Quitting refined sugar can be tough.
But given how incredibly harmful sugar can be, it is definitely worth the effort.
Luckily, there are quite a few sweeteners found in nature that are actually good for your health.
They are low in calories, low in fructose and taste very sweet.
Here are 4 natural sweeteners that are truly healthy.
Stevia is a very popular low-calorie sweetener.
It is extracted from the leaves of a plant called Stevia rebaudiana.
This plant has been grown for sweetness and medicinal purposes for centuries in South America.
There are several sweet compounds found in Stevia leaves, the main ones are Stevioside and Rebaudioside A. Both are many hundred times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram.
Stevia is very sweet, but has virtually no calories.
There are some studies in humans showing Stevia to have health benefits:
- When blood pressure is high, Stevia can lower it by 6-14%. However, it has no effect on blood pressure that is normal or only mildly elevated (1, 2, 3).
- Stevia has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics (4).
If you need to sweeten something, Stevia may be the healthiest choice.
However... many people really hate the taste of Stevia. It does depend on the brand though, you may need to experiment to find one that you like.
Bottom Line: Stevia is a natural, zero calorie sweetener that can lower both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Erythritol is another low-calorie sweetener.
It is a sugar alcohol that is found naturally in certain fruits, but if you're buying powdered erythritol then it will most likely be made via an industrial process.
It contains 0.24 calories per gram, or about 6% of the calories as sugar, with 70% of the sweetness.
Erythritol doesn't spike blood sugar or insulin levels and has no effect on biomarkers like cholesterol or triglycerides (7).
It is absorbed into the body from the intestine, but eventually excreted from the kidneys unchanged (8).
Erythritol tastes very much like sugar, although it can have a mild aftertaste.
I wouldn't say that erythritol is "healthy" - but it certainly doesn't appear to be harmful in any way and seems to be better tolerated than most other sugar alcohols.
Bottom Line: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that is very sweet, but low in calories. Studies show that it is very safe to eat, although it can cause digestive problems at high doses.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol with a sweetness similar to sugar.
It contains 2.4 calories per gram, or about 2/3rds of the caloric value of sugar.
However, as with other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive side effects at high doses.
If you have a dog in your home, then you might want to keep xylitol out of the house because it is highly toxic to dogs (15).
Bottom Line: Xylitol is a very popular sweetener. It is a sugar alcohol, with about 2.4 calories per gram. It has some dental benefits and may improve bone density and lower the risk of osteoporosis.
Recently I reviewed a rather unique sweetener called Yacon syrup.
It is harvested from the Yacon plant, which grows natively in the Andes in South America.
Don't eat too much at a time though, as it can cause digestive problems.
Bottom Line: Yacon syrup is very high in fructooligosaccharides, which feed the good bacteria in the intestine. It may be helpful against constipation and may help you lose weight.
There are several popular sweeteners that health conscious people often eat instead of sugar.
I recently wrote an article making the case that they really aren't much different from sugar.
They may contain slightly smaller amounts of fructose and some tiny amount of nutrients, but your liver really won't be able to tell the difference.
However... I should definitely clarify something here.
The harmful effects of sugar depend completely on the context. Most of the studies are done on people who are already eating a high-carb, Western junk food diet.
There are a few people who might want to avoid sugar-based sweeteners completely. This includes food addicts, binge eaters and people who are on a very low-carb, ketogenic diet.
Other people can eat sugar in small amounts without any harm. It is still empty calories and will still be bad for your teeth, but it won't harm your metabolism, give you fatty liver or end up destroying your health.
If you're one of those people who eat healthy but like to to bake stuff with healthy ingredients, then I don't see a problem with using natural sugar-based sweeteners like honey as long as the majority of your diet is based on real food.
In the context of a healthy, real food based diet, small amounts of these natural sugars won't cause harm.