Medical evidence has clearly documented that consuming added sugar is detrimental to your health in many ways. But reducing or eliminating added sugar isn’t easy, especially if you’re used to eating sweet foods and desserts. The thought of never eating another cookie or putting sugar in your coffee again can be difficult for many people to accept.
And artificial sweeteners are no better. Sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose have been linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Fortunately, there are some healthy sugar substitutes that can replace sugar in your diet without any of the drawbacks of artificial sweeteners. These natural alternatives can satisfy your craving for a sweet treat without the health risks.
Stevia is fairly new to the sugar substitute market in the U.S., but it has been used to sweeten food for centuries.
Stevia products contain 0 calories, pose none of the drawbacks of consuming sugar, and may even provide some health benefits. In fact, a recent study found that stevia may help treat the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome, which include unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and excess fat around the abdomen.
Be aware that only certain stevia products — known as high-purity steviol glycosides — are approved by the FDA for use in food. These compounds are extracted from the stevia plant and may be listed as stevioside or rebaudioside A. Pure stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts do not have FDA approval for use in food at this time.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which means it is a carbohydrate that people cannot fully digest. As a result, it doesn’t contain as many calories as sugar, which can be completely digested.
Xylitol’s claim to fame is that it can help prevent cavities, so it’s used in many varieties of chewing gum. In fact, xylitol seems contributes to better dental health by eliminating harmful bacteria in the mouth.
But you can also use xylitol for baking and sweetening foods to save calories and to avoid the health effects of sugar. Xylitol is much sweeter than sugar, so follow the package instructions carefully when using it. If you’re using it as a sugar substitute in recipes, you won’t need as much of it.
Erythritol is also sugar alcohol like xylitol and tastes very similar to sugar. It contains only a small percentage of sugar’s calories and can be used in baking or for sweetening foods. Studies have shown that it is safe for people to consume and causes only minor digestive side effects in some people when they consume large amounts.
Studies show that erythritol doesn’t raise glucose or insulin levels like sugar does, so it doesn’t cause insulin resistance or other health issues. This makes it an excellent alternative to sugar that can help you stick to your health goals.
Finding the right sugar alternative
Sugar and its substitutes can be a tricky subject to master. Remember that there are many different names for sugar and that products that seem healthier or “natural” aren’t necessarily better for you. For instance, agave nectar and honey are both high in fructose, which is the type of sugar linked to many health problems.
Use healthy sugar replacements as occasional treats, but focus on healthy whole foods like vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and whole grains as much as possible.
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Medically reviewed by Jay J. Garcia, MD on January 4, 2019