Regardless of whether you prefer sweet or savory, the average American consumes far too much sugar. According to the American Heart Association, U.S. adults consume 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day — more than 2-3 times the recommended amount. Over the span of a year, this adds up to 60 pounds of consumed sugar per individual — an alarming statistic! And the thing is, refined sugars aren’t the same as the natural sugars found in fruits and veggies. Meaning, the added sugar consumed by Americans contributes to calories, but it does not provide any essential nutrients.
Not only does this excess sugar consumption contribute to weight gain and obesity, but it also increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, kidney, and liver disease, elevated cortisol and inflammation, high cholesterol and triglycerides… the list goes on. However, there’s good news — not all sugars are created equal! In fact, there are healthy sweeteners out there that not only satisfy your sweet cravings, but also provide a wide range of health benefits. So, rather than restrict yourself and cut out sugar completely, we’re helping you take a more sustainable approach by sharing the healthiest sweetener alternatives to added and refined sugar.
What’s Refined Sugar?
First, what’s the difference between refined and natural sweeteners? Refined sugar is a highly processed form of sugar that’s often derived from sugarcane, sugarbeets, or corn. These types of sugars lack nutrients and are often added to processed foods to enhance the flavor. Furthermore, these refined sugars are rapidly absorbed by the body leading to abrupt spikes in blood sugar and other adverse health effects.
Natural sugar, on the other hand, is naturally found in foods such as fruit, dairy, grains, and even veggies and plants. Unlike refined sugars, natural sugars remain in their whole food form and contain essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, making them a much healthier alternative.
Why Limit Refined Sugar
According to new 2023 research based on data from 73 various meta-analyses and 8601 unique studies, one thing is for certain: refined sugar intake is harmful to our health. This comprehensive study found evidence linking refined sugar to 45 different adverse health effects, including obesity, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and other metabolic disturbances.
And though the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines have not yet changed the recommendations for daily added sugar intake, (which currently advises individuals to limit added sugar to less than 10% of daily caloric intake), there is a big push for modification. Government and health officials, including the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the USDA, are in agreement that the recommendation for daily added sugars should be lowered to 6% of daily calorie intake, or less.
However, although no changes have been made, we can take our health into our own hands by limiting our intake of refined sugar and remaining conscious consumers. This includes practices such as reading ingredient labels, opting for nutrient-dense whole foods, and making healthy sugar swaps!
9 Healthy Sweeteners to Replace Refined Sugar
#1 Medjool Dates
Medjool dates are nature’s candy. While juicy and decadent, these fruits are a natural and nutrient-rich sweetener source that provide a variety of nutritional benefits. They’re packed with fiber, rich in minerals like potassium and magnesium, and a good source of vitamin B6. Because dates are rich in fiber, their sugar is more slowly absorbed by the body preventing rapid spikes in blood sugar. Dates also contain antioxidants, such as flavonoids and carotenoids, as well as powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
How To Use Medjool Dates:
- Use them in place of refined sugar in baked goods recipes such as brownies and muffins
- Add them to energy bites or protein balls as a fiber-rich sweetener
- Blend them with oats, nuts, and seeds to make homemade protein bars
- Add a few to homemade nut milk as a natural sweetener
- Blend it into recipes such as overnight oats, chia pudding, or smoothies
#2 Raw Honey
Rich in enzymes and antioxidants, and full of anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-viral properties, raw honey is one of the healthiest natural sweeteners. It’s been shown to benefit skin health, reduce the severity of colds and flus, and even support gut health thanks to its prebiotic properties.
How To Use Raw Honey:
- Stir 1-2 teaspoons into warm tea or lemon water
- Blend it into your iced or hot latte or coffee in place of refined sugar
- Drizzle it on top of oat, yogurt, or smoothie bowls
- Use it as a substitute for refined sugar when baking, such as in cookies or muffins
- Add it to sauces and marinades as an all-natural sweetener
#3 Pure Maple Syrup
Derived from the sap of maple trees, pure maple syrup is a natural sweetener that is equally nutritious and delicious. It contains 67 polyphenol antioxidants, minerals like zinc, magnesium, copper, calcium, and manganese, and thanks to its natural inulin, it acts as a prebiotic benefiting gut health. According to research, this may help reduce inflammation. It has even been shown to reduce cholesterol, proving it to be better than refined sugars for cardiometabolic health.
How To Use Maple Syrup:
- Drizzle it over homemade pancakes, waffles, or warm oatmeal bowls
- Use it as a sweetener for baked foods like muffins, cookies, or cake
- Combine it with soy sauce and spices as a glaze or sauce for seafood, poultry, or veggies
- Drizzle it over roasted veggies like Brussels sprouts or sweet potatoes
#4 Ripe Banana
If you have spotty or nearly spoiled bananas lying around, don’t throw them away! Ripe mashed bananas serve as the perfect healthy sweetener for so many dishes and recipes. Aside from being an all-natural source of sugar, they are proportionally low in calories and sugar compared to refined table sugar. Comparing the two, one cup of bananas contains 200 calories and 27 grams of sugar, plus they’re rich in potassium, fiber, vitamin B6, and vitamin C. Refined sugar, on the other hand, contains 775 calories per cup, 200 grams of sugar, and no other nutrients. The data speaks for itself!
