Plant-Based Sweeteners: A Complete Guide
The variety of plant-based, zero-calorie sweeteners continues to expand, making it easier than ever to dial back on added sugar, naturally. But more options can sometimes mean more confusion, so we’re sharing a rundown on low- and no-calorie plant-based sweeteners, including how they taste and the best ways to use them.
Sugar: It’s not so sweet
As of January 2021, food manufacturers are now required to disclose added sugar content on nutrition labels. As a result, many are finally looking for ways to trim added sugar, naturally.
The average American diet contains about 13% added sugar. This includes table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, as well as “natural” sugars like raw coconut sugar, maple syrup, honey and agave. This is troublesome because:
- A diet high in added sugars is considered inflammatory and is linked to an increased risk of conditions such as cancer, heart disease and joint pain, among others.
- Added sugars also contribute to excess calories and weight gain, with minimal or no nutritional benefit.
- A diet high in added sugars can set us up on the blood sugar and cravings rollercoaster, causing and perpetuating our desire for more carbs and more sugar.
A guide to natural plant-based sweeteners
Below are a list of the most common natural plant-based sweeteners, categorized by their sweetness intensity.
High Intensity: Up to 300 times sweeter than sugar (sucrose)
Stevia: Approximately 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar. Derived from the stevia plant, some people may perceive stevia as bitter. Many stevia products on shelves are a blend of stevia and erythritol or monkfruit. It contributes essentially zero calories or carbs when used in products.
Monkfruit: Approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar. Also referred to as lo han guo, monkfruit is derived from a fruit that has been consumed in China for hundreds of years. It contributes essentially zero calories or carbs when used in products.
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Low Intensity: Closer to 1:1 ratio with sugar (sucrose)
Erythritol: Approximately 60% to 70% as sweet as sugar but with virtually zero calories. Small amounts occur naturally in fruits; most erythritol is produced by fermenting glucose with various yeasts. Erythritol is bulky, providing a volume similar to that of sugar, so it’s often combined with high-intensity plant-based sweeteners. (Swerve, for example, is a blend of erythritol and oligosaccharides.) Erythritol contributes essentially zero calories or carbs when used in products.
Allulose: Approximately 70% as sweet as sugar, allulose only contributes 0.4 calories per gram (compared to 4 calories per gram of sugar). Compared to erythritol, allulose caramelizes and browns more like sugar. Use in moderation, as high amounts of this sweetener are linked to bloating, diarrhea and GI discomfort.
Xylitol: Close to 1:1 ratio with sugar. Large amounts of this sweetener may have a laxative effect, but it’s otherwise safe for humans. Even small amounts of xylitol, however, can be dangerous to dogs. Xylitol can trigger a significant release of insulin from their pancreas, followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar that, left untreated, can be life-threatening. Xylitol also causes liver disease in dogs.
For more on plant-based sweeteners, check out Molly’s FUELED podcast episode.