Are “Natural” Sweeteners Good For You?

The number of natural sweeteners on the market is ballooning, as companies try to appeal to health-conscious consumers with less processed alternatives. But are trendy products like coconut sugar and monk fruit any better for you than regular sugar?

“Sugar” and “high fructose corn syrup” are dirty words in the health world these days. With everyone looking for less processed options, companies are now selling out-of-the-box alternatives to regular white table sugar, like coconut sugar and crystallized honey. While these trendy new sweeteners are marketed as less refined options – giving them a healthier reputation with some consumers – they still have the same calorie load and general health effects as table sugar, which means portion control is always key.

All caloric sweeteners, including honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, agave, and coconut sugar, provide 15 to 20 calories and about 4 grams sugar of per teaspoon. With that in mind, my advice is to choose your favorite variety and limit the amount you add to coffee, tea, cereal, and other foods and beverages. And remember, just because something is “all natural” doesn’t mean you have an excuse to over eat it…unless it’s vegetables, of course!

Here are few new sweeteners to know about:

Coconut sugar is produced from the flower bud of the coconut tree and tastes similar to brown sugar, but with an added hint of caramel. Most coconut sugar is grown and harvested in Indonesia. Like other sweeteners, one teaspoon provides about 15 calories, along with small amounts of some naturally-occurring nutrients including magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, B vitamins, and amino acids. (Of course, if you’re wisely using only a few teaspoons a day, coconut sugar won’t be a significant source of these nutrients in your diet.) Coconut sugar also has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, making it a good alternative for people with diabetes. It can be used as a 1:1 replacement for table sugar in dessert recipes, as well as tea, coffee, oatmeal, smoothies, or anywhere you normally choose to add a touch of sweetness. You can also lightly sprinkle some on air-popped popcorn for a yummy caramel flavor. Coconut sugar is often found in the “natural section” at large supermarkets, and popular brands include Madhava, Big Tree Farms, and Navitas Naturals.

Nektar Honey Crystals delivers the familiar flavor of all-natural honey in a convenient, granulated form – which means no more sticky honey bears, bottles, and jars! This clever sweetener is sold as small, individual-use packets of dried honey pellets, created through a unique heating and crystallization process that combines liquid honey with standard cane sugar. The right-sized packets (12 calories each) help you automatically control portions – and they’re ideal for toting in a purse or stashing in a desk drawer. A few more sweet perks: this sweetener is slightly lower on the glycemic scale than regular sugar and provides some of the electrolytes and antioxidants found in small amounts in honey. These honey crystals are ideal for mixing into hot or iced tea and lemonade, or sprinkling on top of oatmeal or plain yogurt. You can also mix them into marinades and dry rubs for lean proteins like chicken, pork tenderloin, and fish for a hint of sweetness.

Next, we’ll move away from calorie-containing sweeteners and look at a relatively new non-caloric sugar substitute. Like stevia, monk fruit powder is promoted as a natural alternative to zero-calorie artificial sweeteners. This sweetener is a powdered, intensely sweet concentrate made from monk fruit, a relative of the cucumber grown predominately in Southern China (Guangxi Province). Monk fruit extract is approximately 150 times sweeter than sugar, which means you can use a tiny amount to sweeten foods and drinks, making it essentially calorie-free and sugar-free. Monk fruit is sold as a fine, white powder, and many people report that it has a cleaner flavor with less of an aftertaste than other sugar alternatives. Mainstream companies often mix monk fruit with other non-caloric sweeteners or fillers to add bulk. Use it to sweeten coffee, tea, plain yogurt, or your favorite smoothie without adding any extra calories.


Looking for low-sugar snack ideas? Give these a try!