Choosing healthy sugar substitutes often depends on which aspect of health is most important to an individual. Those concerned with blood sugar levels often choose alternative sweeteners that have the least effect on blood sugar, such as saccharin and aspartame. Individuals who are concerned with nutrition may find molasses or honey among the best healthy sugar substitutes.
Blackstrap molasses is a viable option for those looking to replace the empty calories of refined sugar, particularly in baking. The calorie content of molasses is roughly equivalent to table sugar, but molasses contains a significant amount of dietary minerals. Two teaspoons of blackstrap molasses contains 12% of the daily requirement of calcium and 13% of the daily requirement of iron. Potassium, magnesium, and zinc are also provided by molasses, making it one of the most nutritious of healthy sugar substitutes.
Like molasses, honey provides some nutritional content for about the same amount of calories as sugar. Honey provides many of the minerals in molasses at slightly lower levels but contains many antioxidants as well. Additionally, honey is more slowly absorbed by the body than table sugar, making it a slightly better option for avoiding blood sugar spikes.
Individuals concerned with oral and dental health may find sugar alcohols to be among the best healthy sugar substitutes. These chemical sweeteners are listed under a variety of names, such as glycerol and xylitol, and are often found in sugarless gum and candies. Unlike sugar, sugar alcohols do not cause tooth decay. They also have a markedly reduced effect on blood sugar levels. Consuming sugar alcohols in large quantities can lead to digestive issues.
For diabetics and other individuals concerned primarily with blood sugar levels, healthy sugar substitutes are widely available. Saccharin is among the oldest and most recognizable sugar substitutes on the market. It has little to no effect on blood sugar levels and is frequently found in diet sodas and low-calorie desserts. Although no studies have conclusively linked saccharin to cancer in humans, several studies show an increased rate of bladder cancer in lab animals who were fed saccharin.
Like saccharin, aspartame also has negligible effects on blood sugar. It has also been linked to increased incidents of some cancers in lab animals. Additionally, individuals with phenylketonuria (PKU) should not consume aspartame as it can lead to brain damage and death.
Sucralose is a chemically modified form of sugar that is commonly used as a sugar substitute in frozen goods and diet drinks. It is also sold as a spoonable sweetener and has much the same consistency as sugar. Sucralose has no discernable effect on blood sugar levels. As of March 2011, no safety concerns were associated with the use of sucralose.
Stevia is another option in the sugar substitute industry, and its use is not without controversy. Nausea, muscle pain, and dizziness have been reported by a small number of people after using stevia. Some studies have shown that regular use of stevia lowers blood pressure and reduces blood sugar levels. Consequently, individuals taking medications for diabetes and high blood pressure can suffer adversely from the combined effects. As a result, some countries have limited the distribution of stevia to herbal supplements or have even banned the sale of stevia completely.
In December, 2008, the U.S. approved the use of some sweeteners derived from the stevia plant. It is now used in many sugar-free foods and is available in different forms for individual use. Stevia causes no discernable rise in blood sugar levels at the time of consumption. Conversely, some studies have shown that blood sugar levels are sometimes up to 18% lower after eating a meal containing moderate amounts of the sweetener.