What are nutritive sweeteners and how do they compare for our health?

Indulging in something sweet is a universal pleasure. Whether it's the smooth sweetness of honey or the simple joy of biting into ripe fruit, we have a desire for sweet flavors ingrained in us. But when it comes to satisfying our sweet tooth, sweeteners are not all created equal.

There are two categories of sweeteners used in food and beverages:

nutritive sweeteners including honey maple syrup and refined sugar

As we’ve mentioned in a previous article, sweeteners with no caloric value can actually be more harmful than those with calories. Nonetheless, refined sweeteners with caloric value but no real nutrients have downsides as well. We’ll find that the healthiest sweeteners are those with both calories (energy) and complex nutrients.

As modern foods were cultivated, we’ve seen the first-hand effects of refined sweeteners – each with its own set of implications for our health. Let’s explore their origins, nutritional profiles, and potential impacts on our bodies, so we can decide which are the best additions to our diet.

Do the glycemic index and glycemic load matter?

To understand the impact of sweeteners on our blood sugar levels, the terms "glycemic index" (GI) and "glycemic load" (GL) often take center stage. The GI measures the initial impact of a food's carbohydrate content on blood sugar levels following a meal. The GL approximates the duration a food will elevate an individual's blood glucose level. [1]

However, we’ve come to realize that these measures fall short in capturing the complete picture of how our bodies respond to carbohydrates. [2]

One crucial point of contention is that GI and GL fail to account for the duration of elevated blood glucose levels. It's not the magnitude of the spike that matters most; it's the time our blood sugar stays elevated that can have a more profound impact on our health. [3] Chronically elevated blood glucose hours after meals is a concern. This leads to increased risks of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. A prolonged elevation raises the eyebrows of health experts, whereas temporary elevations are normal and expected. [4]

It’s clear that over-elevated blood glucose levels and excessive insulin production pave the way for a host of modern diseases. Diets high in refined carbohydrates lead to the following common conditions:

That said, our individual responses to carbohydrates are far from uniform. Our genetic differences, gut microbiota composition, and metabolic health all come into play. [14] We must also consider the broader context: how is the sweetener used? It turns out that many additional factors will influence our blood glucose response. This includes other macronutrients, fiber content, food processing methods, and portion sizes. [15]  [16]  [17] This inherent variability makes it challenging to establish a one-size-fits-all threshold based on GI or GL.

There are many benefits to natural sweeteners used in a well-rounded meal, complete with protein and healthy fats. [18] This harmonious combination blunts the blood sugar roller coaster and offers a balanced approach to dieting.

Choosing the most natural sweeteners is a far wiser approach than fixating on the lowest GI or GL measurements. Blaming natural carbohydrates for the negative effects of refined sugar led to their unjust demonization. Nature’s sweeteners offer more than empty calories and sugar. They contain essential vitamins, minerals, and unique compounds – absent in heavily-refined sweeteners. When we crave a sweet taste, our body expects an abundance of complex nutrients. Giving our body only half of what it needs only leads to a lack of satiation and more cravings down the line.

Is fructose better than glucose?

Scientists have created sweeteners with higher fructose content through extraction, refining, and enzymatic processes. [19] They were created to replace sucrose because they were both sweeter and cheaper. [20] High fructose sweeteners have even been marketed to be healthier because they don’t raise our blood sugar as much as other common carbohydrates. [21]

You must be asking: what’s the catch?

After all, fructose is a natural sugar. Fructose is from the Latin fructus (fruit) with the suffix for sugar, -ose. [22] Consuming fructose in its natural form, such as from whole fruits, is well-tolerated by the body. [23]

To put fruit’s natural fructose content into perspective: orange juice consists of only 50 percent fructose. [24] Fruit juices also provide abundant bioactive compounds, vitamins, and minerals. These beneficial components have positive effects on health alongside a natural sugar composition.

