The Skinny on Sweeteners and Sugar Substitutes

Anyone who has ever wanted to reduce their sugar intake has considered a sugar substitute. But guess what? Not all alternative sweeteners are created equal.  

Do you truly know what you’re sweetening your tea with or drizzling over that yogurt? Let’s explore some of the common alternative sweeteners found on the shelves today and discuss some of their advantages and disadvantages.  


Alternative Sweetener #1: Agave Nectar

Agave is seen as a healthy alternative sweetener. A succulent plant that grows in the southwestern U.S. and South America, it has been used to make tequila and now agave nectar. 

However, this nectar is processed in much the same way as high fructose corn syrup. And while agave is low on the glycemic index scale, which curbs blood sugar spikes and seems perfect for diabetics, it’s also high in fructose. And fructose can only be processed by our liver. And when you consume more fructose than the liver can handle, it’s turned to fat. Essentially, fructose can disrupt your liver’s metabolism. 


Alternative Sweetener #2: Monk Fruit

Known as luo han guo for centuries in China, monk fruit was once used to subdue coughs and soothe sore throats. It was also used as a sweetener. Yes, the newly trending monk fruit isn’t that new!   

And thanks to glycosides, monk fruit extract is 200 times sweeter than sugar and has zero calories. While more research is needed, FDA labels monk fruit as GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe)


Alternative Sweetener #3: Stevia

This alternative sweetener is more known as an artificial sweetener. Stevia is also recognized as GRAS by the FDA. Derived from the stevia plant leaves, Stevia has no calories, which is great! 

Some do not care for the licorice-like bitter aftertaste. But it goes beyond that. It can interact with blood pressure medications and even become the cause of hypotension and hypoglycemia.   

While it also does not raise blood sugar, which seems like good news for diabetics, it’s important to know Stevia can develop hypotension and hypoglycemia within diabetics who take diabetic medication or blood pressure medication. 

Some side effects have been known to occur in some people, including bloating and nausea. 


Alternative Sweetener #4: Brown Rice Syrup

While you may think you’ve never tried this sweetener, you most likely have. It’s commonly found as a high fructose corn syrup replacement in health foods that are gluten free or vegan.

Brown rice syrup is what you get when you cook whole grain rice and take the enzymes to transform the starch to sugars, ultimately straining the liquid and then boiling it down.    

These sugars are made up of 3% glucose (which seems good, but wait!), 45% maltose, and 52% maltotriose. But what are maltose and maltotriose? Well, they’re simply still glucose, just linked molecules. 

Brown rice syrup is highly processed, which can lead to weight gain. Additionally, it has been found with trace amounts of arsenic. While it’s still considered safe by the FDA, this might still be a cause for concern. 

Because brown rice syrup catches a quick ride through our bloodstream, it’s tricky for people with diabetes and those who need to regularly monitor their blood sugar.

It allows your body to absorb more slowly, offering a more sustained energy level throughout the day. It also includes added sodium and potassium (but that is all!) Not much else going in the nutrient department. Although this alternative sweetener is fructose-free, there are better options to maintain blood sugar levels. 


Alternative Sweetener #5: Raw Unfiltered Honey

Honey has many health benefits and is considered a superfood due to all of its antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, as well as amino acids, enzymes, and phytonutrients. It assists our digestion and even settles a sour stomach. Some people ingest local honey with their teas and meals to combat seasonal allergies. 

However, raw and unfiltered honey is the way to go to get these full benefits and here is why. Processed and pasteurized honey loses its antibacterial and antiseptic abilities, as well as eliminates those useful enzymes and antioxidant properties. 

Quite comparable to sugar in terms of calories, glucose, and fructose, honey does have some nutritional advantages: Vitamins B and C, Iron and Magnesium, Calcium, Phosphorous, Potassium, and Zinc.

So instead of reaching for that golden honey jar, reach for the crystallized, solidified stuff with a milkiness. (i.e., Not the plastic teddy bear.) 


Alternative Sweetener #6: Maple Syrup

Pancakes, anyone? Straight from the maple tree comes this tasty treat. (Not to be confused with the “maple-flavored” that has refined sugar and corn syrup.) 

Maple syrup comes in different grades. Grade A has Light Amber, Medium Amber, and Dark Amber. Grade B is the darkest it comes, extracted later during harvest. 

However, it’s the darker maple that contains the most antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals and lessen the chances of disease. 

However, while maple offers plenty of antioxidants and minerals (like manganese and zinc), making it an all-around better than sugar, it still has sugar! 



At the end of the day, all sugar should be consumed in moderation. Just because an alternative sweetener contains a trace amount of minerals or vitamins doesn’t grant the excuse to pour it over everything. Just find one that suits your tastes. 

In fact, your sugar intake comes from many other things you consume throughout the day, and, ultimately, the choice you make in an alternative sweetener is a minor one. Instead, changing your overall nutrition is the bigger goal. For comprehensive nutrition counseling, reach out to Naturna. 

Manhattan Acupuncture and New York City Fertility Center