Which Sweetener is right for you?
I was shopping in my local grocery store this weekend and turned down the baking aisle to admire Swerve and take a look at some of the other sweeteners offered there. Now, I’ve been down this aisle many times, but on this occasion, I was astonished and admittedly a little overwhelmed at the sheer number of options for sweeteners - not just brands, but also types (from sugar to stevia to monk fruit to erythritol, and everything in between), and forms (powders, drops, syrups). And, even though we know natural is better than artificial, there are still SO MANY natural choices! As a dietitian constantly trying to put myself into the shoes of everyday consumers, it hit me just how hard it must be to decide which to buy… not just for health reasons, but also for taste!
So, I decided to create a guide to help weigh the pros and cons of each sweetener in order to assist us as we try to be more informed consumers. Now, obviously, I'm a huge Swerve fan - I think the combination of taste and health benefits is hard to beat. But YOU are the best decision-maker for YOU, so this guide is meant to help you make better decisions based on your needs and your tastebuds.
In this guide we’ll cover where the different sweeteners come from, how they taste, their nutrition facts, sweetness level, best applications, and any other important information when it comes to picking your sweetener.
We’ll divide our guide up into two sections:
- zero and reduced calorie sweeteners
- sugar-containing sweeteners
There is a LOT of info here, so take your time to...digest...it! And if you're short on time, just scroll down to the handy dandy cheat sheet at the bottom of the post. Of course, we are always happy to chat if you have questions and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Enjoy!
Part 1. Zero & Reduced Calorie Sweeteners
When it comes to wellness, we know that limiting sugar is a lifestyle habit that is essential for optimal health. BUT we don’t want to cut out all things sweet - life (and especially food) is meant to be enjoyed! So, natural sugar substitutes are a great way to avoid sugar and still satisfy your sweet tooth. The sweeteners below have low to no sugar and calories as compared to typical white table sugar. They are all considered naturally derived sweeteners.
There’s a reason we call Swerve the Ultimate Sugar Substitute - yes, I’m biased, but here are the facts: Swerve is a blend of erythritol, oligosaccharides, and natural flavor from citrus. Erythritol, the main ingredient in Swerve, is made by fermenting the glucose from corn, and also occurs in foods like grapes and melons. Enzymes are added to starchy root vegetables to break down starch, yielding oligosaccharides, which are a type of prebiotic fiber. Swerve is ideal for baking and cooking. It tastes like sugar, measures like sugar, caramelizes like sugar, and has no bitter aftertaste. It is also zero calories, doesn’t affect blood sugar, is safe for those with diabetes, and those following a low carb or ketogenic diet. Erythritol has even been shown to function as an antioxidant and protect against tooth decay. And tummy troubles are rare with Swerve because erythritol has the highest digestive tolerance out of all the sugar alcohols - studies have shown you can consume up to 80g per day without digestive disruption.
The Swerve team commonly gets the question, “What is the difference between erythritol and Swerve?” And the answer is: Swerve is a better option for baking and cooking. Plain erythritol is only 70% as sweet as sugar, so for us, it is not as user friendly to use in baking, while Swerve measures cup-for-cup like sugar! Also, Erythritol alone may not caramelize like sugar, so baked goods could look different and lack that perfect crunch than if they were baked with sugar or Swerve. You also may experience a more intense cooling effect with plain erythritol, since the prebiotic fibers in Swerve help reduce it.
Xylitol is another sugar alcohol that is derived from corn cobs or birch trees. On the positive side, it has a sweet taste like sugar, and has a 1:1 sweetness ratio with sugar. Xylitol contains about 10 calories per teaspoon and has a glycemic index of 7. Xylitol can be used for baking yet baked goods tend not to brown and you may get a strong cooling effect when eating desse4rts with xylitol. It is commonly found in toothpaste, gum, and oral health products, since (like erythritol) it helps prevent cavities.. On the other hand, xylitol does not have a very high digestive tolerance - only about half as much as erythritol. So moderation is key with this sugar alcohol! One big fact for all you dog-lovers out there: xylitol is completely toxic to dogs - keep your furry friends safely away from xylitol.
