Are Alternative Sugars Better for You?

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This spring, I’m hosting my very first Dietetic Intern. It’s been awesome to be able to show her what a media Dietitian does and introduce her to the fun world of blogging, pitching and Canva. I’ve been wanting to write about this topic for a while, so she dug through the info and put together this extremely informative blog post. Here’s a little bit more about her:

Yinglu is working toward her Master’s in Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she is currently a Dietetic Intern. Yinglu volunteers as Nutritionist for the City Harvest Cooking Matter Projects in New York. She also serves as a writer for Dabai Nutrition Blog on WeChat, the largest social media platform in China.

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The facts about alternative sugars. Learn about coconut sugar, date sugar, brown rice syrup and stevia.
By Yinglu Peng, M.S. Candidate and Dietetic Intern

It’s not secret that eating excessive amounts of sugar will likely lead to health problems. No matter what type of health professional you talk to, they will most likely tell you to cut down on sugar. Obviously, that is easier said than done. Not only does sugar taste great, but it also makes you feel good. With these negative health implications in mind, many food companies are promoting “alternative sugars” as healthier versions of table sugar. Fantastic news, but is it true? Let’s take a closer look at sugar and its alternatives.

White Sugar, also known as table sugar, contains 16 calories per teaspoon. It provides energy but no nutritional benefits. This type of sugar is called “added” because it does not naturally occur in foods. The American Heart Association suggests women should consume no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams) of added sugar and men no more than 9 teaspoons (37.5 grams).

[bctt tweet=”Get the facts about alternative #sugars and if they are better for you than table sugar! ” username=”nutritionalanat”]

Coconut sugar is growing rapidly in popularity. Unlike table sugar, coconut sugar contains several nutrients, like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. It also includes a fiber called inulin, which may reduce the rate at which you absorb sugar and might be a better choice for people with diabetes. The taste of coconut sugar is similar to brown sugar, and it provides as many calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar–about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon. Coconut sugar is still sugar, and people should treat it as such.

Agave nectar is marketed as a natural product from the agave cactus plant. It contains 20 calories per teaspoon, and it’s sweeter than table sugar. Many agave lovers suggest that you can use less agave than sugar to achieve similar sweetness. However, it contains more fructose than table sugar. Excessive intake of fructose can screw up your appetite sensor and lead you to overeat. Thus, it’s important to be mindful about the amount of fructose you ingest.

Date Sugar looks similar to brown sugar but it is not really sugar. It’s actually simple granulated dried dates. Since the entire fruits is used to make date sugar, it is a whole food sweetener packed with dietary fiber and nutrients. Since this sugar comes from dates, it contains iron, calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin B3 and B6, and it’s rich in antioxidants. Date sugar is still rich in calories and can cause surges in blood sugar, so eat it in moderation.

Aspartame, also known as Equal or NutraSweet, is one of the most studied artificial sweeteners. It contains 0 calories, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar and is widely used in diet soda. According to Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), three key studies showed aspartame could cause leukemia, kidney and other cancers in rats and mice. Yet, the results are not totally conclusive, and, other studies have proven aspartame to be safe. The jury is still out on aspartame, but the FDA says it’s perfectly safe to drink and sell.

Brown Rice Syrup is a sweetener derived from brown rice by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that breakdown the starches. This liquid is then boiled down into syrup. Do not fooled by the name of this sugar. Although it’s made from brown rice, by the time it reaches your digestive tract, it is no different than table sugar. Also, brown rice syrup is less sweet than table sugar, so you may need to use more to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Stevia leaf extract, also known as Truvia or PureVia, contains 0 calories and is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is actually a plant that is naturally grown in Brazil and Paraguay. The local people have been using it for hundreds of years to sweeten their food or as medicine for stomach discomfort. At the time, it’s considered safe, but there is limited scientific evidence on this natural sweetener.

Sugar alcohols (erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, etc.) are less sweet and caloric than sugar and often used in sugar-free foods marketed to people with Diabetes. Eating large amounts of sugar alcohols has been shown to cause bloating and diarrhea. Most people don’t consume enough to cause any issues, so it is safe for most people.

The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. No matter how it’s marketed, you should be cautious about the amount you put into your body.



  1. https://cspinet.org/new/201312311.html
  2. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/making-healthy-food-choices/coconut-palm-sugar.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
  3. http://naturalsociety.com/surprising-health-benefits-dates/
  4. http://www.healwithfood.org/substitute/is-date-sugar-healthy.php
  5. https://authoritynutrition.com/brown-rice-syrup-good-or-bad/
  6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/16/stevia-what-is-it_n_5983772.html





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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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