Sugar Substitutions
Photo of a silver spoon with lumps of sugar and granulated white sugar overflowing onto a white table with other lumps of sugar. Red X over the photo.

Written by Erica Messenger

I am a certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, a certified Koru Mindfulness instructor, I have a dual major degree in Public Relations and Advertising, and I was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. All of these experiences, and my passion to help others, guide me in working with clients. Sometimes it is unexpected life changes that forge new ways for me to interact with and help clients.

February 26, 2021

Photo of the word SUGAR spelled out in a pile of sugar on a table. Turquoise hue. 5 photos of women with sugar and candy on their lips.

Humans love sugar.

Well, most humans. I know there are some unicorns out there that don’t eat it, but this information isn’t for those precious, one-horned miracles. Sugar isn’t bad for us as long as we are consuming it in balance with other nutrients. What can be unhealthy for some of us are the sugar substitutes that were created with good intention and for those people who have a medical need for a sugar-free diet, but some of these substitutes have turned out to have some nasty side affects.

Don’t worry. I’m not going to preach from my pulpit about how much sugar we should eat and I’m not going to bombard you with the science behind some of the synthetic sugar substitutes’ side affects. My purpose in sharing this information is to give you options in a quick and accesible package.

When I started to look for substitutes, it was overwhelming to find something I liked, fit my eating habits, and worked with my health requirements. Please keep in mind that some of the options are great for some people and not so great for others. If you have a medical condition requiring a sugar-free diet, please consult your physician before trying any of the suggested substitutions.

The following sugar substitutions vary in calories, carbohydrates, glycemic index, and accessibility. Most items can be purchased from a health food grocer or online. Some chain grocers have finally started to carry a few of the substitutes. I will post links to my favorites to help reduce the guess work of choosing if you’re simply experimenting. I’ve also included a downloadable PDF infographic of each substitute’s basics. Click HERE to download this FREE infographic!

Sugar Substitute Infographic. Pictures of each sugar substitute with description of serving size, calories, glycemic index, and where it comes from. Light desert color palette.

Stevia

Granulated or liquid stevia is derived from the extract of the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, native to Brazil and Paraguay. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar!

Per serving (just 8 drops!), it has zero calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 0. My favorite brand is Now Foods Organic Stevia Liquid. This is one of my go to sugar substitutes because it is so natural. It does have a slight aftertaste, but it is nothing that deters me from using it.

Photo of a wooden table with a wooden spoon filled with granulated stevia and a sprig of the stevia plant next to the spoon.
Photo of a wooden bowl of granulated monk fruit with a sprig of the plant on the edge of the bowl. The bowl is next to pieces of dried monk fruit and behind that is a piece of the whole monk fruit. They are all on a brown flat surface.

Monk Fruit

Granulated or liquid monk fruit or luohan guo is derived from the herbaceous perrenial vine Siraitia grosvenorii. The extract comes from the dried fruit. It is 250 times sweeter than sugar!

Per serving (just 8 drops!), it has 0 calories per serving and has a glycemic index (GI) of 0. My favorite brand is Now Foods Organic Monk Fruit Liquid. This is also one of my go to sugar substitutes because it is naturally derived. I use it almost daily in my tea or coffee. It does have a very slight aftertaste, but less than stevia.

Coconut Sugar

Granulated coconut sugar is derived from the sap of the flower bud stem of the coconut palm. It is about 25% less sweet than sugar, but is a great one-to-one substitute for table sugar.

Per serving (1 tsp), coconut sugar has 18 calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 50-54, so it is neck and neck with table sugar, but some say it is healthier because of the way they process it and from where it comes. I have used it in baking and found it to be a great substitute. I’ve used both Wholesome Organic Coconut Palm Sugar and Big Tree Farms Organic Brown Coconut Sugar and like them equally.

Dark gray granite counter top with wooden spoon containing granules of coconut sugar. Next to the spoon is a coconut that has been broken open.
A light blue washed wooden table with the leaves and stem of a birch tree. Next to that is a cream colored bowl with granulated xylitol and a wooden scoop inside the bowl.

