Sugar gets denigrated a lot these days. Deservedly so.
High sugar intakes have been linked to chronic inflammation, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and a range of other modern diseases. The more sugar we eat, the fatter and sicker we get.
Yet we (and by “we” I mean the human species) continue to slam sugar by the truckload. The CDC recommends capping sugar intake at 10% of daily calories (still too much), but the average American consumes closer to 17%. That’s about 20 teaspoons of sugar per day, mostly in liquid form as high fructose corn syrup.
Fortunately, health-conscious people are growing increasingly aware of the harms of excess* sugar consumption. And they’re seeking out sugar substitutes.
But not all sugar substitutes are created equal. Many are simply “natural” forms of sugar that aren’t much different from the stuff in a diner. And some may be worse than table sugar.
If you’re looking for a science-based analysis of the most common sugar substitutes, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll cover high-carb sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, and low-carb sweeteners, and I’ll support my claims with published evidence along the way.
But let’s start with the non-keto-friendly sugar substitutes.
Higher-carb sugar substitutes
Many sugar substitutes aren’t actually alternatives to sugar. They’re just sugar by a different name.
Sure, they might contain more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. But when you get down to it, they’re digested and metabolized like table sugar.
#1: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High fructose corn syrup is a type of refined sugar used to sweeten foods and beverages. This corn-derived sweetener is the main source of added sugar in the American diet.
As a blend of glucose and fructose, HFCS is similar to sucrose (table sugar), but it’s a bit higher in fructose. And fructose seems to be the most problematic form of sugar.
Why? Because when you ingest fructose, it travels straight to the liver for conversion to fat. This fructose-to-fat mutation served our ancestors well. They needed to up their fat stores for periods of caloric restriction, like a bear preparing to hibernate through the winter. But today, it’s fueling the obesity epidemic.
Also, animal evidence suggests HFCS may drive cancer growth. And that’s just the tip of the fructose iceberg.
If you want to take a deep dive into this stuff, I recommend reading Fat Chance by Dr. Robert Lustig. It’s an eye-opening exposition of the dangers of fructose in the modern diet.
Verdict? HFCS is bad news. It’s a liquid form of refined sugar that’s making us fat and sick.
#2: Agave syrup
Made from the agave plant, agave syrup is often marketed as a healthy sugar substitute.
It’s not. It’s about 85% fructose—which is more than either sucrose or HFCS.
Verdict? Substituting table sugar with agave syrup is like substituting a Danish pastry for a donut. It’s not any better, and it might be worse. Leave the agave for making tequila.
Made by bees, honey is the preferred sweetener for those consuming a Carnivore diet. It’s the only animal-based sweetener on this list.
Honey has some cool properties, especially if it’s raw. Compounds in raw honey like bee pollen, royal jelly, and propolis may improve immune function and reduce allergies, but more rigorous research is needed to bear out these claims.
But like sucrose and HFCS, honey is mostly fructose and glucose. It’s sugar.
Verdict? Honey may have health benefits, but it’s still a sugar bomb. Use wisely such as pre or post workout.
Molasses is a thick, brown syrup made by boiling down sugar cane. It’s simply a reduced form of sugar.
Anything to like about molasses? Yes. It’s high in iron, potassium, manganese, magnesium, and copper—all essential minerals for heart health, bone health, and immune health. Manganese, for instance, helps your blood vessels stay dilated to support healthy blood pressure.
Verdict? Molasses contains more minerals than sucrose, but if you’re avoiding sugar, it’s not a good choice.
#5: Coconut sugar
Here are the pros and cons of coconut sugar, a type of carbohydrate made from coconut sap.
- Contains antioxidants, zinc, iron, calcium, and potassium
- Has a lower glycemic index than sucrose (in other words, it raises blood sugar more slowly)
- Contains inulin, a prebiotic fiber that can feed beneficial gut bacteria and improve digestion
- Equivalent in calories to sugar
- Contains loads of fructose, the fat-forming sugar we covered earlier
Verdict? Coconut sugar is just sugar with a few extra nutrients.
#6: Maple syrup
Most people think of maple syrup as an essential topping for pancakes and waffles. They don’t think about antioxidants and oligosaccharides.
But maple syrup is high in both. It’s reported to have more antioxidant force than honey, while its oligosaccharides (a compound sugar molecule) may improve glucose regulation.
Interesting animal study: when rodents were fed maple syrup along with sucrose, it curbed their blood sugar spike compared to sucrose alone.
But despite these beneficial properties, maple syrup is still mostly sucrose (glucose plus fructose). In other words, it’s still mostly sugar.
Verdict? Maple syrup is healthier than table sugar, but it’s no health food.
#7: Yacon syrup
From the Yacon Plant native to South America comes yacon syrup—a thick, saccharin goo similar in taste and texture to molasses.
