19 Sugars & Sweeteners: Which Are Healthy?

Will the REAL FOOD Sugar Please Stand Up?

I love sweet things. As a child I was addicted to white sugar and this caused many health problems. This is one reason that at Real Food for Life I am always talking about real foods: foods that are whole, live and are balancing to the body. I try to find sugars in this category.

In my last Care2 articles I dealt with 7 Tips to Stop White Sugar Cravings and Reasons to Avoid Artificial Sweeteners. Now we deal with the more natural ones.

Not all sugars are equal. Some are very good for you in small quantities. Many are less healthy. Which ones on the following list would you consider real foods? Which do you use and why?

Common Sugars and Sweeteners

1. White sugar (aka sucrose)
White sugar is a pure chemical extract of sugar cane or sugar beet with no vitamins or minerals; these are stripped during the extraction process. Refined white sugar is a simple carbohydrate with lots of calories, no dietary fiber and is an isolate. Isolates never occur in whole foods. Vegetarians may note that it may be processed with bone char. Causes a “sugar high.”

2. Brown sugar
Brown sugar is white sugar coated in molasses which will add a few trace minerals but no healthier than white sugar and creates the same “sugar high.”

3. Fructose
Fructose is not from fruit; it is a commercial, refined sugar and it is no more nutritious than sucrose. It raises cholesterol, makes blood cells more prone to clotting, and it may also accelerate the aging process.

4. Sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols (Erythritol, Isomalt, Lactitol, Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Xylitol, Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates) are neither sugars nor alcohols. They do have calories; Xylitol has more then half the calories of white sugar. The only problems I could find with them are that when they are eaten in excessive amounts they can cause gastrointestinal side effects (bloating and diarrhea), weight gain and increased blood sugars. Still they are not whole foods so caution must be used; the recommendation is to not use them on a regular basis.

5. Fruit juice concentrate
This is refined and has been stripped of flavor and nutritional value. It is rapidly assimilated in the bloodstream so not highly recommended.

6. Demerara sugar (natural brown sugar)
Also known as turbinado sugar, demerara sugar is made by extracting the juice from sugar cane and then heating it until it is turned into crystals. It does not preserve much of its original molasses content but does have lots of potassium and some minerals and vitamins.

7. Evaporated sugar cane juice
Evaporated sugar cane juice goes through less processing than refined sugar and has more nutrients found in sugar cane. It contains tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals.

8. Sugar cane juice
Sugar can juice is made from the same sugar cane stalks that are grown to make white sugar. Hand-powered presses or machine presses crush the sugarcane stalks and release the raw sugar cane juice. It is healthier than table sugar as it contains tiny amounts of vitamins and minerals and is raw if not processed at high temperatures.

9. Sucanat
Sucanat is made from sugar cane, usually organically grown, and minimally processed to obtain juice to make syrup (the molasses is not removed). The syrup is dehydrated and milled into a powder. It has potassium, vitamin A, calcium, iron, magnesium and small amounts of other vitamins and minerals.

10. Coconut sugar
Coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut flowers by boiling it down to dry sugar blocks or a soft paste or a granulated form. Coconut sugar contains higher amount of nutrients compared to brown sugar as it has some amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, chlorine, magnesium, sulfur, and micro nutrients.

11. Palm sugar
Palm sugar is extracted from the sap of date palm trees and palmyra palms, which are said to be the best. It can also be extracted from sago and coconut palms. It is commonly used in Southeast Asia, where it is called jaggery or gur. It is high in amino acids, potassium, magnesium, zinc, and iron and has some vitamin B1, B2, B3, and B6. It also has an absorption rate slower than that of white sugar.

12. Honey
Honey is similar to table sugar. Pure raw honey (not heated above 100 degrees) contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals, enzymes, flavonoids and antioxidants. Some research suggests that honey helps in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders. Honey is as rapidly assimilated in the bloodstream as refined sugar, so is not highly recommended.

13. Date sugar
Date sugar is not really a sugar as it is made from ground, dehydrated dates containing all the vitamins, minerals and fiber found in the fruit. Date sugar is rich in nutrients and is metabolized more slowly than sugar.

14. Maple syrup
Maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maple trees. Less refined than white sugar, but at roughly 65 percent sucrose, is basically a sugar equivalent. It has a tiny amount of minerals and a very tiny amount of vitamins.