When consumed alone, fructose is poorly absorbed in the digestive tract. However, its absorption improves when it is consumed how it’s found in nature: alongside glucose and amino acids. [25]

The liver metabolizes excessive amounts of fructose differently than other sugars. [26] This puts us at risk of chronic liver and metabolic diseases – including insulin resistance, obesity, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, non-alcoholic steatohepatitis, and type 2 diabetes. An excessive intake of fructose also contributes to the development of cardiovascular diseases. [27]

Over the past few decades, the rise in obesity and metabolic disorders has been associated with an increase in the consumption of sweeteners with an excessive fructose content. [28]

This is why it should be stressed to consume sweets as they’re found in nature. This would include fruit, fruit juices, and unrefined sweeteners. Stripping a sweetener of its complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants comes with potential health dangers.

bees and wax in wooden frame on honey farm

Pure honey

Our rating: 👍👍👍👍👍

Honey is mankind’s most ancient sweetener. Honey bees (Apis mellifera) collect nectar from flowers and transform it into honey within their bodies. Humans have prized honey for more than just food, but also as medicine. [29] Honey is a functional food due to its many unique features.

Some health-promoting properties of high-quality honey include:

Due to the beneficial compounds packed in pure honey, it isn’t empty calories. Not all of these compounds remain in ultra-pasteurized and ultra-filtered honey. These processing methods are common among commercial honey at the store. The honey can lose bee propolis, pollen, enzymes, and antioxidants. This process makes honey look better, but it removes some powerful components. [38]

A greater concern is the practice of cutting honey with other sugar syrups, creating what’s known as “adulterated” honey. Cheap, commercial honeys often include high fructose corn syrup, corn sugar syrup, inverted sugar syrup, and cane sugar syrup. [39] Unlike pure honey, adulterated honey will not produce a unique, stabilizing physiological glycemic response. [40]

It’s important to read labels to choose high-quality, pure honey. For more fun facts on honey, see our Honey: did you know article!

maple syrup

Pure maple syrup

Our rating: 👍👍👍👍👍

Maple syrup is a unique and complex sweetener. Known for its place with breakfast foods, maple syrup’s use traces back long before pancakes. Maple syrup has a complex flavor, versatility in cooking and baking, and major health benefits.

Maple syrup is produced naturally from the sap of maple trees. Maple tree sap is a clear, watery liquid with a slight sweet taste. The majority of the sap is water with small amounts of sugars, minerals, and other unique compounds. To turn sap into syrup, it’s boiled to evaporate water and increase sugar concentration. As the water evaporates, the product thickens and develops the familiar amber color and distinct flavor of maple syrup. [41]

The components of pure maple syrup that elicit health benefits include:

As is the case with honey, it’s important to choose a quality source. For example, Mrs. Butterworth’s is a household-name pancake syrup. Unfortunately, the first ingredient is high fructose corn syrup, and there are no ingredients listed with a maple tree origin!

Much of the maple syrup at the store is not true maple syrup, but rather maple-flavored syrups. These adulterated counterfeit sweeteners will not provide the many benefits of true maple syrup. For these benefits, source 100% pure maple syrup. For more fun facts on maple syrup, see our Maple syrup: did you know article!


Molasses has a rich history dating back centuries, enjoyed for its unique flavor. Molasses is believed to have originated in India, as early as 500 B.C.E. [51] It’s used in baking, marinades, sauces, and desserts. The distinct sweet and robust flavor adds depth and richness to meals, making it a versatile ingredient in both sweet and savory recipes.

Molasses is a byproduct of the sugar refining process. The stalks of sugarcane and/or the roots of sugar beets are milled to extract a sweet juice. The juice is then heated to evaporate the water content. Sugar crystals form and are removed from the syrup. These crystals are further processed to produce granulated sugar. The remaining liquid is further heated to extract the last of the sugar. This byproduct from sugar production is molasses: a thick, dark liquid. [52]

Because the sugar content was extracted, there's a higher concentration of minerals and other beneficial compounds. Additional amino acids originate from boiling and protein hydrolysis during molasses production. [53] Each round of boiling produces a different type of molasses, each with varying flavors and nutrient profiles. [54]

Light molasses

Our rating: 👍👍

The first extraction of sugar crystals through boiling produces "A molasses", or light molasses. This syrup has the highest sucrose content of all molasses types and the lowest concentration of phenolic and flavonoid contents. [53]

Beet molasses, also known as beet syrup, is a thick, dark, and sweet syrup made from sugar beets. It’s produced the same way as refining sugarcane for light molasses – only with sugar beets. Beet molasses is higher in sucrose, with minimal glucose and fructose. Both light molasses and beet molasses share a similar lack of other nutrients. [55]

