Natural Sugar Substitutes: Which are Really Healthy?

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Natural Sugar Substitutes

If you use sugar but are worried about its negative effects on health, you’re in luck with a few healthy alternatives!

Recently I wrote an article on the dangers of some of the most common sugar substitutes, but I only mentioned one of several good natural sugar substitutes. Honestly, I’m not that against real sugar when it is used sparingly. In our house we use organic evaporated cane sugar or sucanat as a safer alternative. I insist on organic for our sugar because a lot of sugar otherwise is made with a genetically modified beet rather than sugar cane.

But what if you want to avoid cane sugar altogether?

Natural Sugar Substitutes Examined

Maple Syrup

We use a local maple syrup for baking. It can take a higher amount of heat without altering its health benefits. You may choose an organic maple syrup or you can simply ask your local producer some questions. Where are their trees? Are they in a heavily polluted area? Do they use chemicals in their syrup production process? If the answers are no, you may happily buy local syrup and save!


Of course we use our raw, local honey in our house, but only for those foods that we don’t heat. Raw honey has a long list of health benefits, but I explained why it’s not good to heat raw honey a while back.

Agave Syrup

We don’t eat anything that contains this product. Agave nectar has a low glycemic index and therefore is believed to help keep blood sugar levels in check and thusly prevent fluctuations in hormones. Worrying solely about the glycemic index of a food is not a good indicator of health. Unfortunately, agave syrup contains the highest fructose amount of any commercial sweetener, even worse than high fructose corn syrup. High levels of fructose create insulin resistance, an even bigger problem than a temporary spike due to sugar intake. Further, agave nectar is mostly produced from Agave americana which is a known emmenagogue and abortifacient, so should not be used during pregnancy.


I’ve had several members of my community trying to talk me into using xylitol. I’ve always been skeptical. This sugar substitute starts out innocently enough. It is advertised to be isolated from birch sap. I’m all for maple or birch syrup in cooking! Unfortunately, xylitol takes that syrup and hydrogenates it. This is a process that introduces dangerous metals into our food and I avoid it. The other consideration here is that birch sap gets pricey, so a good deal of xylitol is likely isolated from corn instead. More specifically, the cheapest corn, which is heavily polluted and genetically modified. I have seen the studies that claim that xylitol in gum can relieve ear congestion and infection. I would argue that it is the chewing action, not the xylitol itself, that is relieving pressure in the ear. As far as the prevention of cavities, I’d much rather have a cup of homemade grass-fed bone broth!

Coconut Sugar

There are a couple products out there right now that are really just dehydrated palm sap. There isn’t too much of a “benefit” with this sugar over cane sugar when it comes to calories. There is, of course, the fact that you are more assured of the source. Coconut sugar is very low in fructose content which makes it one of the healthier sugar alternatives. If you are avoiding cane sugar, be sure that your coconut sugar is pure and doesn’t contain cane sugar as an additive.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup is only acceptable in my kitchen if it is organic. It is very simply made as part of a fermentation of brown rice. If the syrup is organic, the fermentation is accomplished using non-gmo enzymes. The resulting liquid from this process is boiled down to a syrup consistency and can be used in cooking or baking.

In the end, we must all make our own decisions about what we feed our families. Be sure you are satisfied with your own research, rather than listening to the opinion of anyone else–even me!

Don’t see one of your favorite sugar substitutes? Let me know and I can address it in another post!


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

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  1. IthacaNancy says

    In general I’m avoiding sweeteners all together and eating a very low carb diet right now. But I have a history of living with a real sweet tooth. So I’ve taken little forays into alternative sweeteners. As someone with a bias toward whole foods, I’m not confident of the value of highly processed sweeteners. I’m curious what kind of results other people have with erythritol and oligosaccharides? I read great things about them – but when I ate a dessert made with them (combined into a commercial sweetener, Swerve – unfortunately a Monsanto product) I had some fortunately short lived uncomfortable bloating and bowel symptoms, similar to the symptoms people report after consuming maltitol. It might be an individual thing, or not even related to the use of the sweetener, or perhaps I over indulged and I would have tolerated a smaller amount of the erythritol. Their marketing information on the Swerve website was convincing, but . . . I don’t know. I’ve also tried a tiny amount of Munkfruit sweetener, but not enough to be able to report on success or not.

  2. Ade says

    Hi, what I do is to remove the stones from the dates; rinse them in water. The dates are then soaked in water in a covered container in the fridge for 24 hours. By then, they are soft and you could use the syrup like that.

    However, I get the most from the dates by putting everything in a blender and making into a paste. You can then use the paste as substitute for sugar adding in tea, oats etc.

    I make enough to last me for a few weeks. This I put in the freezer and bring out enough to last a week which is put in the fridge.

  3. Ade says

    Thank you for the write up….. I use dates which I process at home as substitute for sugar. What is your stake on this?

    • Dawn says

      I’d say I’m impressed. A homemade sweetener tops just about any other! I’ve never made date sugar before, but I would imagine it retains a fair amount of the original nutritional profile. I’d love the hear your method!

  4. Mary says

    Thanks for the great info Dawn and Leah!

    I use pretty much only stevia, due to blood sugar regulation problems (probably due to Lyme infection and perhaps stress), but I’m not always trusting of the processes used to make the white powder, does anyone know if there is a form that is ‘cleanly’ processed?


    • Dawn says

      Thanks Leah, I’m not actually really recommending coconut sugar, just discussing it. I’ve never used it and probably never will. It’s definitely important to discuss the sustainability of these substitutes, so thank you for sharing the article… in the case of coconut sugar, there really isn’t any benefit of it over organic cane sugar so in my logic I wouldn’t see the need to ship it from halfway around the world.

      • Leah says

        Agreed. With the ridiculous amounts of benefits and uses for coconut oil, I’d hate to see it become scarce due to something like a sugar sub!

    • Dawn says

      OH!!! Clearly an oversight on my part! I LOVE molasses and use it quite often, especially when the recipe calls for something rich, dark and complex. So good for you if it is raised properly, it’s worth getting it organic.

  5. Dee says

    What are your thoughts on Stevia drops? Like in coffee. Is this another scam or is it truly a natural from leaf sweeter?

    • Dawn says

      When they are made properly, they are a great alternative. I believe I just recently did a blog here at DIY on how to make your own… if I locate it I’ll add the link. Just be sure the ingredients on the one you buy is not filled with “extras”. Stevia is a good alternative to sugar and can be used without negative side effects.

  6. Julie says

    Here in Quebec, where I live, we are in maple country. Us locals call it liquid gold. It is used for everything, from baking to the coffee cup. Some of the local sugar shacks still use buckets and spigot and have to collect them by hand. Otherwise the trees are tapped and then a small tube is inserted which is connected to all the other trees all the way to the shack.

    We go through lots of maple syrup in my house. Between 3 and 4 gallons of it per year. Yes that would be over 24 cans of it. We cook, bake with it, use it as a condiment. A recipe needs some type of sweetening, I will use this whenever I can.

    The other sweetener we use a lot of is local raw honey. we have quite a nice selection of beekeepers around as I am mostly in the country (though it is close enough to Montreal to be a suburb).

    When sugar crystals are needed I use fair trade, organic cane sugar. It is now available in a big quantity at our Costco. YAY.