Nutrition

The Ultimate Guide to Sugar Substitutes

5 min read
Dietitians walk us through healthy, natural sugar alternatives.
Dietitians walk us through healthy, natural sugar alternatives.

Article Content

Whether you’re trying to temper your sweet tooth or just eat healthier in general, cutting out refined sugar can be a great first step to a more nutritious diet. But when faced with all the sweetener alternatives on the market—which, by the way, only seem to be multiplying by the day—where to even begin? There are a lot of factors, after all: from aftertaste, to the presence of artificial ingredients and sugar alcohols, to bonus nutrients like antioxidants and fiber.

To help us sift through the many (many) options, we tapped Ritual’s resident dietitian and VP of Scientific Affairs, Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, Ph.D, RD—as well as dietitians Stephanie Paver, MS, RD and Danielle Gaffen, MS, RDN, LD. Below, they share their six go-to sugar alternatives and what makes them worthy of a spot in your pantry.

But first: How do we define a sugar alternative?

It goes without saying that not all sugar substitutes are created equal—in fact, something labeled "sugar-free" might not necessarily be good for you, which is where some ingredient sleuthing and label-reading can really come in handy. For starters: It may be a good idea to skip artificial sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame or synthetic sugar alcohols like xylitol or erythritol, which have been linked to discomfort and other adverse effects (and don't bring anything nutritional to the table).* (1,2)

That's why our experts looked for less refined options that offer at least some nutritional value of their own—and are lower on the glycemic scale to boot. Some, like coconut sugar, molasses, and maple syrup, should still only be enjoyed in moderation, and it doesn't hurt to look for any extra additives on the label.

1. Reb-M

If you’re not familiar with this sweetener (hint: it's featured throughout our Essential Protein line-up), allow us to make the introduction: Reb-M is a compound made from fermented sugarcane. The fermentation process helps remove the sugar content but allows the Reb-M to retain its sweetness—resulting in a flavor profile that’s similar to sucrose but without the harsh aftertaste of many other sugar alternatives.

Bottom line: “Reb-M is a simple, safe, and a nonnutritive sweetener that delivers a great sensory experience,” says Dr. Mastaneh. The lack of bitter aftertaste played a big role in our decision to formulate our protein powder with Reb-M over other natural alternatives—because the better something tastes, the more likely you are to incorporate it into a healthy habit—and the more likely it'll stick around for the long-term.

2. Monk fruit

Monk fruit, also known as lo han guo or siraitia grosvenorii, is giving stevia a run for its money as it becomes a more mainstream sugar alternative. Monk fruit is 100-250 times sweeter than regular sugar and is a non-nutritive sweetener, which means it contains zero calories and carbs per serving. In fact, monk fruit gets its sweetness from antioxidants. These are all reasons why we opted for monk fruit when formulating our Essential for Kids gummy multivitamins, which don’t contain any sugar per serving.* (3)

“Children in the United States consume much more sugar than they should,” explains Dr. Mastaneh. “According to NHANES 2015-2015, just added sugar makes up 14% of what children consume each day with only 6% of children meeting the recommendations of <10% of total calories from added sugar. Some kids' multivitamin gummies in the market may add more to the problem, rather than helping with it—and that’s why Essential for Kids was developed using monk fruit.”

3. Stevia

This natural sweetener (pro tip: look for one that’s raw, organic, and minimally processed) has become a go-to sugar substitute in recent years, and with good reason. Gaffen says the low-calorie herb, derived from a South American plant, is 250-300 times sweeter than sugar, is low-glycemic, and is heat stable so you can use it in cooking and baking. One caveat: It can sometime leave a bitter aftertaste. (4)

4. Coconut sugar

Sourced from the sap of coconut palm trees, coconut sugar boasts a decent nutritional resume. “Coconut sugar contains some iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and antioxidants,” says Gaffen. Coconut sugar also has a lower glycemic index than sugar, which Gaffen says may be due to the inulin, a type of soluble fiber, it contains. (5)