Dark molasses

Our rating: 👍👍👍

The second molasses is "B molasses", or dark molasses, and refers to the syrup obtained after the second extraction of sugar crystals. It has a stronger and richer flavor than light molasses. It has more minerals than light molasses because it’s more concentrated. These minerals include iron, calcium, and potassium. Dark molasses is not as nutrient-dense as blackstrap molasses, and also has a higher sugar content. [54]

Blackstrap molasses

Our rating: 👍👍👍👍

Lastly, the syrup remaining after the third extraction of sugar is blackstrap molasses, or “C molasses”. At this point, most of the sugar has been crystallized out. Blackstrap molasses is the richest in nutrients and minerals among all types of molasses. It is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. It also contains antioxidants and can provide a good amount of dietary fiber. [56]

Date syrup

Our rating: 👍👍👍

Date syrup has a profound flavor, reminiscent of caramel and complemented by subtle notes of molasses and honey. It enhances culinary creations, ranging from desserts and smoothies to dressings and marinades. Date syrup is popular throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where date palm trees are native. Date syrup traces back thousands of years to traditional foods and medicinal practices. [57]

The production process is straightforward and can even be done at home. First, harvested ripe dates undergo a thorough wash. They are then soaked in water to allow them to soften and release their natural sugars. The softened dates are then blended into a smooth paste. Straining the paste removes any solid components, leaving us with a sweet and smooth syrup. [58]

The nutrients of the resulting syrup are degraded due to the high heat applied during evaporation methods. Dates have a high antioxidant content. Antioxidants aid in neutralizing free radicals and safeguarding cells against oxidative damage. [59] The lower the processing temperature of the dates, the more retained antioxidants there are to offer us health benefits. [60]

Retaining nutrients isn’t the only concern about heat. During date syrup processing, a significant amount of acrylamide forms. [61] Acrylamide, formed while cooking certain foods at high temperatures, is carcinogenic and neurotoxic. [62] Date syrups are shown to have acrylamide at levels ranging from 141 to 554 ppb. The tolerable daily intake for acrylamide is 40 ppb per day for neurotoxicity and 2.6 ppb per day for cancer. [61]

Due to the damaging effects of processing, it’s best to keep dates in their whole form when using them as a sweetener. Add whole dates into smoothies and batters with the help of a ​​high-speed blender.

Date sugar

Our rating: 👍👍👍👍

Date sugar is made simply from finely ground, dehydrated dates. Date sugar retains more of the nutrients found in whole dates compared to date syrup, but some nutrients are lost during the drying and grinding process. [63] This granulated sweetener could be a better alternative to refined sugar in baked goods. However, date sugar is not suitable for beverages as it doesn’t dissolve in liquids. [64]

coconut sugar inside a coconut

Coconut palm sugar and coconut nectar

Our rating: 👍👍👍

Coconut palm sugar is a natural sweetener derived from the sap of the flower buds of coconut palm trees (Cocos nucifera). To make coconut sugar, flower buds get tapped for coconut palm sap. The sweet nectar is then heated to evaporate the water content – resulting in a thick, caramel-colored syrup. This syrup, sold as coconut nectar, can be further dehydrated to form granulated coconut sugar.

Coconut nectar offers many unique benefits as a sweetener. These benefits include:

The granulated state of coconut flower sap (refined coconut sugar) is not as it’s found in nature. The more it’s refined, the more nutrients become compromised. [69] Processing natural sweeteners down to only sugars diminishes a big part of our natural reason for consumption: micronutrients. Refined coconut sugar is very similar to table sugar, containing around 70 percent sucrose. [70]

Another concern of coconut sugar is the Maillard reaction, associated with the formation of acrylamide. [71] Acrylamide has neurotoxic, genotoxic, and potentially carcinogenic effects. [72] The chemical forms when reducing sugars and amino acids in the sap. [73]

The healthiest form of this sweetener is a minimally heated coconut nectar.

Yacón syrup and fresh Yacón roots

Yacón syrup

Our rating: 👍👍

Yacón syrup is one of the lesser known natural sweeteners. It’s extracted from the roots of the yacón plant, grown mostly in South America. The root looks like a sweet potato, but is much different in composition.