How To Use Ripe Bananas:
- Use it as the base for healthy banana nice cream
- Make a naturally-sweetened banana bread
- Combine it with oats and eggs for healthy banana pancakes
- Blend it into smoothies, overnight oats, or chia pudding
#5 Unsweetened Applesauce
Not only is unsweetened canned applesauce a budget-friendly, shelf-stable healthy sweetener, but it’s also a great sugar substitute in recipes and full of vitamins and minerals. Rich in pectin, apples are a great prebiotic source that have been shown to reduce inflammation, improve the gut-brain barrier, and aid weight loss. Applesauce also contains antioxidants and provides just 100 calories and 10% of your daily fiber needs per cup.
How To Use Apple Sauce:
- Use it as a replacement for sugar, oil, or butter in baked goods recipes
- Mix it with cinnamon and vanilla extract and enjoy it plain as a snack
- Add it to yogurt parfaits with fresh berries
- Make your own baby food with pureed fruits and veggies
- Stir it into your warm or cold oat bowl
- Add it to pancake batter as a natural sweetener
As some of the most antioxidant-rich foods available, raw berries, including strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries, are delicious healthy sweeteners that serve as a much preferred alternative to refined sugar. In their whole food form (whether fresh or frozen), berries are deliciously sweet and satisfying — especially if they’re in season! Compared to other sweeteners, they are very low in sugar and calories, plus they’re a great source of fiber, minerals, and various phytonutrients. In fact, new 2023 research shows just 1 cup of strawberries could reduce blood pressure, improve antioxidant capacity, and boost cognitive health. Not to mention, the numerous other studies linking berry consumption to reduced inflammation, improved gut health and mental health, enhanced immune function, and more. It’s safe to say, they are one of the healthiest foods, never mind the healthiest sweeteners!
How To Use Berries:
- Use them in smoothies in place of high-sugar fruits
- Heat mashed berries with chia seeds to make a healthy homemade jam
- Stir them into yogurt bowls or yogurt parfaits
- Mix them with Greek yogurt and nut butter and freeze it into healthy yogurt bark
- Use them as toppings for salads, smoothies, chia pudding, or overnight oats
#7 Coconut Sugar
Out of the natural sugar sources, coconut sugar is most similar in taste and texture to table sugar. It’s derived from the sap of coconut palm trees and is rich in antioxidants and minerals like potassium, iron, and zinc. It also contains small amounts of inulin, a type of soluble prebiotic fiber that supports gut health.
How To Use Coconut Sugar:
- Use it as a 1:1 replacement for refined sugar in recipes
- Sprinkle a teaspoon into your coffee or latte
- Combine it with oats and coconut oil to make a healthy crumble for baked oats or desserts
- Mix it with oats, nuts, and freeze-dried fruits for homemade granola
While there are mixed opinions on stevia as a healthy sugar alternative, it’s important to note that not all stevia products are created equal. The problem with stevia is that many mainstream stevia products are mixed with erythritol, an artificial sweetener linked to various cardiovascular risks. Plus, the version you see at the store is typically a processed extract of Stevia (Reb-A), which is different from pure green leaf stevia (its natural form). This is what makes stevia extract 200 to 400 times sweeter than sugar!
However, if you’re shopping mindfully and reading the ingredient label, pure stevia is certainly a better alternative to refined sugar, including artificial sugars that have been processed. Not to mention, it contains zero calories and no sugar. That said, it’s important to listen to your body and tune in to how you feel when consuming it!
How To Use Stevia:
- Add it to warm or cold beverages as a healthy sweetener
- Blend it into protein shakes or smoothies for sweetness without the added sugar
- Use it to sweeten salad dressings, sauces, or marinades
- Mix it into cottage cheese bowls or yogurt parfaits with fresh fruit
#9 Blackstrap Molasses
A lesser utilized sweetener, blackstrap molasses, deserves superfood recognition! It’s a great source of various minerals, such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. This is a great option for plant-based eaters and those who are anemic or iron deficient. Plus, compared to other sweeteners, blackstrap molasses has a lower sugar content, with 10 grams per tablespoon.
How To Use Molasses:
- Use it for rich, pungent flavor in desserts like gingerbread or molasses cookies
- Make a homemade gingerbread latte with almond milk, spices, and espresso
- Stir it into your warm or cold oat bowl
- Use it as a natural sweetener in smoky marinades or BBQ sauce
Satisfy Sugar Cravings The Natural Way
The negative effects of refined sugar are clear. Yet, the amount of added sugar consumed by the average American is far too much. However, rather than restrict yourself and cut out all sugar completely, (which can often backfire), opt for a natural source! Based on science and research, these healthy sugar alternatives are far superior to added sugars. Not only do they provide a wide variety of nutrients, but they also benefit our health. However, sugar is still sugar! Meaning, even healthy sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. But, so long as you’re staying mindful, these natural sugar sources can be a delicious addition to a balanced and healthy diet.