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The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners

author image Kristen Mancinelli MS, RD
Kristen Mancinelli, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian specializing in the science of popular diets. She is author of "The Ketogenic Diet: A Scientifically Proven Approach to Fast, Healthy Weight Loss". Mancinelli holds a master's degree in nutrition and public health from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in chemistry from NYU.

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The Ultimate Guide to Natural Sweeteners
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Most of us consume sweeteners every day -- whether in our morning coffee, as a dessert or as ingredients in food products we love. New natural sweeteners -- meaning they come from plant sources versus being synthetically produced -- are cropping up on supermarket shelves, but many of us don’t know how to incorporate them or how they affect our health. It’s easy to believe that something “natural” is healthy, but when it comes to sweeteners, too much of even a natural thing can be unhealthy. Added sugars and sweeteners represent about 13 percent of Americans’ daily caloric intakes, and this excess is linked to increased body weight and chronic diseases. In general, you should try to limit your overall intake: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day for women and no more than 150 calories per day for men from added sugars. When you do add some sweetness, consider sources that provide a little more nutritional bang for the buck. Read on to learn more about the pros and cons of 13 different types of natural sweeteners.

1. Yacon Syrup
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Yacon syrup is a liquid sweetener that’s extracted from the South American tuber known as yacon, which tastes something like an apple. A good portion of the carbohydrate in yacon syrup is in the form of inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), which are prebiotics, so they become “food” for probiotics, essentially feeding good bacteria in the gut. Julie Morris, best-selling author of “Superfood Kitchen” and the executive chef for Navitas Naturals, likes yacon syrup for many reasons. “It has a low glycemic index, contains prebiotics that help with digestion and can be used anywhere that liquid sweetener is used.” Moreover, they have a lower caloric value relative to other carbohydrates, and they do not produce as high of a blood sugar or insulin spike that often accompanies carbohydrate consumption. On the flip side, “Yacon syrup can be a bit pricey,” adds Morris. One tablespoon of yacon syrup contains 20 calories and seven grams of sugar. In comparison, granulated sugar has 49 calories and about 13 grams of sugar.

Related: Incan Hot Chocolate Recipe With Yacon Syrup

2. Brown Rice Syrup
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Although brown rice syrup is often grouped in with “healthier” alternatives to sugar, it’s a mistake to believe that this liquid sweetener has a superior nutritional profile. Ounce for ounce, brown rice syrup has more calories than table sugar (75 versus 50 calories per tablespoon, respectively), and you need to use more of it to achieve the same level of sweetness. Manufacturers recommend using one-and-a-quarter cup of rice syrup in place of one cup of sugar in recipes. Its reputation as a healthier sweetener has prompted food manufacturers to use organic brown rice syrup in place of corn syrup in some packaged foods, but a 2012 study linked high levels of arsenic, a potential carcinogen, to this sweetener ingredient in some cereal and energy bars. Unfortunately, although its name may call to mind a “healthy” item, brown rice syrup and organic brown rice syrup may not be the ideal natural sweetener.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars

3. Molasses
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A 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that dark molasses and blackstrap molasses have the highest antioxidant activity of the 14 sweeteners studied. Molasses had more than three-and-a-half times the antioxidant capacity of malt syrup (the sweetener with the next highest level) and nearly 20 times that of raw cane sugar. Molasses also contains calcium, potassium and magnesium, three nutrients that surveys of dietary intakes show most people fail to consume in adequate amounts. Replacing refined sugar with more nutrient-rich sweeteners, such as molasses, may help to increase your intake of some of these lacking nutrients and antioxidants. One tablespoon of molasses provides 58 calories and 15 grams of sugar.

Related: Delicious No-Bake Desserts

4. Honey
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“I’m not a fan of sweeteners,” says Kathie Swift, M.S., RDN, Education Director for the Food As Medicine professional nutrition training program and the author of “The Swift Diet: 4 Weeks to Mend the Belly, Lose the Weight, and Get Rid of the Bloat.” “I believe the less you use the better, and none at all is better still -- not only because of their impact on your blood sugar, but because they feed your bad bacteria, which is the opposite of what you should be doing if you want a healthy gut!” Still, Swift says, many of us need a treat on occasion. So if you’re going to sweeten, Swift recommends going with honey and keeping your “dose” to a minimum. “Honey is much more than a natural sweetener,” Swift says. “It’s an all-purpose food that’s also medicinal, with antimicrobial properties.” One tablespoon of honey provides 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars

5. Dates
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Dates are the fruit of the date palm tree that are often found in dried form in cereals, cakes and candy bars. Fresh dates are often used to sweeten smoothies or shakes and in place of sugar or other sweeteners in homemade baked goods. A fresh date has a very sweet taste, often with a hint of molasses. At peak maturity, dates have a sugar content ranging from 72 to 88 percent. Dates beat plain table sugar when it comes to nutrition. While sugar contains no nutrients other than digestible carbohydrates, dates provide a small amount of magnesium and potassium, and about 10 percent of the carbohydrate in a date is fiber. One date provides 66 calories and 16 grams of sugar.

Related: Almost Apple Pie With Honey Recipe

6. Agave
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Agave syrup (or agave nectar) comes from the same plant that is used to make tequila. It’s sweeter than sugar and has a lower glycemic index, which means that you can use less of it and the impact on your blood sugar will be more moderate. While it has many benefits, agave also has a downside. About 82 percent of the sugar in agave syrup is in the form of fructose -- the same monosaccharide that receives so much negative attention for its presence in the industrial sweetener high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some experts are concerned that fructose consumption may lead to weight gain or increased risk for heart disease. To be fair, these concerns are based on the assumption that people are consuming a lot of fructose in the form of processed, sweetened foods. If you typically avoid packaged food products and use agave syrup in small amounts to sweeten homemade items, you’re unlikely to be among the group at risk. Still, it’s important to remember that just because a sweetener is from a natural source does not mean you should eat a lot of it!

