Quitting refined sugar can be tough.
But given how incredibly harmful sugar can be, it’s 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’s 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.
Several sweet compounds are found in stevia leaves. The main ones are stevioside and rebaudioside A. Both are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, gram for gram.
Therefore, stevia is very sweet but has virtually no calories.
Additionally, a few human-based studies suggest stevia has health benefits:
- Stevia can lower high blood pressure in people with hypertension by 6–14%. However, it has no effect on blood pressure that is normal or only mildly elevated (, , ).
- Stevia has also been shown to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes ().
Several studies in rats show that stevia can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce oxidized LDL cholesterol and reduce plaque build up in the arteries (, ).
If you need to sweeten something, stevia may be your healthiest choice.
However, many people greatly dislike the taste of stevia. The flavor depends on the brand though, so you may need to experiment to find a type of stevia you like.
Summary Stevia is a natural, zero-calorie sweetener that can lower both blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
Erythritol is another low-calorie sweetener.
It’s a sugar alcohol found naturally in certain fruits. However, powdered erythritol available for purchase is most likely made via an industrial process.
It contains 0.24 calories per gram, or about 6% of the calories in an equal amount of sugar, with 70% of the sweetness.
Erythritol doesn't spike blood sugar or insulin levels and has no effect on blood lipids like cholesterol or triglycerides ().
It’s absorbed into the body from the intestine but eventually excreted from the kidneys unchanged ().
Studies show that erythritol is very safe. However, as with other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive issues if you consume too much at a time (, ).
Erythritol tastes very much like sugar, although it can have a mild aftertaste.
Although erythritol doesn’t seem to have any health benefits, it certainly doesn't appear to be harmful in any way and is better tolerated than most other sugar alcohols.
Summary Erythritol is a very sweet and low-calorie sugar alcohol. Studies show that it’s 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 two-thirds of the caloric value of sugar.
Xylitol appears to have some benefits for dental health, reducing the risk of cavities and dental decay (, ).
It may also improve bone density in rats, helping to prevent osteoporosis ().
Xylitol doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin levels. However, as with other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive side effects at high doses ().
If you have a dog at home, you might want to keep xylitol out of its reach since it’s highly toxic to dogs ().
Summary Xylitol is a very popular sweetener. It’s a sugar alcohol containing about 2.4 calories per gram. It has some dental benefits. In rats, it may improve bone density and lower the risk of osteoporosis.
Yacon syrup is another unique sweetener.
It’s harvested from the yacon plant, which grows natively in the Andes in South America.
This sweetener has recently become popular as a weight loss supplement. One study found that it caused significant weight loss in overweight women ().
It’s very high in fructooligosaccharides, which function as soluble fibers that feed the good bacteria in the intestine (, ).
Yacon syrup can help against constipation and has various benefits due to the high amount of soluble fiber ().
Don't eat too much at a time though, as it can cause digestive problems.
Summary 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 sugary sweeteners that health-conscious people often eat instead of 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, the harmful effects of sugar depend completely on the context. Most of the studies are done in people who are already eating a high-carb, Western junk food diet.
For these people, especially those who are overweight and/or insulin resistant, large amounts of sugar are harmful (, ).
Additionally, there are other groups of people who may want to avoid sugar-based sweeteners completely. This includes food addicts, binge eaters and people who are on a very low-carb, ketogenic diet.
Healthy people can eat sugar in small amounts without any harm. While it’s still empty calories and may cause cavities, it won't harm your metabolism, give you fatty liver or end up destroying your health.
If you like to use real sugar in your recipes, but eat otherwise healthy, using natural sugar-based sweeteners like honey should be entirely fine in moderation.
In the context of a healthy, whole-food based diet, small amounts of these natural sugars won't cause any harm.