Stevia is a high intensity sweetener mainly used for sweetening drinks. It has zero calories, is non-glycemic, and may even contribute to cardiovascular health. It is extracted from the stevia plant as either rebaudioside (commonly Reb A) or stevioside. Both of these extracts are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, and can have a bitter aftertaste for some people. The consistency of sweetness from brand to brand can be a challenge - sweetness level will vary depending on the type and brand of stevia. For these reasons, stevia is very difficult to use in baking. Furthermore, pure stevia is so intensely sweet, it is often blended with other sweeteners or bulking agents like dextrose and maltodextrin that could contain calories or sugar.
Monk Fruit (Luo Han Guo)
Monk fruit is another high intensity sweetener that has gained a lot of popularity lately. It is an extract that comes from the Luo Han Guo plant in China, which is the only location that grows monk fruit. That’s right - you can only get this from China. Monk fruit has zero calories and is non-glycemic, and some research even indicates antioxidant activity. However, long term human clinical trials on monk fruit are limited. Monk fruit is primarily used as a sweetener for drinks since it is 150 times sweeter than sugar. This also makes it difficult to use in baking. Also, some people can experience a licorice-like or lingering aftertaste.
Allulose is a rare sugar found in foods like wheat and raisins, and is also made from corn. It tastes like sugar, but is only 70% as sweet. Allulose does contain some calories and must be labeled as sugar on nutrition labels, but is considered non-glycemic because it is quickly absorbed, then excreted from the body (similar to erythritol). It may even help lower blood glucose levels after meals. On the negative side, allulose is not tolerated in large amounts, and could cause nausea and other GI issues if over consumed. It also is not widely available, and is currently more expensive than most sweeteners.
Part 2. Sugar Containing Sweeteners
The following sweeteners are considered natural, unrefined sweeteners. We’ve purposefully left out white sugar because, in comparison, these are generally considered better for you since they are less processed and do contain some nutrition. However, while that’s true, the following still contain just as much sugar as white table sugar! The WHO recommends no more than 25g of added sugar daily (that’s only 6 teaspoons!), and all of these contribute to that daily upper limit. These recommendations are based off the research that has linked an excessive intake of sugar to major issues in the US, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Everyone is in charge of what they put in their bodies, and there is no one size fits all when it comes to health. We just want to give you the facts. That said, no guide to sweeteners would be complete without mentioning different types of sugar.
Honey has been around forever and is probably the most well-thought of sugar sweetener. It’s flavor can actually change based on the flowers it comes from. Honey is a little sweeter than sugar, and will obviously add more liquid to a recipe, so it can be a little tough to use in baking. Honey has a lower GI than sugar, contains some vitamins, minerals, enzymes. But - it is still a source of added sugar. One tsp has about 20 calories and 6 g of sugar.
Hello, pancake lovers (and Canadians)! Maple Syrup is made from the sap of maple trees.. It contains the same calories and sugar per teaspoon as white table sugar. Maple Syrup provides some vitamins and minerals, and is certainly less refined than regular sugar. It can be as sweet or a little sweeter than sugar, and has a strong maple flavor. It is also quite fluid, so you may have to adjust the amounts of other liquids in your recipes when using this sweetener. Maple Syrup is probably best known as a pancake and waffle topping, but remember - it still counts as added sugar and should be limited to under 25g per day.
Coconut sugar is made from coconut palm sap. It has 15 calories and 4g sugar per teaspoon, but a lower glycemic index than sugar. It contains calcium, iron, and inulin, and is also considered sustainable since it has a higher output & uses less water than typical sugar. Coconut sugar has the same sweetness level as sugar, but more of a caramel flavor. It is also a dark brown color and adds a bit of moisture to baked goods, making them more dense than if you were to have used white sugar. Even though coconut sugar has a lower GI than other sweeteners and some nutritional benefits, it is still considered added sugar and should be used in moderation.
Read this paragraph sloooooowly. As slow as...molasses. Molasses is made from boiling sugar cane, after it has been processed to make sugar. It has about 20 calories and 3g sugar per teaspoon. Molasses contains some minerals and vitamins - more than any of the sweeteners mentioned previously. It is only 70-80% as sweet as sugar, and has a strong flavor, which is bitter and pungent. This is especially true for blackstrap molasses. This sweetener is a staple ingredient in gingerbread, but cannot be used for other typical baking application because of its strong flavor. Molasses is a better option than white refined sugar, but is still very high in sugar and should be limited in the diet.