5. Molasses

Derived from crushed sugar cane or sugar beets, molasses is a thick dark brown syrup believed to be more nutritious than regular sugar. Gaffen recommends it as a sweetener because it includes iron, potassium, and calcium and contains some antioxidants. There are different ways you can incorporate molasses into your regular rotation. Use it as a syrup for pancakes and waffles, drizzle it over your morning bowl of oatmeal, or add it to desserts and marinades too. (6)

6. Honey

Another solid natural sweetener alternative, “honey contains small amounts of powerhouse vitamins such as vitamin C and pantothenic acid,” says Paver. “Honey [also] contains minerals such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc.” Honey also contains antioxidants. (7)

Paver adds that honey contains prebiotics, which act as a fertilizer for good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract. When possible, she recommends opting for locally harvested, raw, unfiltered honey. As for uses, the possibilities for honey are endless. Paver suggests adding a dollop to buttered toast, swirling it in plain yogurt, and using it to sweeten up a smoothie. (8)

7. Maple syrup

Maple syrup is another great sugar substitute you can use in baked recipes, dressings, or even your morning coffee. “Maple syrup contains minerals like calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese, as well as antioxidants,” Gaffen says. Pro tip: Look at the label to ensure it’s real maple syrup and not maple-flavored syrup, which tends to be chock full of refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

One last thing…

Remember that too much of a good thing isn’t always a good thing. Gaffen emphasizes that although natural sweeteners are touted as more nutritious sugar substitutes, some of these alternatives are still best practiced in moderation.

References:

  1. Tandel K. R. (2011). "Sugar substitutes: Health controversy over perceived benefits." Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics, 2(4), 236–243.
  2. Mäkinen K. K. (2016). "Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals." International journal of dentistry, 2016, 5967907.
  3. Pawar RS, Krynitsky AJ, Rader JI. "Sweeteners from plants--with emphasis on Stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) and Siraitia grosvenorii (Swingle)." Anal Bioanal Chem. 2013 May;405(13):4397-407. doi: 10.1007/s00216-012-6693-0. Epub 2013 Jan 23. PMID: 23341001.
  4. Ashwell M. (2015). "Stevia, Nature's Zero-Calorie Sustainable Sweetener: A New Player in the Fight Against Obesity." Nutrition today, 50(3), 129–134.
  5. Kim M, Shin HK. "The water-soluble extract of chicory reduces glucose uptake from the perfused jejunum in rats." J Nutr. 1996 Sep;126(9):2236-42. doi: 10.1093/jn/126.9.2236. PMID: 8814212.
  6. "Sugar Cane and Sugar Beet Molasses, Antioxidant-rich Alternatives to Refined Sugar." J. Agric. Food Chem. 2012, 60, 51, 12508–12515. November 28, 2012.
  7. Albaridi N. A. (2019). "Antibacterial Potency of Honey." International journal of microbiology, 2019, 2464507.
  8. Anand Mohan, Siew-Young Quek, Noemi Gutierrez-Maddox, Yihuai Gao, Quan Shu, "Effect of honey in improving the gut microbial balance," Food Quality and Safety, Volume 1, Issue 2, 1 May 2017, Pages 107–115.

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Meet our Expert

This article has been reviewed by and features advice from members of our Science Team.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, VP of Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.

Science Thumb — Mastaneh

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi, PhD, RD, VP of Scientific Affairs

Dr. Mastaneh Sharafi has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences and is a Registered Dietitian. She received her training from Penn State University and University of Connecticut where she researched dietary patterns, chemosensory perception and community nutrition. Her dietetic work is focused on promoting healthy eating habits by translating the science of nutrition into practical information for the public.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

Science Thumb — Arianne

Arianne Vance, MPH, Research Scientist

Arianne Vance is a Research Scientist at Ritual. She earned her MPH in Epidemiology from UCLA. Her graduate research focused on maternal and child health, with an emphasis on breastfeeding and maternal mental health. She is passionate about sharing her love of science by presenting cutting-edge research in an accessible and engaging way.

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