manufacturers make it into a syrup from agave plants, and you’ll commonly find it in cocktails, baked goods, and next to the honey on store shelves. Agave became popular because it contains fructose, or fruit sugar, which has a lower glycemic index (GI) rating, meaning it doesn’t increase blood sugar. Foods higher in the GI are more likely to raise blood sugar.
That said, agave is processed and contains much higher levels of fructose than what you’ll find in a piece of fruit, reported Healthline.
Nutritionally, agave has 21 calories per teaspoon, compared to table sugar, which contains 16 calories for the same amount. However, agave is also 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, meaning you need to use less.
The sweetener includes trace amounts of vitamins and antioxidants and offers antimicrobial properties, meaning it can be used as a natural antibiotic to stop the growth of certain bacteria, according to Michigan State University.
But if you’re looking for a healthier table sugar replacement, you might want to keep searching, according to Philadelphia-based registered dietitian Jenny Friedman.
“A lot of people feel better when they read a food label and see honey instead of sugar,” Friedman explained to Time. “However, in the long run, the nuance is more meaningful to the mind than the body. The body pretty much perceives sugar and honey added to foods the same way.”
Honey does have a lower GI rating than table sugar: 58 compared to 63 for the white stuff.
You’ve likely seen date syrup, paste, or even sugars, which is essentially ground up dates. McWhorter says date sweeteners are a better option than table sugar, honey, or agave since they include some fiber.
Keep in mind that these sweeteners are best eaten in moderation: a cup of dates contains 93 grams of sugar and 404 calories, according to the Food Information Council.
A staple in diet beverages, snack foods, and baked goods, this sugar substitute comes from the stevia plant, as the name suggests, and contains few calories, which allows the ingredient to be called “calorie-free.”
According to McWhorter, the alternative is 500 times more sweet than sugar. This allows you to consume less for a similar level of sweetness.
However, people often complain about stevia’s after taste. Several years ago, Vitaminwater fans complained that the company’s stevia-sweetened drinks tasted like cough syrup, reported Huffington Post.
Commonly found in sugar-free gum, ice cream, and baked goods, you’ll find sugar alcohols under the names Erythritol, Malitol, or Xylitol on food labels. They’re made from plants or starches, and contain fewer calories per gram than sugar, according to the Food & Drug Administration. And since they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar, they may be helpful for diabetics.
But sugar alcohols can cause stomach gain and gastrointestinal discomfort like gas or bloating, says McWhorter.
The bottom line
Pick whichever sweetener you enjoy best, and cap your added sugar intake at 10 percent of your diet, advises McWhorter.
“They [sugar alternatives] might have small minute benefits, but are we talking about enough to compensate for the amount you’re consuming?”