We have tried a lot of natural sugar substitutes, including xylitol, stevia, agave nectar and monk fruit extract. There is a use for each one of them in my kitchen, but my favorite by far has been xylitol. Why? Because it tastes the closest to granulated table sugar (sucrose) and has almost half the calories. If you blindfolded me and put some xylitol on my tongue, I wouldn’t know that it isn’t sugar. In contrast, if you were to give me stevia blindfolded, I would know right away because I am sensitive to the bitter aftertaste. Here is a review of the three natural sweeteners we use the most as an alternative to white sugar.
What is Xylitol?
I have already mentioned briefly what xylitol is in our Xylitol Sugarless Gum Review page, but here is a review. Xylitol occurs naturally in plants and is extracted mostly from either corn or North American hardwood trees such as Maple or Birch. Personally, I stay away from xylitol, or any food products for that matter, sourced from China.
Chemically, xylitol is classified as a polyol or sugar alcohol. Polyols such as xylitol have less calories because they are not completely absorbed by the body like sugar. This is beneficial, but also has one consequence. Xylitol Side Effects: If you consume too much xylitol, it can cause bloating, gas and diarrhea. What’s too much? Well your body can adjust to using xylitol, but for starters, I wouldn’t bake a batch of brownies using only xylitol and eat several all at once. I haven’t had any issues so far when using xylitol. The most concentrated way I have used it is one teaspoon of xylitol in a 6 oz cup of chai tea with no stomach problems, just an enjoyable sweet cup of tea without the sugar and added calories.
- As sweet as sugar, but 40% fewer calories: 1 tsp xylitol = 9.6 calories vs 1 tsp sugar = 16 calories.
- Low glycemic index (GI) compared to sugar: 7 vs 65! Absorbed by the body as a complex carbohydrate, preventing blood sugar spikes.
- Does not promote cavities. Many sugarless gum brands use xylitol as a tooth-decay preventative ingredient; inhibits plaque formation.
- Use in 1:1 ratio like sugar for cooking and baking – with the exception of recipes that use yeast.
Recommend Product: Emerald Forest Xylitol Sweetener Why? Because the xylitol is 100% sourced from North American trees and I can get it in bulk for cheap online from Amazon. I have not found xylitol for less in any of my local grocery stores nor any bigger stores.
Agave nectar or syrup comes from the juice (aguamiel) of Agave plant species (from which Tequila is made), including blue agave and white agave. You can purchase agave in light, amber and dark varieties as well as in raw form. The darker the color, the more caramel-tasting notes it will have. It is composed primarily of fructose, ranging anywhere from 55% to 90%, with the remaining sugar in the form of glucose.
- 1.5 times sweeter than sugar
- Agave nectar GI ranges 15-30 vs 65 for sugar
- Dissolves easy, even in cold liquids. Great honey (GI: 62) and maple syrup (GI: 54) substitute.
You won’t be saving any calories when using agave. One teaspoon of agave nectar has 20 calories compared to 18 calories in one teaspoon of sugar. However, because it is 1 1/2 times sweeter than sugar, you’ll use less of it which theoretically means you will consume the same amount of calories, perhaps less. The main benefit of using agave over white sugar would be its lower glycemic index.
Recommended Product: Madhava Raw Organic Agave Nectar. Madhava was the first company to offer agave nectar in the US back in 2002. Their raw, organic agave comes from high quality Weber blue agave and is a Fair-Trade product.
What is Stevia?
The sweetener referred to as Stevia comes from a the native South American chrysanthemum, Stevia rebaudiana. Steviol glycosides or steviosides are what makes Stevia sweet. A concentrated, pure stevioside extract that is used in several stevia sweetener products, such as Truvia and PureVia, is Rebaudioside A. In this concentrated form, it is 200 times more sweeter than sugar. Reb A has the least amount of bitterness of the steviol glycosides in the plant. I have used stevia in cooking as a sweetening ingredient in addition to regular sugar or combined with agave or xylitol, but never use it as the primary sweetener because of the bitter aftertaste. This is something you have to test yourself. Some people don’t notice any bitterness, while others taste it strongly.
- Stevia sweeteners using Reb A are up to 200x sweeter than sugar
- GI is < 1 vs 65 for sugar
- 1 tsp stevia= < 1 calorie vs 1 tsp sugar = 16 calories
- Won’t promote tooth decay, inhibits plaque formation.
- Can be used in cooking and baking (except when yeast is used)
Stevia sweeteners can be purchased in many forms, from a less sweeter green powder made from dried Stevia leaves to a super-sweet, concentrated liquid extract. Some products are 100% pure Stevia while other are blends, such as stevia with erythritol. One product, Stevia in the Raw is actually a blend of stevia, dextrose and maltodextrin which will effect your blood sugar. So be sure to read labels and know what your are buying. Some reported stevia side effects include bloating and nausea, usually from those who have been using large amounts of stevia. As with xylitol, slowly incorporate it into your diet to discover your tolerances.
Recommended Product: SweetLeaf Natural Stevia Sweetner. Sweetleaf contains nothing but stevia. There are no additives or other sweeteners, no chemicals and is non-GMO. The stevia is extracted using only cool, purified water.
What is your favorite natural sugar substitute? Have you tried xylitol, agave, stevia or other natural sweeteners? Let us know in the comments below.
Note: As with any dietary changes, consult your physician first before using any of these products, especially if you are diabetic. More about natural sugar substitutes here.