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Are Alternative Sugars Really Healthier?

You may have seen a headline about coconut sugar being the new ‘healthy’ sweetener. Or perhaps you saw that honey is a ‘superfood.’ It’s important to remember that sugar is sugar, but there are some minor differences between sugar alternatives and things to look out for when considering a substitute to plain white table sugar.

Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, explains the ins and outs of alternative sugars—and offers a few tips about what to look for on labels when choosing sugars or other processed foods.

We’ll use a green/yellow/red light system to explore different sugars below, but in general, keep in mind that sugar is all about moderation. While athletes do need sugar to fuel for sport performance, there is no one ‘super healthy’ sugar and Ziesmer’s top recommendation is to be mindful of the amount of sugar overall in your athlete’s diet. “Don’t worry about things like a squirt of ketchup that has two grams of sugar or force a young athlete to go low-carb overall,” she says. “But be aware of how much added sugar is in things like cereals or granola bars.”

Green light: natural non-sugar ’sweeteners’

The best option is the non-sugar option, says Ziesmer. This starts with using spices and nut butters that add the illusion of sweetness without any actual sugars. “Cinnamon and nutmeg are great options for making something seem sweeter, as is natural peanut butter,” she says. “Instead of adding a ton of syrup to pancakes, can you top them with cinnamon, nutmeg, cashew butter, and berries? That’s a much healthier alternative. Similarly, dried fruit and regular fruit are both easy sweet options to add to oatmeal or granola rather than sugar.”

Yellow light: maple syrup

“Maple syrup and honey are my preferred sugar sources,” says Ziesmer. “I like maple syrup because it contains antioxidants, which makes it a much better alternative to table sugar.” It’s also high in zinc and manganese, two important minerals. However, when shopping for maple syrup, it’s important to clarify that maple syrup needs to say, “100 percent maple syrup” and have only “maple syrup” listed under ingredients. Many cheaper syrups on the market are high fructose corn syrup with maple flavoring and color added. And again, even with pure maple syrup, moderation is key: Pay attention to serving size and consider measuring it out versus pouring straight from the bottle.

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Nutrition Parent, Coach TrueSport