You’ve probably heard the news: the amount of sugar we consume is dangerous. Sugar is now thought to be a major factor in dozens of dangerous conditions, from obesity and heart disease to diabetes and some types of cancer.
If you suffer from health problems, your doctor may recommend that you cut table sugar, also known as sucrose, out of your diet completely. But then what are you supposed to put in your coffee, or use when baking a birthday cake?
Luckily, there are many sugar alternatives available. In fact, there are so many, it can be hard to decide which ones are actually best to use. Do any of them cause the same problems sucrose does? Are they actually any better for your health? And where exactly do they all come from?
These nine popular sugar alternatives all have different uses, and each will affect your health differently. Read on to find out which one is the best choice for you.
1. Stevia Extract
Also known as: Truvia, PureVia, Sweetleaf
Calories: 0 calories per serving
What is it: Stevia is an extract of the stevia leaf, an herb found in Central and South America. It is 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar alternatives, but has zero calories and won’t cause a jump in blood sugar when you eat it. Less-sweet stevia can have a licorice-like aftertaste, which some consumers find unpleasant.
Where to use it: Stevia can be used in drinks like coffee or tea or sprinkled on cereal or yogurt. It is not a good sugar substitutes for baking.
Health notes: Refined stevia was approved by the FDA in 2008, but raw stevia has never been approved for public consumption. It has not been studied extensively, so talk to your doctor before making it a regular part of your diet.
2. Brown Rice Syrup
Calories: 55 calories per tablespoon
What is it: Brown rice syrup is made by cooking brown rice with enzymes that break down the starch into sugars. It becomes a thick syrup that looks like very dark honey. It is mostly glucose, with none of the nutrition content that brown rice has.
Where to use it: Brown rice syrup can be used most places regular sugar alternatives are used, including in drinks, drizzled on food, and as a sweetener in baked goods.
Health notes: Brown rice syrup doesn’t contain fructose, only glucose, which makes it a good choice for diabetics or those with other health problems. However, much like regular table sugar, it is essentially empty calories and should be used sparingly.
Also known as: Splenda
Calories: 0 calories per serving
What is it: Sucralose is a sucrose derivative that is 600 times sweeter than regular table sugar and contains no calories. Unlike some artificial sweeteners, it has no chemical additives.
Where to use it: Sucralose is not sensitive to heat, which means it can be used as a sugar substitutes in baked goods. It can also be put into drinks like coffee and tea and is often found in canned fruit and zero-calorie drinks.
Health notes: Sucralose is often considered one of the safer sugar alternatives because it has been studied extensively. Although one study found that it impacted the immune system negatively, this result was not found in any other studies. It was approved by the FDA in 1998.
Also known as: Sweet ‘n Low
Calories: less than 4 calories per ¼ teaspoon
What is it: Saccharin is a synthetic, chemically-derived compound that has been used as a sugar substitutes since the 1970s. It is 300-400 times sweeter than table sugar and is made up entirely of empty calories.
Where to use it: Saccharin is best used in beverages, such as coffee or tea, and can often be found in no-calorie sodas or energy drinks. It is unstable at high temperatures, so it should not be used in baking.
Health notes: A study in the 1970s found that saccharin was a likely carcinogen, but this link was never replicated in human studies, and saccharin was eventually declared safe by the FDA. However, the human body has a lot of trouble digesting it, so it should be used very minimally.
Also known as: Equal, NutraSweet
Calories: 0 calories per serving
What is it: Aspartame is made by artificially joining the amino acids aspartic acid and phenylalanine, which are found in many foods. It is 200 times sweeter than sugar alternatives and can be found in many packaged and processed foods, as well as candy and cough drops.
Where to use it: Aspartame sweeteners are best suited for adding to beverages, cereal, or yogurt. It can be used in baking, but only in recipes that specify using Equal or NutraSweet instead of sugar alternatives.
Health notes: Aspartame has been thought to cause or exacerbate a number of health problems, including cancer, obesity, and heart disease. However, since approving it in 1981, the FDA maintains that aspartame is safe to use.
6. Maple Syrup
Calories: 52 calories per tablespoon
What is it: Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees, which is boiled until it breaks down and becomes sweet syrup. Pure maple syrup contains about 70% sucrose and 30% fructose and has been used for hundreds of years.
Where to use it: Maple syrup can be used to sweeten beverages, as a topping for food, and while baking or cooking. Pure maple syrup can be difficult to find, however, as most commercial brands that sell maple syrup dilute it with other sweeteners, which increase the calorie content and change the chemical makeup.
Health notes: Maple syrup is not linked to any specific health concerns, though it should be used in moderation. It contains higher levels of minerals than most sweeteners, including iron, zinc, magnesium, and potassium. It also contains some antioxidants.
Calories: 21 calories per teaspoon
What is it: Honey is a sweet fluid made by bees and other insects from plant nectar. It can be harvested from beehives and filtered for human consumption. It is made up of both sucrose and glucose and has about the same level of sweetness as table sugar.
Where to use it: Honey can be used raw in tea or other sweet beverages or as a topping for food. It reacts well to heat and can be used for baking or cooking.
Health notes: Honey contains several vitamins, including vitamin B6 and vitamin C, as well as antioxidants. Because raw honey has been processed less, it often contains higher levels of these nutrients. Honey does not cause blood sugar to spike as quickly as other sweeteners. However, it does have calories and should be used in moderation.
8. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Also known as: HFCS, High Fructose Maize Syrup, Glucose-Fructose Syrup
Calories: 17 calories per teaspoon
What is it: High fructose corn syrup is made of corn and corn syrups that have be processed and broken down by enzymes until they become sweet. It contains both glucose and fructose, though the amounts of sugar vary depending on how sweet it is.
Where to use it: High fructose corn syrup isn’t generally used by consumers. Because it is cheaper than sugar and has a longer shelf life, it is often used in place of sugar in processed and packaged foods. These include soda, desserts, bread, other baked goods, and freezer meals.
Health notes: Some studies show that HFCS has a stronger link to obesity than sucrose, but other studies say there is no difference. The biggest problem with high fructose corn syrup isn’t that it’s so much worse than other sweeteners, but that it is so prevalent in Western food. It has no nutritional value and should be consumed in limited quantities.
Calories: 20 calories per teaspoon
What is it: Agave is the extracted nectar of the agave cactus, which is found primarily in southern Mexico. It has a taste and texture that is similar to honey. Though it has a slightly higher calorie content than table sugar, is much sweeter and can be eaten in smaller quantities for the same taste.
Where to use it: Agave blends well with liquids like coffee and tea and can be used raw as a topping for yogurt and other foods. Like honey and maple syrup, it can also be used in recipes that call for a liquid sweetener.
Health notes: Agave is less likely to cause spikes in blood sugar than pure sucrose is. However, when consumed in large quantities, it can lower metabolic rates and increase insulin sensitivity.