6 Healthier Natural Sweeteners—And Those to Avoid

While the occasional sugary indulgence is understandable, excessive sugar intake can trigger adverse health conditions, such as obesity, inflammation, and metabolic syndrome. With a food supply that’s saturated in added sugars, turning to healthier alternatives like natural sweeteners can be a good way to manage your intake of added sugar. Unlike manufactured artificial sweeteners, natural sweeteners are found in nature. They’re typically low in calories and fructose, but they can taste just as sweet.

That said, some natural sweeteners are better for your health than others. Some are more calorie-dense than refined sugar, and others may cause gastrointestinal irritation.

Here’s the science behind these sugar alternatives, and which ones are best for your health.

Natural sweeteners may be a healthier choice than regular sugar, but the best sweetener depends on taste preferences, health needs, and what it’s being used for. Still, some natural sweeteners stand out among the rest.   


Fresh fruits like bananas, berries, and dates are naturally sweet and packed with important nutrients that can support overall health. Plus, the fiber in fruit helps slow down the absorption of sugar in the body, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. 

Fruits can be used as a topping for yogurt, blended into smoothies, and added to baked goods. Using fruit as a natural sweetener enhances the flavor profile of a dish without adding empty calories and artificial additives. 

For example, ½ cup of blueberries provides:

  • Calories: 43
  • Fat: 0 grams (g)
  • Protein: 0.5 g
  • Carbohydrates: 10 g 
  • Fiber: 2 g

Monk Fruit Extract

The monk fruit is a small round fruit harvested from the Siraitia grosvenorii plant, native to Southeast Asia. It has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only recently approved monk fruit extract as an alternative sweetener. Monk fruit contains natural sugars like glucose and fructose, but its intense sweetness stems from its mogrosides, a compound that’s 200–350-times sweeter than sucrose.

During processing, the fruit’s skin and seeds are removed so the juice can be collected and dried into a concentrated powder. Despite being a no-calorie sugar alternative, monk fruit extract is approximately 300 times sweeter than sucrose. In addition to their sweet flavor, the mogrosides also boast antioxidant capabilities with anti-cancer potential.

Nutrition facts for one tablespoon serving of monk fruit:

  • Calories: 0
  • Fat: 0 grams (g)
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 1.5 g
  • Fiber: 0 g

Raw Honey

Raw honey is a natural sweetener bees make using the nectar of flowering plants. Honey is slightly sweeter than table sugar, meaning you can use smaller amounts to achieve the same sweet taste. 

Raw unpasteurized honey is comprised of mainly fructose and glucose, but it also contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. Raw honey contains trace amounts of B vitamins, iron, potassium, and manganese. However, the most significant health benefit of consuming raw, unpasteurized honey might be its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Its natural sweetness can satisfy sugar cravings while also helping to protect the body from oxidative stress and inflammation. 

Nutrition facts for one tablespoon serving of honey:

  • Calories: 64
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 17 g
  • Fiber: 0 g

Pure Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is made using the fluid or sap from maple trees. A hole is carefully drilled into the maple tree, and as the sap pours out, it’s caught in a container. Then, the sap is boiled until most of the water has evaporated, leaving behind a thick, sticky, sugary syrup. Once it has been filtered to remove impurities, it’s ready to sweeten various dishes. 

While pure maple syrup may have comparable calories to refined sugar, it is considered a preferred alternative due to its nutrient content. Pure maple syrup contains antioxidants and many important minerals, such as manganese and zinc. However, not all maple syrups are created equal. The syrup’s color will vary depending on when it was harvested, but some commercial products may contain significant amounts of high-fructose corn syrup. Read nutrition labels carefully.

Nutrition facts for one tablespoon serving of pure maple syrup:

  • Calories: 52
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 13 g
  • Fiber: 0 g

Coconut Sugar  

Coconut sugar has gained popularity over recent years as a more unrefined and natural alternative to regular sugar. It has a notably lower glycemic index than sugar, meaning it has a decreased impact on blood glucose levels.

Coconut sugar is made from boiling down the sap of coconut palm trees, and the sugar produced retains many nutrients from the sap. Coconut sugar contains potassium, iron, zinc, and calcium. Plus, it measures similarly to regular sugar, making it an easy recipe swap. 

Nutrition facts for one tablespoon serving of coconut sugar:

  • Calories: 52
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 14 g
  • Fiber: 0 g

Blackstrap Molasses 

Blackstrap molasses is a thick syrup made from processing sugarcane. With a rich nutrient profile, it can be considered a healthy natural alternative to regular sugar. It contains magnesium, calcium, iron, and potassium. Plus, it contains essential minerals like copper and manganese. 

Blackstrap molasses offers a distinct bittersweet flavor and a lower glycemic index than regular sugar. It can add sweetness to beverages, marinades, sauces, and baked goods.

Nutrition facts for one tablespoon serving of blackstrap molasses:

  • Calories: 60
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Protein: 0 g
  • Carbohydrates: 13 g
  • Fiber: 0 g

While many natural options offer healthy alternatives, natural doesn’t always mean best. Some natural sweeteners may have adverse effects on both short and long-term health.   

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar gained popularity as a healthy sugar alternative, but research presents concerning side effects that may cancel out its benefits. Agave nectar is considerably high in fructose, which can contribute to decreased physical activity and increased body fat.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables but can also be produced chemically. Sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol provide fewer calories than regular sugar but can cause gastrointestinal irritation if consumed in large quantities.

High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup is made by converting corn starch to liquid sugar. During production, some of the glucose found in corn starch converts to fructose, resulting in a syrup with high levels of fructose. Research shows that dietary fructose is associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

While all foods can fit into a well-balanced diet, it’s important to be mindful of sugar intake. Reducing your sugar intake may look different depending on your lifestyle habits and nutritional preferences. 

Consider these tips to reduce your sugar intake:

  • Avoid adding sugar to meals and snacks. 
  • Swap out soda for water.
  • When baking, reduce the sugar used by one-third to one-half.
  • Use spices instead of sugar to add flavor to recipes.
  • Compare nutrition labels and opt for the product with less sugar.

Sugar, while fine as an occasional indulgence, overconsumption can lead to adverse health effects. Natural sweeteners offer a healthy alternative without sacrificing the sweet taste. Sweeteners like fresh fruit, monk fruit extract, raw honey, pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, and blackstrap molasses can help satisfy a sweet tooth while providing other nutritional benefits. Many natural sweeteners contain vitamins and minerals that can support your overall health. 

If you have questions about sugar alternatives and ways to support your health through nutrition, consider meeting with your healthcare provider, such as a registered dietitian.

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