Unlike a potato, the yacón root contains no starch. Yacón syrup consists of water, fructooligosaccharides, inulin, and simple sugars. [74] This tuber tastes like apple, watermelon, and celery combined. Some benefits of the yacón root include:

Yacón syrup is made by extracting a juice from the roots and filtering and evaporating the water content. This process is similar to concentrating the sugars from maple sap to make maple syrup.

The sweetness of yacón syrup is due to the high fructooligosaccharide content. Fructooligosaccharide is a soluble fiber, so it isn’t metabolized in the way that glucose, fructose, and sucrose are. Due to yacón syrup’s low sugar content, long-term consumption can improve insulin sensitivity in the liver. [78]

However, consuming indigestible foods is not always a good thing. Fructooligosaccharides can be a problem to those with certain gut-related issues, or those needing to follow a low-FODMAP diet. [79] This soluble fiber remains undigested, forms a gel, and reaches the colon intact for microbial fermentation. [80] And so, while yacón syrup and its fructooligosaccharides can have beneficial prebiotic properties in a healthy gut, it can also exacerbate gastrointestinal distress and cause an upset stomach for some people.

Agave nectar and agave syrup

Our rating: 👍👍

Agave nectar and agave syrup of the blue agave plant have gained popularity due to their low glycemic index. [81] The glycemic index is low due to high amounts of fructose rather than glucose. [82] This sweetener is often marketed as a "natural" or "healthy" alternative to other sweeteners. As mentioned in the introduction, however, this measurement is not an important quality of a sweetener.

The nectar is the blue agave plant's sugary sap and fructan fibers. Fructans are present in the nectar and can help regulate our insulin response and glucose metabolism. [83] However, these health properties of the agave nectar are absent if it’s refined into agave syrup.

Fructans aren't present in agave syrup, as they’re broken down into fructose when exposed to heat and enzymes. [84] The syrup’s composition ends up being about 80 percent fructose and 20 percent glucose after processing. Surprisingly, agave syrup’s fructose content is higher than that of high fructose corn syrup. [85]

Agave nectar, being the least processed, is the best form of agave to consume without downsides. Agave syrup, on the other hand, has gone too far from its natural source in processing to benefit us nutritionally.

Malted grain syrups

Our rating: 👎👎👎

Malted grain syrups, also called maltose syrups, are usually made from barley. They are now also made from other grains such as wheat, rice, and corn. Because many of these grains contain gluten, some malted grain syrups may also contain gluten.

To make malted grain syrups, grains are first fermented to produce malt. [86] Malting grain develops the enzymes that convert starches into sugar. [87] The malt is then mixed with water and heated. This extracts liquid sugars from the grains. Through a subsequent boiling process, the concentrated liquid transforms into a thick syrup. [88]

Extracting sugar from malted barley creates a syrup with little-to-no nutritional content. This maltose-dominant sweetener tastes less sweet than other forms of sugar, so we need more of it to achieve the same sweetness.

Although maltose isn’t as sweet, it’s made up of a pair of two glucose molecules. That said, malted grain syrups metabolize like pure glucose in our body. While glucose in natural foods is normally not a concern, there can be a problem when processed foods contain unnatural levels of glucose. [89]

Brown rice syrup is a malted grain syrup made from brown rice. A concern specific to brown rice syrup is its arsenic content. This heavy metal is a potent toxin and a known human carcinogen. [90] The use of pesticides and fertilizers containing arsenic are responsible for its presence in rice products. [91] In a particular study, arsenic levels in infant formulas sweetened with organic brown rice syrup were examined. The rice syrup-sweetened formulas had arsenic concentrations 20 times higher than the other formulas. [92]

Malted grain syrups also have the unfavorable attribute of being highly addictive. The special substance hordenine, found in malted barley, activates the dopamine D2 receptor. [93] This signal creates the hedonic drive to eat for pleasure rather than to satisfy our needs. This can make us feel unable to stop eating when we’ve had enough. [94] This nutrient-void sweetener is not one we’d want to overconsume.

In recipes that call for malted grain syrups, substitute maple syrup or honey 1:1.

