Your Ultimate Guide to Sugar Substitutes
- Learn the pros and cons of various sugar substitutes, including xylitol, D-ribose, erythritol, stevia, maple syrup, aspartame and more.
- Not all natural sweeteners are as healthy as they seem, like agave and brown sugar.
- Choose healthy sweeteners that are compatible with your health goals.
Sugar tastes sweet, but its effects on your body are anything but. Excessive and prolonged sugar intake may lead to weight gain, heart issues, mood imbalances and other health concerns.
You can reduce sugar’s adverse effects on your health by using sugar substitutes and cutting back on added sugars in your diet. (Added sugars are those that don’t naturally occur in food.) And, if you stick to a high-fat, low-carb plan like the Bulletproof diet, you can have sustained energy all day.
But lowering your sugar intake is easier said than done. If sugar is already a big part of your diet, it can be difficult to wean yourself off because it can be addictive. Plus, certain foods can affect your emotions. Eating a cookie at the end of the day may be your definition of comfort food.
Cutting out sugar doesn’t have to mean cutting out sweets. Many sugar alternatives can sweeten your life without sacrificing your health. Remember, not all sugar alternatives are equal. We’ve ranked sweeteners into what we believe are the best, second-best and third-choice options.
Here’s our guide to the benefits and drawbacks of the most common artificial, natural and healthy sweeteners and sugar alcohols:
Top-Choice Sugar Substitutes
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used as an alternative to regular sugar. It is minimally metabolized and most of it passes into the colon where it can be fermented by gut bacteria.
Xylitol doesn’t spike insulin and barely affects blood sugar. It also inhibits bacteria that cause plaque and tooth decay, whereas most sugars feed those bacteria. It tastes like and behaves almost identically to sugar, too.
If you’re prone to digestive discomfort, though, even a small amount may cause indigestion. Consuming more than 50g at one time might also cause digestive issues.
For most people, though, xylitol is an excellent sweetener. You can substitute it for sugar in a 1:1 ratio in your recipes. Choose xylitol derived from hardwood, not GMO corn. And never give xylitol to your dog. Dogs can’t digest it, which means even a small amount can be fatal for them.
Ribose is also known as D-ribose. It’s an essential body sugar that helps build ATP, DNA and RNA. (These are cellular building blocks that influence energy and transfer information in the body.) Ribose is naturally found in small amounts in sugar, and you can also use it as a granulated sweetener. It mimics the taste of plain table sugar but doesn’t spike your blood sugar or take you out of ketosis.
Erythritol is like xylitol. It doesn’t impact blood sugar or insulin8 and plaque-forming dental bacteria can’t use it as fuel. Erythritol is easier to digest than xylitol because it’s absorbed in the bloodstream, not gut. It’s not quite as sweet as sugar, so use a little extra if you substitute it for recipes. It bakes well and dissolves readily into liquids.
Researchers are still investigating the health effects of consuming too much erythritol. If you choose to use it as a sugar substitute, limit your intake.
Stevia is a sweet extract of the Stevia rebaudiana leaf native to Brazil and Paraguay. Its sweetness comes from two compounds called glycosides: rebaudioside (often called Reb-A on nutrition labels) and stevioside.
Stevia is about 250-300 times sweeter than sugar. It won’t impact blood glucose or insulin and isn’t fermentable by dental bacteria. It doesn’t taste as much like sugar as xylitol and erythritol and you may find it has a bitter aftertaste. Stevia can be a good option if you don’t mind its unique flavor.
Monk Fruit Extract (Luo Han Guo)
Monk fruit extract is a popular sugar substitute in China and Thailand, where it’s also considered traditional medicine. According to legend, monk fruit gets its name because Chinese monks used to be the main ones who grew the plants. Besides being 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar, mogrosides show promising health benefits in animal studies.
Sorbitol, Maltitol and Other Sugar Alcohols
Xylitol and erythritol are the best of the sugar alcohols. The rest—sorbitol, maltitol and mannitol – are cheaper to produce. They won’t affect blood sugar, but they’re much more likely to cause bloating and gas in smaller doses. If you’re not prone to digestive issues, you’ll likely be able to tolerate a few grams a day without problem.