Xylitol

Granulated xylitol is derived from the alcohol found in corn cobs or woody fiberous plants like trees. Most commercial forms of xylitol come from corn cobs because it is more sustainable. It is approximately the same sweetness as sugar and can be used for baking.

Per serving (1/4 tsp), it has 2.4 calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 7. I do not use this very often, however, I use it as a sweetener for my homemade toothpaste. It has a sweet and cool taste to it…not minty, but simply feels cool on the tongue. There is weak, but growing evidence that xylitol helps prevent cavities (1). I use the Now Foods Xylitol.

Molasses

Molasses is a dark brown, viscous liquid derived from boiling raw sugar cane juice three times. It is 65% as sweet as sugar and used in baking (think gingerbread cookies), as well as sauces and glazes (like bbq sauce and baked beans). It is a significant source of vitamin B6 and minerals including calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese and is also a good source of potassium.

Per serving (1 tbsp), it has 290 calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 44. I have used molasses in sauces with good results. Blackstrap molasses is the most robust out of all the molasses syrups and tastes sweet with a subtle smoky and bitter flavor. I use the Wholesome Organic Unsulphured Black Strap Molasses. It is totally worth your experimentation!

On a gray and white striped tablecloth sits a small glass bowl full of black strap molasses with a spoon that has just been dipped in the syrup and raised out of the bowl.
Photo of three small glass jugs of maple syrup in a row on a wooden surface.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is derived from the sap of the maple tree. It is three times as sweet as sugar. Famous for its distinct flavor and as a pancake topper, maple syrup also has many other uses as a sweetener. I’ve used it in yogurt, cocktails, and baking.

A serving size of maple syrup is 1/4 cup so you are getting more bang for your buck with 200 calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 54. If you are using this to sweeten tea or coffee, your calorie count will be much less if you are only using a teaspoon or two. I always go for the 100% pure organic dark maple syrup. There are many brands, but a reasonably priced option is the Whole Foods 365 Organic Dark Maple Syrup.

Raw Honey

Ohhhh, honey! We’ve harvested this gorgeously wonderful product from our tiny striped friends’ hives for at least 9,000 years! There are so many varieties of honey and the flavor combinations are endless! I use raw honey exclusively and try to purchase it from local or regional beekeepers. Anytime I travel, I sample the local honey. It is divine!

Honey is about 30% sweeter than sugar. It has micro nutrients which makes it a better choice than sugar and even though there are more calories (64) per serving (1 tbsp) than sugar, it is sweeter because of sciencey stuff, so you’ll likely use less. The glycemic index (GI) is also less than table sugar at 58. The benefit of using honey is that it is as close to nature as you can get for a sugar substitute and the many different flavors you can experience make it worth the experimentation!

Photo of a chunk of honey comb with honey pooled on a wooden surface with a honey dipper laying in the pool of honey.
Photo  of an agave plant in the wild and next to that photo is a photo of a glass bottle with a cork of agave nectar and next to the bottle is a small glass bowl of nectar with a wooden spoon in the bowl.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar or syrup is derived from the juice of the core (piña) of the blue agave plant native to Mexico. It is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar and is used to sweeten beverages, in baking, and other cooking. Dark brown agave can be used as a pancake or french toast topping. It tastes similarly to honey, but less so. I use it to sweeten salad dressings and iced tea. I prefer to use raw organic agave nectar and my favorites are Wholesome Organic Raw Blue Agave Syrup and Madhava Organic Amber Agave.

Per serving (1 tbsp), raw agave syrup provides 63 calories and has a glycemic index (GI) of 30, so it is a better choice than table sugar.

Date Paste

Date paste is produced from the dried fruits of the date palm. Date syrup is also made from the date palm. Date paste is a little less sweet than sugar because it contains some of the whole fruit, but date syrup is a bit sweeter than sugar. Date paste and syrup are more nutritionally dense than most other sweeteners, so they are a better choice than table sugar. It has a dark, complex caramel flavor. I have used both homemade date paste (great on toast) and Date Lady Pure Organic Date Syrup

Per serving (1/4 cup), date paste has 190 calories and a glycemic index (GI) of 42.

Photo of a white ceramic bowl over filled with dates spilling onto a white washed wooden surface.

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