Cane sugar

Our rating: 👎👎👎👎

Cane sugar originated in the south Pacific Islands and New Guinea thousands of years ago. [95] However, the cane sugar used today is not the same perennial grass native to these regions. The hybrid varieties of sugarcane yield a much higher sugar content and lower nutrient content. [96]

After harvesting, crushing the sugarcane creates a juice of 70-75 percent water, 13-15 percent sucrose, and 10-15 percent fiber. [97] Boiling the filtered and purified juice removes excess water, creating a syrup and finally sugar crystals. Further processing raw cane sugar removes the remaining non-sugar components, creating refined table sugar. This procedure makes white table sugar, brown sugar, granulated sugar, and confectioners' sugar to name a few.

Brown sugar, also known as non-centrifugal cane sugar, retains much of the original flavor and nutrients of sugarcane because it does not undergo the process of separating molasses and sugar crystals. [98]

When it comes to sugar, “raw” does not mean unheated, but only slightly less refined. While raw cane sugar is less processed than table sugar, it’s still an “empty calorie”, as it lacks nutrients. Consistently consuming any form of cane sugar can lead to a range of health implications, including:

Before refining, sugarcane juice is often contaminated with toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). To harvest sugarcane, farmers burn the crops to eliminate the leaves and tops of the plant, which don’t contain the sugar for the actual harvest. PAHs originate from the burning of the crops. An analysis of sugarcane juice shows four specific PAHs: Benz (a) anthracene, benzo (b) fluoranthene, benzo (k) fluoranthene, and benzo (a) pyrene. [106] The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives determined that 13 PAHs, including the four chosen for this research, are both carcinogenic and genotoxic. [107]

After refining, the levels of PAHs are slightly reduced due to the processing of sugar cane. [106] However, trace nutrients found in the sugarcane juice are also reduced. [108] Additional toxins from the Maillard reaction, acrylamide, form during processing. [109]

High fructose corn syrup

Our rating: 👎👎👎👎👎

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is one of the most prevalent sweeteners used in junk food. During the 1970s, HFCS emerged as a cheaper alternative to table sugar. HFCS is made by converting corn starch into corn syrup. Corn syrup is then made into HFCS with enzymes added to convert a portion of its glucose into fructose. Over time, the food and beverage industry has used more and more HFCS, because it’s cheap and versatile. [110]

One of the primary concerns associated with HFCS is its high fructose content. As mentioned above, fructose occurs naturally in fruits. Yet, excessive consumption of fructose leads to various health issues. [111]

High-fructose diets, such as one with excessive high-fructose corn syrup consumption, can disrupt our natural appetite regulation. [112] A study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism examined the effects of high fructose-sweetened beverages on satiety compared to high glucose-sweetened beverages. The participants who consumed high fructose-sweetened beverages had lower concentrations of leptin, an appetite suppressant, and higher levels of ghrelin, a hunger hormone, compared to those who consumed high glucose-sweetened beverages. [113] This combination of hormones leaves one unsatisfied and hungry – even after consuming significant calories.

Our appetite-regulating hormones play a major role in the long-term regulation of energy balance. A lack of satiation leads to an increased overall calorie intake. [114] HFCS is linked to weight gain, metabolic disorders, liver issues, and disrupted appetite regulation. [115] This sweetener is far from natural, whole, or nutritious.

How we can enjoy the pleasures of sweetness while making healthy decisions for our body

Ultimately, the best approach is to opt for whole, unprocessed sweeteners whenever possible. While some sweeteners offer health benefits, others come with potential risks. It’s up to us to make informed choices and seek a balance when it comes to sweetener consumption.

When comparing the most natural sweeteners to refined sweeteners, it becomes evident that there are several advantages to choosing the former. Many people experience addiction-like feelings to certain sugars and will even experience withdrawals from it. Switching to healthier sweeteners to satisfy sugar cravings is one approach to mitigate these effects.

Honey and maple syrup offer more wholesome and nutrient-rich alternatives to processed sugars. They provide a range of health benefits. Whole fruits and fruit juices act as great sweeteners, too, as they provide essential nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants that support overall health.

Unprocessed sweeteners provide a wholesome and enjoyable way to satisfy our sweet cravings. Striving for a balanced diet focused on whole foods remains the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle.


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