Take one peek at that gel, hydration beverage, or bar you consume for fuel midride, and chances are you’ll see “sugar” or one of its 61 synonyms high on the ingredient list, which means it’s a prominent part of the recipe. While energy in any form can be a boon during or immediately after a ride, especially by way of easily-accessible carbohydrates like sugars, off the bike, experts suggest consuming added sugars in moderation.
Added sugars are different than those naturally found in fruit and dairy products. These natural types of sugar come packaged with other wellness-supporting elements like fibre, protein, vitamins, and/or minerals. While delicious and totally cool in moderation, added sugars often hide in plain sight in store-bought items like yogurt, cereal, pasta sauces, salad dressings, condiments, granola bars, and dried fruit. That means in addition to the naturally occurring sugar found in these products, manufacturers kick up the sweetness with sugar alternatives.
The average adult consumes about 20kg of added sugar per year, according to the University of California San Francisco, or about 50 percent more than is recommended by the USDA. To steer clear of the potential health risks associated with excess sugar consumption—including chronic inflammation, heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and depression—the current U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest limiting added sugars to 10 percent of your daily calorie tally.
“Active people still need to be mindful of their intake of sweeteners, except around training. Carbohydrates are essential to an active person’s daily diet, including foods containing natural sugars found in milk, yogurt, and fruit, and in starches such as whole grains and vegetables like potatoes, peas, and corn,” explains Megan Robinson, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., sports dietitian in Paoli, Pennsylvania. “Added sugars do have their place, but should comprise less than 200 calories (50 grams of sugar) as part of a 2 000-calorie-per-day diet.”
Because added sugars are so ubiquitous, manufacturers have gotten creative and developed sugar alternatives to join the ranks of other sweetener options like maple syrup, honey, and agave. Ahead, your complete guide to natural sugar alternatives, as well as artificial sugar alternatives, plus the dish from dieticians about which are best for athletes.
What are natural sugar alternatives?
When we think of “sugar,” it’s most often the granulated white kind that many of us spoon into coffee or sprinkle over grapefruit. “This is known as sucrose, which is chemically made up of glucose and fructose. You might hear this referred to as ‘refined sugar,’ while other options that are also 100 percent sugar are considered ‘unrefined’—and incorrectly perceived as healthier, such as honey, agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, molasses, sorghum syrup and more. Sugar is sugar,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYou.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Your body can’t really tell the difference based on the source.
That said, some natural sugar alternatives may have a slightly higher nutrient content than white sugar. For instance, sorghum syrup contains potassium, magnesium, iron and manganese. Honey offers flavonoids and phenols that may help it deliver antibiotic and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Honey, maple syrup, and agave are the most common natural sweeteners, so we asked Roxana Ehsani, R.D., C.S.S.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist in Miami and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to help us decode the pros and cons. Then read on for the scoop about calorie-free natural sweeteners.
This thick, golden syrup is made by bees that have extracted nectar from flowering plants. As far as the positives go, honey is mainly composed of carbohydrates that can be used by your body as a quick form of energy, making it ideal for a pre-workout boost.
Honey contains a few vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols (a compound with antioxidant properties), but not really in significant quantities in the amount we’d eat, Ehsani says. Still, this natural sugar alternative has the benefit of potentially acting as a sore throat-soother and even as a cough suppressant because it may help relieve irritation, according to a study published in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine in 2021.
The beloved pancake-topper is created from maple tree sap that is boiled down into sticky syrup. There are different types of maple syrups, including Grade A or Grade B. From there maple syrups are available in light, medium, or dark amber varieties.
As far as the benefits, maple syrup contains a range of minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, and zinc. It also is an excellent source of manganese, providing more than 104% of your daily value needs, along with riboflavin, offering more than 80% of your daily value per serving, Ehsani says. Maple syrup also contains antioxidants that might, over time, help ward off disease. The catch stands with maple syrup too, though, that you’d have to eat it in larger quantities to gain all these benefits, and it’s still best to eat this type of sugar alternative in moderation.