Related: 15 Reasons to Cut Sugar

7. Stevia
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Stevia is something of a hybrid of natural and artificial sweeteners. It’s natural because it comes from a plant (the yerba dulce shrub native to South America), and it resembles artificial sweeteners in that it is 100 times sweeter than sugar and is entirely “non-nutritive” (meaning it contains no calories, vitamins or nutrients of any kind). Stevia is widely considered a safe, calorie-free alternative to sugar. This is in contrast to other zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, which have been the subject of debate for decades over their potential to cause cancer and other health consequences in laboratory animals. One drawback to stevia is its taste -- many people find it extremely bitter. Perhaps for this reason stevia is often sold in flavored varieties, such as vanilla or toffee, or mixed with other sweeteners for improved taste. One tablespoon of stevia has zero calories and zero grams of sugar.

Related: Delicious No-Bake Desserts

8. Artichoke Syrup
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This sweetener is made from the starchy tuber known as Jerusalem artichoke (or the sunchoke). But while excess sugar consumption is believed to disrupt the bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and lead to chronic diseases (such as celiac disease, obesity and diabetes), artichoke syrup, like yacon syrup, contains a good amount of the prebiotic inulin, a beneficial type of carbohydrate that nourishes the “good” gut bacteria that keep you healthy. Because inulin is only partially digested, it is considered a form dietary fiber and has some similar benefits -- including promoting regularity. One tablespoon of artichoke syrup contains 50 calories (just slightly less than table sugar), seven grams of inulin fiber and three grams of sugar.

Related: Sign Up to Receive the FREE LIVESTRONG.COM Weekly Health and Fitness Newsletter

9. Coconut Sugar
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Coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar is a relatively new addition to supermarket shelves. Similar to maple syrup or sugar production, coconut sugar is made from the evaporated sap of a coconut tree. Coconut sugar has a much lower glycemic index compared with table sugar -- 35 versus 68, respectively -- which means it causes a less dramatic rise in blood glucose and insulin levels. Manufacturers of coconut sugar recommend using it in a one-to-one ratio as a replacement for table sugar (usually derived from sugarcane) and attest that the harvesting of coconut sugar is much more sustainable than that of cane sugar. One tablespoon of coconut sugar has 45 calories and 12 grams of sugar.

Related: Delicious No-Bake Desserts

10. Raw Sugar
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Raw sugar (also known as turbinado sugar) is different from refined or white sugar in that its granules are large, coarse and slightly brown in color -- but that’s about where the differences end. Although many consumers believe that raw sugar is “healthier” than refined sugar, the two products are nearly identical. They are both just granules of sucrose made by evaporating the juice of a sugarcane or sugar beet. Refined sugar is simply raw sugar that’s been washed and clarified to remove the residual brown-colored molasses, resulting in the pure-white substance that most of know as table sugar. Although proponents claim that raw sugar contains more minerals than refined sugar, this small positive contribution to the nutritional profile of raw sugar pales in comparison to the negative effects of sugar consumption on body weight, dental health and risk of chronic disease. One tablespoon of raw sugar has about 60 calories and 15 grams of sugar.

Related: 15 Reasons to Cut Sugar

11. Barley Malt Syrup
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This sweetener is made from grains of barley steeped in water and allowed to sprout, during which time the starch in the grain is broken down into simple sugars (mainly maltose as well as some glucose and sucrose). Barley malt syrup has a relatively high antioxidant content when compared with other sweeteners, second only to blackstrap molasses. Antioxidants prevent cellular damage that leads to diseases such as cancer and heart disease, and nutritional guidelines recommend consuming more of them, making this a better alternative to refined white or brown sugar. As with any sweetener, however, you want to limit your overall intake. One tablespoon of barley malt syrup provides 60 calories and eight grams of sugar.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars

12. Maple Sugar
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Maple sugar is made by boiling maple syrup to remove the water. The resulting product is the crystallized sugar with a distinctive maple flavor. Maple sugar has fewer calories than table sugar and contains trace amounts of important nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, iron and zinc. What’s more, less maple sugar is needed to sweeten foods compared with table sugar: Manufacturers recommend using two-thirds of a cup of maple sugar to replace one cup of table sugar in recipes. Less sugar (from any source) is a good thing when it comes to nutritional health. One tablespoon of maple sugar provides 33 calories and nine grams of sugar, compared with 50 calories and 12 grams of sugar for table sugar.

Related: 5 Ways to Make Your Own Energy Bars

13. Fruit Juice
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Juices from fruits like apples or grapes are often used in concentrated form (e.g., white grape juice concentrate) to sweeten packaged foods. While this type of sweetener may seem like a better choice than sugar or corn syrup, the benefits are limited to providing some vitamin C, along with a good dose of calories from sugar -- specifically in the form of fructose. So don’t be fooled into believing that fruit-juice-sweetened products are OK to overeat, so be mindful of how much you consume.

Related: 15 Reasons to Cut Sugar

What Do YOU Think?
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Sweeteners are linked to weight gain and should be consumed sparingly. However, not all sweeteners are created equal. Some contain beneficial prebiotics or small amounts of vitamins and minerals, while others lack any nutrient aside from sugar and are considered “empty” calories. Still, for most people, sweeteners are a part of their everyday lives, but it’s important to keep our overall intake limited and within the guidelines. Which ones do you use and why? Which ones do you stay away from? Tell us your thoughts!

Related: The Best New Gluten-Free Foods

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