Sugar: It’s a term of endearment, a marker of celebration, a hard-wired reward. Over the course of a few generations, however, sugar has slinked from the sidelines of our diet to become something of a thrice-daily indulgence—proudly on display in artisanal doughnuts, sprinkled into coffee, and slipped unnoticed into condiments and salad dressings. “Just 100 years ago we ate less than two pounds a year,” author Sarah Wilson writes in The I Quit Sugar Cookbook, published last month. “Now we eat 132 pounds a year of added sugar. Dis-as-ter.” As for the effects of that runaway sweet tooth, experts point to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, not to mention an expanded waistline; gut health and skin quality can be compromised as well.
Which is why there has been a collective call to minimize sugar intake, from the government (which recently revised its dietary guidelines accordingly) to nutritionists and health-minded bakers. Here, a handful of experts—Marissa Lippert, M.S., R.D., a registered dietitian who runs the café Nourish Kitchen + Table in New York; Erin McKenna, whose namesake bakeries rethink classic sweets; and the wellness company Aloha’s resident nutritionist, Jillian Tuchman, M.S., R.D.—discuss eight popular alternative sweeteners.
As for the effects of [sugar] experts point to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, not to mention an expanded waistline; gut health and skin quality
Though these natural substitutes are better than processed sugar—they contain more nutrients, and some even have fiber to slow absorption—the group still unanimously advises a less-is-more approach. “You can make anything the enemy when you have too much of it,” says Lippert, who advocates retraining the palate to expect less sweetness from food. One upside to that approach? Newfound appreciation for that first sun-ripened peach of summer.
This cactus-derived sweetener “in theory is better for diabetics,” says Lippert, referring to its lower glycemic impact, though she advises using a light hand. “We use agave occasionally when roasting certain vegetables like carrots because it helps bring out their own natural sweetness,” she explains. McKenna regularly incorporates it into her baked goods, noting that “it doesn’t spike your blood sugar the way that regular sugar does, and it doesn’t have an aftertaste.” But Tuchman sounds a note of caution, citing the often high levels of processing used to produce agave, in which case it can “more closely resemble high-fructose corn syrup.”
Brown rice syrup
In The I Quit Sugar Cookbook, this natural sweetener frequently pops up in Wilson’s recipes. “It is relatively slow-releasing, so [it] does not dump on the liver as much as pure glucose,” she writes. Still, Lippert points out, it’s often a primary component of so-called “healthy” protein bars—“That means sugar is the first ingredient,” she says, suggesting close label-reading.
Made from the flower sap of the coconut palm, this sweetener is touted as being lower on the glycemic index and therefore less likely to cause blood-sugar spikes. Tuchman singles it out as one of her favorite alternatives. “There are nutrients in there, namely zinc and iron, and also something called inulin, a special type of dietary fiber that acts as a prebiotic,” she explains of the digestion booster, which sweetens the protein-packed Superfood Banana Donuts that McKenna developed for Aloha. Over at Nourish, the raw date-walnut energy balls are rolled in coconut sugar for a light crunch with a “caramel-y note,” says Lippert; she also suggests trying it in Asian-style marinades.
As far as unprocessed sweeteners go, the date has a singular appeal. “To me, it’s sultry, it’s rich, it’s delicious,” says Lippert, explaining that “the fruit itself obviously is going to have more fiber content, which helps slow down digestion.” That said, a little goes a long way. “One date is 60 calories,” she points out, “so it’s very highly concentrated in sweetness and sugar.” She incorporates it into smoothies, as well as retooled standards like sticky toffee date cake.