Stuck on sweets? You're not alone. Sugar is one of the more addictive foods we eat and it's seemingly in EVERYTHING! The good news: there is no need to cut sweetness out of your life! Just choose whole foods as your healthy sugar alternatives. And even better news: we tried and analyzed all of them so you don't have to.
Before We Begin: Indulge Your Sweet Tooth, the Healthy Way
Curb your sugar cravings, without sacrificing your health. How? Kickstart your day with MamaSezz High Protein Breakfast Bar. It's basically a brownie for breakfast! Naturally sweetened with dates and high in fiber, iron and protein to keep you fueled all morning long.
On this page
There is a difference!
Refined sugar typically comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. Wait a minute...that sounds pretty darn plant-based doesn’t it? Well, not so fast.
To make these refined sugars, everything goes through an extraction and purification process, and the fiber and nutrients of the sugar cane or sugar beet are lost. Fiber stabilizes blood glucose levels by slowing the rate of absorption of that sugar into your bloodstream.
This lack of fiber is why your energy spikes and dips when you drink a soda but not so much when you eat a whole food source of sugar, like a banana (which has 14 grams of natural sugar, by the way!). The fiber in the banana regulates the way your body processes that sugar and lets you use the energy in a more sustainable way. Not to mention bananas, and other whole foods, are packed with nutrients to help fuel your body and reduce your risk for many of the serious chronic diseases that refined sugar can bring on.
Why would refined sugar cause disease?
Refined sugar is very inflammatory and chronic inflammation ups your risk of developing health issues, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers like breast, prostate, uterine, colorectal and pancreatic. Plus, refined sugars are physically addictive as heck!
Can’t shake sugar? Learn how to overcome your refined sugar addiction here.
We weren't kidding when we say sugar's hiding in almost everything! But once you learn how to properly read a nutrition label, you'll be able to spot the refined sugars hiding in common grocery staples.
When reading a nutrition label don’t be fooled by focusing your attention on the grams of sugar vs. the ingredients list. A banana, for instance, has 14g of sugar, so if we are basing “healthy” vs. “not healthy” foods on how many grams of sugar they contain, we would be missing the mark. Instead, check out that ingredients list for added sugar.
The food industry has more than one name for sugar. Actually, there are quite a lot of names for refined sweeteners and they can be hard to spot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
But don't stress! We're here to help you decode that nutrition label.
21 Common Words for “Refined Sugar” Hiding on your Food Labels
Sugar in the raw
Evaporated cane juice
High-fructose corn syrup
Fruit juice concentrates
Pro tip: Remember that nutrition labels list ingredients in order of quantity, from highest to lowest so if any type of sugar is in the first 3-5 ingredients you may want to place that product back on the shelf.
The Best Whole Food Healthy Sugar Alternatives
OK, so what healthy options are there to sweeten your food? We're glad you asked! We tried them all so you don't have to! Here's our assessment for which plant-based healthy sugar substitutes are best from both a taste and health perspective.
1. Whole Dates
Dates are by far the best whole-food sweetener to use in place of sugar. Dates are super sweet, mild in flavor, and absolutely loaded to the brim with nutrients that lead to incredible health benefits.
One of the reasons dates are so popular is because they're so wonderfully sweet; they're about about 80% sugar!,
But are dates healthy, even with all that sugar? Yes!
Dates are more than just a sweet natural treat. They pack quite a nutritional punch, alongside that natural sugar. They're high in fiber, gut and heart healthy, loaded with nutrients like potassium, magnesium, copper, and manganese. They're also high in antioxidants!
2. Date Sugar
Our second choice is date sugar! Yep, dates again. But date sugar is a little different from dates in its whole form. Date sugar is a fantastic way to get all of the nutrients from dates in a more familiar granulated sugar-like form.
Date sugar is simply dehydrated dates that has been ground into a powder. That’s right, the WHOLE date, making this sweetener a fantastic whole food plant based sugar alternative.
3. Date Syrup
Seeing a theme here?
Date syrup is a great natural plant-based sugar alternative when a recipe calls for a liquid sweetener.
But know this: not all date syrups are created equal. Most store-bought date syrups are not made from the whole date, and are stripped of their natural fiber.
The good news is, it's really easy to make your own healthy date syrup at home.
How to Make Date Syrup
Soak dates in warm water until soft, and then blend in a high speed blender with enough water to cover until smooth.
And there endless ways to use date syrup, for instance: baked goods, coffee, smoothies, or dessert.
Remember those 14 grams of sugar in your banana? Put those natural sugars to work!
Take a fork and mash one up, and add it to your dessert for natural sweetness.
Mashed banana also acts as an egg replacer, making it the perfect whole food plant-based sugar substitute for baked goods and pancakes.
If you’re making smoothies add frozen bananas (peel, chop, then freeze) to the mix, and if you’re looking for super simple ice cream, just blend frozen bananas until smooth.
5. Apple Sauce (With No Added Sweeteners)
Like mashed bananas, apple sauce also acts as a binder or egg replacer, so it's perfect for baked goods. Just make sure if you’re buying pre-made apple sauce that it has no refined sugar. Making it yourself? Keep the skins on for added fiber!
While these sweeteners are refined and do not contain fiber, they are better for you than traditional white sugar because they contain other beneficial nutrients. If you’re less concerned about sticking 100% to a whole foods diet, these make great natural sweeteners (in moderation):
- Maple Syrup
- Store-bought Date syrup
- Coconut Sugar
- Blackstrap molasses
If you go this route: make sure to up your fiber intake by adding some ground up flax seed (which can be used as an egg substitute when mixed with water), fruits, or whole grains (not refined grains or flour) to the mix.
- Use whole foods to sweeten your recipes whenever possible.
- Dates, bananas, applesauce are the best whole food healthy sugar alternatives to use from a health perspective
- If you’re looking for a plant-based sugar option that's healthier than traditional white sugar, but isn’t quite “whole food,” you can consider maple syrup, commercially-prepared date syrup, agave, coconut sugar, coconut sugar, and blackstrap molasses.
Caroline is a plant-based chef, recipe designer, and whole food plant-based nutrition educator, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.