15. Barley malt syrup
Barley malt syrup is made from barley that is sprouted using only the grain’s own enzymes, kiln roasted, and slowly cooked until a thick, dark brown syrup is formed. The sugars in barley malt syrup are complex, thus they are slowly broken down in the body. It has trace amounts of vitamins, minerals and protein. Barley malt syrup, like rice syrup, will not create a sugar high like the simple sugars do as it releases slowly.

16. Brown rice syrup
Brown rice syrup is made from cooked brown rice, which is fermented by adding enzymes to turn the starches in the rice into sugars. Brown rice syrup is absorbed easily into our system, leaving less for fat accumulation in contrast with regular sugar. It is a complex sugar thus takes longer to digest and does not create the sugar high that the simple sugars do.

17. Molasses
Molasses is a by-product of sugar cane or beet sugar refining. High in B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chromium, manganese and zinc. The blackstrap variety is less refined and higher in nutrients. Buy unsulphured molasses, as sulphur can be toxic in high doses.

18. Agave nectar
Agave nectar is juice extracted from agave (which is the same plant they make tequila from). It is 42 percent sweeter than white sugar but has the same caloric value and a low glycemic index — a measurement of the relative ability of a carbohydrate to raise blood glucose levels. It also has an absorption rate slower than that of white sugar.

stevia flowering plant

19. Stevia
Stevia is a natural sugar alternative that helps to regulate blood sugar and lower blood pressure. Stevia is a complex sugar extract from the plant Stevia Rebaudiana, grown originally in South America. It is an herb native to the Paraguayan Indians who used it before the colonization by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The Brazilian Journal of Medicine showed that Stevia Rebaudiana actually “increased glucose tolerance.”

Because stevia is very sweet, you only need to use a small amount and the best thing is that it virtually has no calories. Just think about it……a plant sweetening your food with virtually no calories…….how good is that?!!


  • The problem with consuming any simple carbohydrate is that it creates an insulin response that can overwork the pancreas. Over time, the body’s ability to handle all sugars, simple and complex, begins to weaken.
  • Since all sugars will cause an elevation in blood sugar, diabetics and people with dietary issues should consult their doctor about alternatives to sugar that will be healthy for them.
  • Most sugars are strongly acid-forming in the body. They all also have calories.

My Choice:

I never use the first four (white sugar, brown sugar, fructose, sugar alcohols) in my cooking.
I mostly use the last four (16-19: brown rice syrup, molasses, agave nectar, stevia).
I use all the others carefully. For most of us a little of the healthier sugars is fine and can even be good for us.

In my kitchen sugars are used sparingly. I bought a liter of maple syrup seven years ago and still have half a cup left and the only reason there is so little left is because I spilled a cup of it two years ago….in the fridge — what a mess! I bought a package of sucanat three years ago and still have a quarter of a cup left. At Christmas, I make my Fancy Fruit & Macadamia Nut Cookies (dairy- & wheat-free) and use four tablespoons of sucanat for a big recipe. When making desserts, I mostly use stevia for things like rice pudding.

As stevia is almost always in my recipes, I use less of the other “sugars.” To get the right texture and flavor a little of one of the healthier sugars is helpful and they actually add some nutrition……and of course fun.

Sugar Free Apple Sauce Contains absolutely NO added sugars
Berry Crumble Sweetened with minimal healthy sugars and stevia.

Related: Care2 Directory of Natural Sweeteners

Which ones do you use and why?


Ingrid A
Past Member 2 months ago

Thank you

Virginia B
Virginia B10 months ago

Ms. Harrington: People, who chose the profession of a writer, ought to be "up" on their correct English grammar & vocabulary. The adjectives "healthy" & 'healthful" are NOT interchangeable, yet you, & too many others are contributing to the "dumbing down" of the English language by treating them as such & always lazily (or ignorantly) choosing "healthy"for every occasion. The correct version here should be "healthful". Check your dictionary to see the differences.
P.S., I'm a retired professor -- w/ Ph.D -- of literature & writing intensive courses AND a former editor for a major NY publishing house AND 2 university presses

One Heart inc
One Heart incabout a year ago


Kelsey S
Kelsey Sabout a year ago


William C
William Cabout a year ago

Thank you.

W. C
W. Cabout a year ago


Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen1 years ago

Thank you

Elena Poensgen
Elena Poensgen1 years ago

Thank you

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne Rogers2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.