Sugar substitutes: 11 natural and healthy sugar substitutes

If you're trying to cut down the amount of white sugar that you have in your diet, a sugar substitute is a great place to start...
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  • From sweeteners to naturally sweet ingredients, we’ve rounded up the best healthy sugar substitutes out there.

    All of these healthy sugar alternatives can easily replace a teaspoon of white sugar in your tea, sprinkling on your porridge, or heap in your favourite cake. Each sugar substitute included is ideal for those on a sugar-free diet.

    Recent research has shown that most adults and children in the UK eat too much sugar. It’s acceptable to have a sweet treat every now but you’d be surprised by the amount of hidden sugar in everyday foods. According to the NHS, adults should have no more than 30g of sugar a day. The daily sugar allowance for children is different and varies from age group. For example, a 7-10-year-old should have no more than 24g and a 4-6-year-old should have no more than 19g.

    Nutrition expert and founder of Lean Greens, Tim Goodwin says; “Arguably sugar, in its modern, heavily processed form found within many foods, is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. But often we make the mistake of trying to make unhealthy foods ‘slightly’ less unhealthy with sugar substitutes. This doesn’t create the big changes we often need.

    However, anytime we can use sugar alternatives to make healthy foods more accessible is a positive. A simple example is to use dates and raisins in a salad to give some sweet flavours to offset some of the more bitter tastes you may have with traditional salad ingredients.”

    Healthy sugar substitutes

    agave nectar being poured from a teaspoon

    Credit: Getty Images

    1. Agave nectar

    Agave nectar is made up of 90% concentrated fructose, a sugar that occurs naturally in fruit, which pretty much means you get the same sugars from it as you would eating a piece of fruit.

    Tim says; “Like a lot of ‘natural’ sugar substitutes, agave nectar is much sweeter than your refined sugar, so you require less of it to get the same sweetness. Agave also has a lower glycemic index (GI) than sugar, which means it’ll not spike your body’s insulin response.”

    2. Honey

    Honey contains vitamins like niacin, thiamin, and vitamin B6 which help to speed up your metabolism and improve your digestive system.

    “Not all honey is created equal and most of the honey you find in supermarkets is essentially a form of refined sugar and offers zero health benefits. However, if you find a locally produced, unpasteurised honey, it is a powerful healthy substance acting as an anti- fungal, anti-viral and anti-bacterial. It is important to still keep the quantity consumed down, as it is predominantly sugar.” Tim adds.

    Chopped banana pieces piled on top of each other

    Credit: Getty

    3. Bananas

    Not only do bananas contain natural sugars, which are much better for you than processed sugar, they’re also proven to boost energy levels.

    “Most fruits in their raw, natural form are a great way to get a sweetness hit without needing to reach for the sugar spoon. Bananas are no exception, with high levels of potassium, magnesium, vitamins B6 and C, and dietary fiber. The only downside to bananas is their high carb content, but that’s far outweighed by the impressive nutrient profile.” says Tim.

    Jar of molasses being poured into a bowl

    Credit: Getty

    4. Molasses

    Just one tablespoon of molasses contains 20% of the daily recommended intake for calcium and 40% of iron.

    Tim states; “Molasses are a contradiction of the cane sugar production process. Whilst cane sugar has little to zero nutritional benefit, one of the byproducts of cane sugar production is Molasses, which is practically a superfood. Rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B6, and depending on the type you buy, the darker the syrup, the less sugar content it has.”

    5. Apple puree

    Apple puree or apple sauce is much lower in calories than sugar and the sweetness is from a natural source.

    “The best way to eat apples is raw, that way you’ll get the full nutritional benefit. In the production of commercial apple puree, many of the nutrients are simply boiled away. However, making your own apple sauce is certainly a good way to add a more natural sweet sauce to your cooking than sugar.” says nutritionist Tim Goodwin.

    6. Lemon

    Soothing sore throats and preventing kidney stones are only a few of the health benefits of swapping sugar for lemon or lemon juice instead.

    “Lemon is a great flavour enhancer. Easily added to food and drink to make boring ‘healthy’ foods taste refreshing and delicious. Instead of pouring a sweet sauce over your salads, couscous, or potatoes, try squeezing lemon juice over them instead. High in vitamin C, fiber, and plant compounds, the simple lemon is the perfect sugar substitute.” adds Tim.

    Close up of raisins in a bowl

    Credit: Getty

    7. Raisins

    Firstly, raisins are a fruit, which automatically makes them a much healthier choice than white sugar as they are full of natural sugars instead. Secondly, raisins are packed full of energy-boosting sugars and vitamins.

    “Fancy a quick snack that doesn’t come with the guilt of a chocolate bar? Try a handful of raisins instead. Whilst they are high in sugar content (so moderate consumption is advised), they are high in fiber, iron, and calcium, and way better than that bar of chocolate.” states Tim.

    Three glasses of fruit juice surrounded by chopped fruit

    Credit: Getty

    8. Fruit juice

    Fruit juice, made from fresh, contains plenty of natural sugars which are good for the body.

    “Perhaps the most controversial sugar substitute. Ask 100 nutritional experts about fruit juice and they’ll be split 50/50 in their opinions of their health benefits,” says Tim.

    “The problem with most commercially produced fruit juices are they are highly refined concentrates with plenty of sugar, either natural or added. Squeezing your own juices is a good way to moderate your consumption but still get the benefits of the fruit. If you’re trying to cut out fizzy drinks, freshly squeezed fruit juices do make an excellent alternative.”

    Dates in a wooden bowl

    Credit: Getty

    9. Dates

    Dates are easily digested which means your body absorbs all the goodness from them when eaten. ‘The goodness’ includes B-vitamins, niacin, and vitamin A.

    “Of all the dried fruits, dates are probably one of the most nutritious. They are an excellent way to sweeten up your cooking. However, they are calorific, so consumption in moderation is advised. Another fruit, high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, copper, vitamin B6, antioxidants… the list goes on. If you want to make your own protein nutrition bars, in a food processor combine dates, nuts, and seeds. Shape into bars and refrigerate overnight to make a nutritional snack that’s easy to wrap up and eat on the go.” comments nutritionist Tim.

    10. Stevia

    It’s a zero calories sweetener derived from plants. It is much sweeter than sugar so it doesn’t take much to sweeten something up.

    Tim says; “Stevia leaf has become a popular sugar substitute in many health products. It has zero calories and is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, meaning you don’t need to use very much to get the desired sweetness. We use it in Lean Greens (our multi-vitamin powders) to soften the harsh flavours of the raw green ingredients we include, making it much easier to drink. You can also use it in your cooking in place of sugar. Be aware of some of the commercial varieties of Stevia, which are highly refined and often mixed with substances like sucralose which are far from healthy.”

    Close up of sugar in wooden spoon on table

    Credit: Getty

    11. Xylitol

    The final of our sugar substitutes is Xylitol. Xylitol is 100% pure and has 1/3 fewer calories than sugar. It also encourages B vitamins and calcium to be absorbed into the body.

    “If you like to drink your tea or coffee sweetened, then Xylitol may be the perfect sugar alternative for you. It has a similar sweetness to sugar. It does however have 40% fewer calories, and a very low Glycemic Index so it won’t spike your insulin like sugar. Whilst it doesn’t come with any additional health benefits of other sugar alternatives, it doesn’t have the downsides of sugar.” says nutritionist Tim.

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