Yacon is part sugar, part fructooligosaccharides (FOS). What are FOS? They’re prebiotic carbohydrates that aren’t digested through normal routes, but instead by gut bacteria.
Consuming FOS may have health benefits (such as increased satiety), but gas is a SUPER common side effect. Don’t experiment with yacon syrup before a first date.
Yacon has about one-third the calories as sugar, so that’s a plus. But unless used sparingly, it’s not compatible with a low-carb or keto diet.
Verdict? Yacon syrup is lower in calories than sugar, but it may give you gas.
A Word On Artificial Sweeteners
Before we talk about natural low-carb sweeteners, let’s talk about artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, and saccharin.
First of all, these compounds appear to be generally safe for human consumption. (The aspartame cancer scare is way overblown). And since they don’t contain calories or carbs, they don’t contraindicate a keto diet.
Still, I’m not a big fan of these lab-synthesized sweeteners. In one observational study, people consuming diet soda daily had a 67% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than non-consumers. This doesn’t prove causation, but I’m also not about to ignore it outright.
Also, there’s evidence that consuming artificial sweeteners during pregnancy negatively impacts the baby’s body composition while simultaneously cranking up their sweet tooth. So I don’t recommend them for pregnant or nursing women.
Me? I generally avoid artificial sweeteners. I don’t think they’re poison, but there are certainly better options out there.
Low-carb sugar substitutes
Now for the good stuff: the natural sugar alternatives that sweeten without the calories and blood sugar spikes of sugar.
Extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia extract is 200-300 sweeter than sugar (less is more), doesn’t raise blood sugar, and has powerful antioxidant activity.
All of stevia’s properties (including the sweetness) are driven by molecules called glycosides. The most active glycosides are:
- Rebaudioside A
- Rebaudioside C
I’ll also note that stevia has been used for hundreds of years to treat diabetes in South America. Today it’s being studied for similar purposes.
Verdict? I’m a big fan of stevia as a sugar substitute, particularly for anyone who eats a low-carb or ketogenic diet. That’s why we use it in LMNT.
#9: Monk fruit
On to monk fruit, a sweetener similar to stevia. Monk fruit extract is 250 times sweeter than sugar, contains zero calories, and is powered by antioxidant compounds called mogrosides.
Monk fruit has been deemed safe by the FDA, but stevia has a bit more data behind it. Both are good low-carb sweeteners.
Verdict? Enjoy monk fruit at your pleasure on your low-carb diet.
Last but not least, we come to allulose. Of all the low-carb sweeteners, allulose is probably the most similar to sugar in taste and texture. It even browns.
Found in figs and jackfruit, allulose is technically a sugar, but it’s not metabolized like sugar. Most of it gets excreted through urine, which is why it’s non-caloric.
Verdict? If you’re looking to replace sugar (in recipes or otherwise), allulose is a healthy way to accomplish that goal.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol produced by yeast fermentation. It’s about 70% as sweet as sugar, has a cooling aftertaste, and features a glycemic index of zero.
Sugar alcohols, by the way, are neither sugar nor alcohol. They’re indigestible carbohydrates that aren’t digested or metabolized.
When you consume erythritol, about 90% is excreted intact through urine. That’s why it doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin levels, making it keto-approved.
Erythritol also has antioxidant properties. Interestingly, it’s been shown to improve blood vessel function in a small group of type 2 diabetics.
Verdict? If you like the taste of erythritol, it’s a worthy low-carb sugar substitute.
Like erythritol, xylitol is a sugar alcohol. But it has a few more downsides like:
- A glycemic index of 13 vs 0 for erythritol
- More reported digestive distress
On the positive end, xylitol is well-documented to improve oral health. Hence why it’s a popular choice of sweetener in gum.
Verdict? If I had to pick between xylitol and erythritol, I’d choose erythritol.
Final Thoughts On Sugar Substitutes
If you’re minimizing added sugars, that’s wonderful. Along with avoiding vegetable oils, optimizing vitamins and minerals, and consuming enough protein—minimizing sugar intake is a foundation of healthy eating.
I wrote this article to be a reference for sugar substitutes. Bookmark it and refer back whenever you like.
And remember that many “sugar substitutes” aren’t sugar substitutes at all. They’re just sugar by another name.
I wish you positive health outcomes along with all of the fun that comes with them. Happy healthful sweetening!
*Some health experts will quibble over the sugar point I made in the intro, referencing studies in which people are fed large amounts of sugar, but have protein and calories matched. In essence, they are not allowed to over eat. It IS true that we do not see the type of metabolic mayhem I describe above, but these experts do not seem to realize that most people do not live in a metabolic ward. The point of sugar, processed oils, and various flavorings, including salt, is to induce folks to eat MORE. Add to this that most people consume sugar in liquid form (soft drinks) and it’s a tough proposition to justify the consumption of these items.