Your Guide To The Healthiest Natural Sweeteners

natural sweeteners
(Photo: iStock)

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Sadly, that seems to be the case with artificial sweeteners, promising to satisfy your sweet tooth with the promise of no calories -- but at what expense?

According to nutritionist Mari-Chris Savage, MS, RD, LD, ACE-CPT, the expense is quite steep.

"Artificial sweeteners are one of the very first things I get my clients to give up, even if this means switching to other food items that would contain more calories, because they do much more harm than good," Savage says.

"They disrupt the natural digestive process in the GI tract because they are not at all or only partially broken down. This results in chemicals foreign to the stomach lingering around for much too long, leading to chronic inflammation of the intestinal lining, gas, bloating or skin irritations. Some studies have even correlated the presence of artificial sweeteners and cancer."

To take charge of your health, consider switching to all natural sweeteners in lieu of potentially harmful artificial ones. You’ll be surprised at the many options available and the surprising health benefits they offer like antioxidants and minerals.

But Savage reminds us that just because these sweeteners are natural doesn't mean it should be a free-for-all, so moderation is key. "At the end of the day, consuming sugar in large quantities, even if they do come in nutritious packages, is not a good idea for overall health or the waistline."  

Agave Nectar 
Agave is made from the sap of the blue agave plant mostly from Mexico and South Africa. While it has a low GI (20), and therefore less of an effect on blood sugar, experts are now voicing concern over its high fructose level, which can lead to health problems and is harder to digest. Agave is 1.6 times sweeter than sugar, making a little bit go a long way. Squeeze a little into your smoothies or iced drinks for a touch of sweetness.

Raw Honey 
Unheated and unfiltered honey retains its natural enzymes, antioxidants, minerals and some vitamins; research also shows it has antimicrobial properties and may be effective for fighting cold symptoms. Just be sure to pick raw wildflower honeys, which have a lower GI than table sugar (around 35 to 53). Again, it still contains a lot of sugar and has 22 calories per teaspoon, so use it sparingly. 

Blackstrap Molasses
With a rich, subtly smoky flavor, blackstrap molasses contains less sugar than "regular" molasses. It's higher in vitamins and minerals than most sweeteners and may contain up to 20% of your daily value of iron, 10% of your daily value of vitamin B6, and a range of other nutrients like magnesium, potassium, and calcium. It also has a lower GI (55-60) than table sugar and regular molasses.

Maple Syrup
With 14 calories per teaspoon, this option is loaded with sugar and easy to over-pour. However, it contains small amounts of potassium, calcium, zinc and magnesium as well as antioxidants -- up to 54 different types, some of which may have anti-cancer properties, per one study out of the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Additionally, it may be less likely to cause quick blood sugar spikes and drops.

Coconut Sugar
Made from coconut nectar, this option is very similar to brown sugar in both taste and appearance. It contains small amounts of iron, zinc, antioxidants, and inulin — a type of fiber that acts as a prebiotic, and it's low on the glycemic index. Use this exactly how you would use brown sugar for a nutty flavor that doesn’t taste anything like coconut.

Date Sugar
Date sugar is simply powdered dried dates and is a little less sweet than other natural sweeteners. Date sugar retains some nutrients from whole dates such as small amounts of fiber, calcium, potassium, and magnesium and it contains fewer calories than table sugar at 15 per teaspoon. Remember it doesn't dissolve in drinks, so it's best sprinkled on foods. 

Stevia/Xylitol
The two true no-calorie natural sweeteners are stevia and xylitol. However, one big issue is still present: intense sweetness. "When consuming something that is extremely sweet but non-caloric, such as stevia or xylitol, the brain does not receive its reward in the form of energy," Savage explains. "Thus, sugar cravings continue to flood the thoughts and the eventual effect is weight gain. This phenomenon has been largely studied with diet soda. The same effect can be seen even with its natural alternative counterparts."