Agave syrup is extracted and boiled down sap from the same spiky plant as tequila. On the positive side, it’s about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, so you might be able to use a bit less and score the same amount of sweetness as you would with 50 percent more white sugar, Robinson says. Conversely, “although agave was once touted as a better-for-you sugar, especially for people with diabetes, the way it’s processed into a syrup is similar to how high fructose corn syrup is also made, which through the processing, the health properties get destroyed, making it not so healthy,” Ehsani says. That’s why you want to use it sparingly.
The Bottom Line on Natural Sugar Alternatives
Honey and maple syrup contain slightly more antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals compared to plain white sugar and may offer a health advantage over plain sugar, Ehsani says. These can act as a quick and easy-to-digest source of carbs for an active person who needs fuel. Add 1 tablespoon of honey or maple syrup to the top of your nut butter-slathered toast with a banana or bowl of oatmeal for an ideal pre-ride breakfast or snack. (Each tablespoon of honey offers about 64 calories and 17 grams of carbs, while the same serving of maple syrup provides 52 calories and 13 grams of carbs.)
“It’s important to note that other sweeteners like honey, agave and maple syrup still contain calories—and are processed very similarly to sugar,” Robinson says. “So enjoy a little sugar, in moderation, but realise that just because it’s natural, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”
What to Know About Naturally-Derived Sugar Alternatives
In addition to the classic natural sugar alternatives above, there are a handful of natural-ish non-nutritive sweeteners (a.k.a. close-to-calorie-free) that are derived from things like corn, melons, and leaves.
“Sweeteners like Stevia, monk fruit, allulose, and erythritol are considered ‘natural’ by the FDA and are derived from plants. Just like white sugar, they are processed into a powder form, but provide no calories and do not impact blood sugar. These can work well for people who choose to limit their sugar intake due to personal dietary or medical reasons,” Harris-Pincus says.
What are artificial sugar alternatives?
Man-made sweeteners, a.k.a. artificial sweeteners, are popular because they contain negligible calories and do not raise blood glucose or insulin levels, Robinson explains.
“Because these are not providing quality nutrition and are typically found in highly processed foods, their use should be minimised but they can be included in an overall healthy diet,” Harris-Pincus says.
The most common artificial sweeteners include sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (NutraSweet), saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and acesulfame potassium (Sweet One), Harris-Pincus explains. These are some of the most studied compounds in the sweetener world, and overall, they are generally recognized as safe at the levels any human might consume over the course of a day.
While they differ slightly in chemical makeup and sweetness level, their health effects are about the same as each other, so Ehsani offers her debrief for the category as a whole.
Pros of artificial sugar alternatives
“These sweeteners are very low in overall carbohydrates and calories, making them a good option for anyone who wants to lose weight or who is avoiding regular sugar due to its blood sugar-raising effects,” she says.
Cons of artificial sugar alternatives
You’re better off turning to other natural sweeteners like Stevia, monk fruit, or natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup instead, because your body is more familiar with processing those. Artificial sweeteners might increase cravings for sweet foods and could do a number on your gut microbiome, research suggests.
Try to steer clear of sugar alcohols (which are hiding out in a lot of sugar-free foods), especially if you want to avoid GI issues during your rides. “These sugar alcohols can cause side effects like bloating, gas, or even diarrhoea, so use with caution,” Ehsani says.
The Bottom Line on Sugar Alternatives
Some studies have demonstrated that consuming high amounts of natural sweeteners or sugar alternatives can increase sugar cravings and contribute to weight gain, Robinson says, but the scientific jury is still out.
With that in mind, there is no universal “best” option for sweetening your foods. So just go for what you enjoy most for a sweet kick, and just use that option sparingly. Robinson confirms that its all based on your taste preferences. (Personally, she’s team natural sweeteners—specifically, honey.)
The FDA now requires that all nutrition facts panels now feature added sugars as a separate line item. A product that’s low has 5 percent or less of your daily value of added sugars, and a food or drink that’s high in added sugars provides 20 percent or more. Aim to keep your sugar intake to a moderate level, sweetening your food as you best see fit.