Wooden spoon full of Stevia from the Stevia rebaudiana plant species

3 Safe Sugar Alternatives

Published: April 2021 | Updated: April 2021

There are many studies showing the harmful effects that eating too much added sugar can have on your health. But that doesn't mean you have to give up on all sweet stuff. Thankfully, natural sweeteners that are safe and healthy to eat are out there.

So if you're looking to get a little bit of sweetness here and there, here are three safe ways to get a taste:

The danger of artificial sweeteners

Plastic container with variety of artificial sweeteners

First things first: Don't trade sugar for artificial sweeteners. For example, artificially-sweetened (aka diet) soda has been linked to several health problems, such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome and kidney disease, according to some studies.

We simply don't know enough about the long-term effects of these chemicals. Plus, we can become accustomed to the extreme sweetness of artificial sweeteners, making it harder to cut back on sweets in our diet. Here's a list of common ones to avoid:

  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame K
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose

Now let's move onto the good stuff!

The benefits of stevia vs. sugar

Woman mixes sugar into coffee

For over a thousand years, stevia has proven its use as a medicinal herb. Its leaves impart a natural sweetness.

Unlike table sugar, stevia extracts may have positive health effects, such as supporting healthy blood-sugar levels in preclinical studies and lowering blood pressure in a clinical trial.

You can grow stevia at home and use the whole leaves as a sweetener. And you can find Stevia in granulated forms in grocery stores or online. But if you buy the processed stuff, pay attention to the conversion directions and use small amounts. Stevia is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar, so a little bit goes a very long way.

You can use Stevia for baking, and it is packaged specifically for that purpose, but you'll need to use sugar or honey if you are baking with yeast—stevia does not feed yeast.

Stevia isn't your only natural alternative. Another sugar alternative option that gets a lot of attention is xylitol.

Xylitol vs. artificial sweeteners

Jar of the sweetener, Xylitol

What is xylitol? This alternative is a natural compound found in fruits and vegetables. It's NOT an artificial sweetener, as many people believe.

Xylitol has a very low glycemic index, meaning it has negligible effects on blood-sugar levels, making it safe for people with diabetes and the rest of us.

One extra perk: Xylitol – often found in chewing gum and mints – is also good for your teeth. Many studies show it reduces tooth decay and cavities. According to the California Dental Association, "Over time with xylitol use, the quality of the bacteria in the mouth changes and fewer and fewer decay-causing bacteria survive on tooth surfaces." How sweet is that?

Substitute honey for sugar

Jar full of honey that can be used instead of sugar

Honey can also stand-in for sugar, but there is a lot of confusion about it. Yes, honey IS a healthier option than table sugar, but it's not risk-free. Diabetics need to be careful when using it—although surprisingly, there is some data that indicates honey may actually be helpful for managing blood sugar levels.

Overall, honey has a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar, and the human body seems to process it better. Honey also contains antioxidants, and when compared with sucrose (table sugar), eating honey lowers levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone.

Honey consists of simple sugars, but it also has complex carbohydrates, which the body burns more slowly. The type of sugars in honey differs depending on the flower it's sourced from, with different varieties having different glycemic index values.

So go for the raw, unfiltered kinds when possible. The sugars in processed honey have been broken down into simple sugars, making it easier to raise blood sugar levels. Raw honey has a larger percentage of complex carbs.

What's the final verdict on honey? Use it sparingly and go for the darker kinds (like buckwheat honey), as they contain more antioxidants. Anyone with diabetes should of course consult with their doctors before making changes to their diets.

Choosing safer sugar options

Friends enjoying a sweet meal

It’s not easy to let go of sugar, but picking smart sugar substitutes that help you manage blood-sugar levels can help. It just takes a little creativity (and paying attention to ingredient labels) to find safe sugar alternatives that can work for you.

And as usual, too much of a good thing can be harmful, so no matter what sugar option you choose, enjoy your sweetness in moderation and continue to make healthy food and drink choices. Your wellness is worth it!

References

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

By: Maylin Rodriguez-Paez, RN