Honey is a natural sweetener that is a mix of fructose and glucose. Raw, unrefined honey has vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other bioactive compounds that seem to buffer the effects of sugar. Normal sugar spikes your blood triglycerides and causes inflammation. Honey does the opposite. It’s relatively easy on your insulin, especially compared to any other sugar source.
Choose darker honey, which is usually higher in bioactive compounds. And always go with raw honey, since processing destroys some of its beneficial properties.
Second-Choice Sugar Substitutes
Non-GMO Dextrose or Glucose
Dextrose and glucose are simple, refined sugars that don’t have any nutrients. In small amounts, they can give your brain and muscles a quick energy spike. After working out, they can help you feel energized after a short period of recuperation.
But they can also increase blood sugar levels, lead to weight gain and contribute to other health-related concerns.
Maple syrup contains minerals, organic acids, amino acids, phytohormones and vitamins which enhance its nutritional value. But, like other sugars, too much of it will spike your insulin and can contribute to health concerns.
If you include maple syrup as a natural sweetener in your diet, make sure it’s 100% pure to get the most out of its potential benefits. Avoid artificial maple syrup. It’s made with high-fructose corn syrup and artificial maple flavoring.
Coconut sugar is mostly sucrose, with a little bit of fructose and glucose. It also contains added potassium, iron, B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.
Though it might seem like an upgraded version of table sugar, the calorie content is similar. This offsets the potential health benefits of its nutritional content.
White Sugar (Sucrose)
This is table sugar, also known as sucrose. It breaks down into equal parts glucose and fructose. Like glucose, white sugar may contribute to tooth decay, obesity, cravings, inflammation, aging, insulin resistance and other health-related issues. If you choose to eat it, do so in small amounts.
Today, brown sugar is most often produced by adding molasses to white sugar. It might look healthier than white sugar because of its color, but it’s almost the same. Eat it sparingly.
Third-Choice Sugar Substitutes
Marketers tout agave as a healthy sweetener because it has a low glycemic index, but it’s higher in calories than white sugar. It’s 70-90% fructose, which doesn’t spike insulin as quickly as glucose because the body doesn’t immediately recognize fructose as sugar.
There aren’t enough scientific studies on the long-term effects of ingesting high amounts of fructose. For this reason, don’t consider agave healthier than other forms of sugar.
Cooking honey destroys most of the beneficial compounds it contains in its raw form.
The increased consumption of fructose contributes to many health-related concerns today. Unlike glucose, which cells throughout the body use, fructose is primarily metabolized in the liver.
Fruit juice concentrate
Fruit juice concentrate derives from fruit. That might seem like a healthy sweetener, but processing alters its natural composition. A high concentration of natural sugars means higher sugar content per volume. This, in turn, could lead to excessive intake when used as a sweetener.
This sugar substitute is made from fruit that’s not shelf-stable. As such, it may contain mold and mold toxins.
High-fructose corn syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is cheaper and sweeter than sugar and it’s used in many processed foods. Well-documented health risks include obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and other concerns. Plus, it increases appetite, which could make you more susceptible to overeating.
Aspartame is a hotly debated topic in the scientific community. Some say this artificial sweetener increases the likelihood of developing serious health-related concerns. Others say it’s completely safe. It also has a chemical aftertaste that can be unpleasant for some people.
Given the uncertainty around aspartame’s safety and the high number of sweetener alternatives, there’s no good reason to use aspartame.
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener. It has raised significant health concerns about gut health and increased oxidative stress in the body. It also has a chemical taste some find unpleasant.
Until there’s more scientific evidence on the long-term effects of sucralose, avoid it if you can.
Ace-K is a popular sweetener in diet soda. There isn’t much quality research on it in humans and the number of anecdotal complaints about Ace-K causing health issues has led to demands for more research. Again, why risk it? Stick with xylitol, erythritol, monk fruit extract or stevia.
Sugar isn’t a big part of the Bulletproof diet, but it’s almost inevitable that you’ll eat it once in a while. When you do, use our recommended sugar substitutes and enjoy in moderation.
For easy reference, download a portable version of this list or your complete guide to the Bulletproof diet.
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