Wining & Dining
Shun the Sugar, Keep the Sweet
3/5/2018 12:58:15 PM
Sweet Alternatives

It’s a medical fact that too much sugar in our diets is unhealthy. Refined white sugar is made from a long process that removes every bit of trace minerals. After harvesting sugarcane stalks and beets, white sugar is washed, milled, extracted, juiced, filtered, purified, vacuumed, and condensed. It is pure carbohydrate with zero nutritional value.

Beginning in the 1970s, some sweet seekers would opt for sugar substitutes such as saccharine and aspartame. These chemical-laced compounds have proven to not only be unhelpful, but potentially harmful. Health-conscious consumers today know the best option is to simply limit sugars in our diet as much as possible. 

That said, there’s a place in every balanced diet for a little added sweetness now and then, and different types of sugar alternatives have different advantages. See how your favorite substitute stacks up.


Honey has been used across millennia and cultures to cure ailments from stomach pains to skin wounds. But when it comes to the glycemic index (a number associated with the carbohydrates in a particular food that indicates the effect of these carbohydrates on a person’s blood glucose level) honey is similar to refined sugar. Unlike sugar, honey holds trace amounts of minerals, amino acids, and B vitamins. Raw honey contains the most nutrition. Local honey is touted as helping with allergies.

Coconut Sugar

A natural manufacturing process allows coconut sugar, made from the sap of the coconut palm, to retain very small amounts of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and amino acids. But don’t be fooled. It’s nonetheless exactly like regular sugar, containing about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbs per teaspoon and can be substituted for sugar 1:1 in baking.

Maple Syrup

With a rich taste, lower glycemic index than white sugar, and a low-fructose content, maple syrup has a good reputation as a sweetener. It contains small amounts of antioxidants, calcium, potassium, iron, and the mineral manganese, which contributes to healthy bone structure. But like all sweeteners, use in moderation.

Agave Syrup

Agave, once a popular sugar-sub fad, has fallen from favor with the health-conscious set. Although it ranks low on the glycemic index compared to other sweeteners, it’s higher in fructose than even high-fructose corn syrup! Recent studies suggest that the body converts fructose into fat more rapidly than it does glucose, causing potential negative effects such as weight gain or increased insulin resistance. Honey or maple syrup are better options.

Date Sugar

Full of potassium, iron, B vitamins, and fiber, date sugar is made with dehydrated dates that are ground to resemble granulated sugar. Because whole, pitted dates are used to make the sugar, the presence of fiber creates a tiny grit in the sugar that won’t dissolve in hot liquids or baked goods. It is similar to brown sugar but has a unique taste. You can use date sugar to replace brown sugar in baking, but it is a bit pricey. You can also use it as a rub for meats or atop your morning oatmeal.

Don’t confuse date sugar with date palm sugar (or simply palm sugar) which is made from the sap of the sugar palm tree and is no different than cane sugar.


Molasses is formed as a byproduct of the sugar-making process. Sugar cane or sugar beets are crushed and the juice is extracted. The juice is then boiled down to form sugar crystals, which are removed from the liquid. Molasses is the thick brown syrup left after the sugar has been removed from the juice. This process is repeated several times, and each time a different type of molasses is produced; either light, dark, or black-strap. It contains nutrients and antioxidants, namely vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, selenium, which are good for bone and heart health and stabilizing blood sugar, making it a better option than refined sugar. However, it’s still very high in sugar, and should be consumed in limited amounts. 


Stevia is somewhat controversial as a sugar substitute. It is made from the stevia plant, which makes it natural, but it has no calories and it is 200 times sweeter than sugar.

Some studies suggest stevia may have extra health benefits (treating endocrine diseases, diabetes, and hypertension,) and other studies show that replacing sugar with artificial or low-calorie sweeteners may not lead to weight loss after all. 

A 2004 study in rats found that low-calorie sweeteners led the animals to overeat, possibly because of a mismatch between the perceived sweetness and the expected calories from sugar, according to the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. The author of that study later argued that people who use artificial sweeteners may suffer health problems associated with excess sugar, including metabolic syndrome, which can be a precursor to diabetes. Again, as with most everything, moderation is key.

Ultimately, when our brains crave a little something sweet, it’s good to know there are alternatives to both refined sugars and artificial sweeteners. Yet even these "healthier” sugar substitutes are still essentially empty carbs and should be limited in your diet. The next time you get a craving for something sweet, your best plan for a healthy diet is to reach for some fresh fruit, which provides nutrients, fiber, and natural sugar.
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