Making Sense of Alternative Sweeteners

Confession:  Sometimes trying to eat healthily overwhelms me.

There are so many choices out there.  You can go to a health food store but that doesn’t reduce the number of choices.  You can spend zillions of dollars at said health food store on “organic” and “natural” products only to come home and read an article 10 minutes later about how the product you just bought is a big gimmick and is just as unhealthy as the cheap version sold at regular grocery stores.

It makes my head spin.

One of those areas that confuse me is alternative sweeteners.  We all know aspartame is bad, as is high fructose corn syrup and white sugar should be used sparingly, but what about all the rest?

In this article, I’m going to scratch the surface of this conundrum (and please, feel free to add any information you have in the comments below).

Coconut Palm Sugar

Coconut Palm sugar is made from the flower of the coconut palm tree.  It is similar to brown sugar and works as a good substitute.  Dr. Oz claims that it can prevent blood sugar crashes that cause hunger and leave you unsatisfied.  Its supporters claim that its low-glycemic index makes it a great alternative to regular sugar.  It has almost the same number of calories as regular table sugar but is claimed to be higher in micronutrients, perhaps because it is generally less processed.  On the other hand, coconut palm sugar is not a traditional food and the current high demand for it may be endangering the coconut palm.

Bottom line:  Is it a health food?  No.  Might it be a good alternative to regular white sugar?  Yes.

Agave Nectar 

Made from the blue agave plant, agave nectar is 25% sweeter than white sugar.  Like coconut palm sugar, agave nectar has a low-glycemic index.  However, if you read this article from the blog Food Renegade, you’ll see that her research on the subject showed that not only is agave nectar, not traditional food it is also highly processed and a higher level of concentrated fructose than the evil high fructose syrup.  She doesn’t use it.

Bottom line:  Is it a health food?  No.  Might it be a good alternative to regular white sugar?  Maybe.


Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener extracted from the stevia herb and it is not metabolized by the body.  You can buy it in many forms, most popularly as a liquid or granulated.  Like agave nectar, it is highly concentrated and very sweet.  The problem is that taking stevia from its plant-based form to the form that is most often used on our tables and in our recipes requires a lot of processing.  To do this, the stevia plant is turned into the compound Rebaudioside (RebA) and this is highly processed.  However, you can grow the plant (my mom has in the past) and use the leaves in tea to sweeten or make your own extract of the leaves using alcohol.  (Buy dried leaves in bulk here.)

Bottom line:  Is it a health food?  Probably not.  Might it be a good alternative to regular white sugar?  Yes – if you use the whole herb or make the extract yourself (or buy from a reputable source).

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown Rice Syrup is similar to maple and corn syrup but is half as sweet.  So when baking for those that are less fond of ultra-sweet dishes, this might be a good alternative.  It is derived from rice (duh) and some people say it has a funny after taste.  I couldn’t find a ton of negatives about brown rice syrup but I did find that most people said the taste can be a little funny and it is less sweet than other sweeteners so you still need to sweeten with something else.  That might be enough to turn me off.

Bottom line:  Is it a health food?  No.  Might it be a good alternative to regular white sugar?  Probably not.


Does it get more natural?  Probably not as long as you are buying the raw stuff. Honey and white sugar are very similar in the area of calorie-counting but honey does taste sweeter, so you often need to use a bit less.

Bottom line:  Is it a health food?  If sourced properly, an argument could be made for yes.  Might it be a good alternative to regular white sugar?  In some applications yes, as long as it is raw and preferably locally sourced.

Does this help you?  It has helped me *some.*  At the end of the day, satisfying your sweet tooth with fresh fruit is best and any other sweetened food should be eaten as a treat and in small amounts.  Did you (or I) really need to do all this research to determine this outcome?  Probably not.