I lost my father to the fatal effects of diabetes. He suffered from Type 2 diabetes for over 2 decades, losing his quality of life over those years. Watching his health deteriorate was very hard, and it is still hard to accept that he is not with us anymore. It has been almost 9 years since he left, and I still wonder how much more we could have done to help him.

One thing we could have possibly done was to introduce alternative sugars in his diet. I did not realize this until I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during my last pregnancy. Gestational diabetes refers to a high blood sugar state that develops at any time during pregnancy in a woman who does not have prior diabetes. It affects nearly 2% to 10% of pregnancies.

I had to change my whole lifestyle to keep the condition at bay and not let it harm my developing baby and me. By using alternative sugars and following a strict diet regimen, I was able to manage my health and not have to depend on medication during my pregnancy.

Could alternative sugars really be that effective? It got me thinking about what they are exactly and how does the body react to alternative sugars versus regular refined sugars. Even though I was able to maintain lower blood sugar levels, were the alternative sugars even good for me?

In order to appreciate what alternative sugars are, it is important to understand what makes them different than regular sugars and how to incorporate them safely into the diet. To begin, refined sugars do not contain any protein, essential fats, vitamins, or minerals. There is no real use for them in our foods except to add sweetness, but that sweet flavor comes with risks.

Sugar is addictive and known to interfere with the body’s natural hormones that regulate hunger and satisfaction, which can cause excessive cravings and overeating. It can harm one’s metabolism, leading to increased insulin and fat storage. There are many diseases linked with high sugar intake like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

So can substituting with alternative sugars reduce these potential risks? Not necessarily, as they can still perpetuate the desire for sweets and cause overconsumption. As with most things in nutrition, it is important to remember that moderation is key. Sugar alternatives, whether derived from natural sources or not, should still be used sparingly. For example, coconut sugar is extracted from the sap of the coconut palm, It has lots of nutrients and a lower glycemic index because of its increased levels of fiber. To simplify, here is a comparative breakdown of some commonly used alternative sugars:

Types of Alternative Sugar



Coconut Sugar: extracted from coconut palm sap
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Contains nutrients like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium
  • Has a lower glycemic index
  • Contains a fiber called inulin
  • High in calories
  • High in fructose
Honey: thick, golden syrup produced by bees
  • Contains large amounts of vitamins and minerals
  • Contains antioxidants
  • May reduce cholesterol
  • Metabolizes easily
  • May increase inflammation
  • May increase HbA1c blood sugar levels
  • High in fructose
Maple syrup: thick liquid made by cooking down sap of maple tree
  • Contains minerals like calcium, potassium, manganese, iron and zinc
  • Contains antioxidants
  • Lower glycemic index
  • High in sugar
  • Will raise blood sugar levels (but slightly slower than regular sugar)
Yacon syrup: extracted from the yacon plant
  • Contains ⅓ less calories than sugar
  • Can decrease hunger hormone ghrelin
  • Improves healthy gut bacteria
  • May help with weight loss
  • Excessive amounts may lead to gas, diarrhea, or general digestive discomfort
  • Not for cooking or baking
Stevia: natural leaf extract
  • Has zero calories
  • No known links to weight gain
  • May lower high blood pressure
  • May lower high blood sugars and insulin levels
  • Varies in taste
  • May taste bitter
Xylitol: sugar alcohol extracted from corn or birch
  • Contains 40% fewer calories than sugar
  • Does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels
  • May improve dental health
  • Increases body’s absorption of calcium
  • Can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea
  • May taste bitter
Erythritol: sugar alcohol found in fruits
  • Contains 6% of the calories of sugar
  • Tastes closest to sugar
  • Absorbed directly into bloodstream
  • Does not raise blood sugar or insulin levels
  • May taste bitter
  • May cause digestive issues
Date sugar: dehydrated dried dates
  • Contains no additives
  • High potassium and antioxidant content
  • High fructose content
  • Clumpy texture
Brown rice syrup: extracted from cooked brown rice
  • Contains no fructose
  • Contains no nutrients
  • Could possibly contain arsenic
Molasses: boiled down sugar cane or sugar beet juice
  • Contains few vitamins and minerals like potassium and calcium
  • Contains antioxidants
  • High in sugar

To summarize, alternative sugars can make a nice substitute for refined sugars but should still be used sparingly. Even after my delivery, I continue to find ways to incorporate alternative sugars in the foods I cook and bake as a slightly preventative measure. Because I had gestational diabetes, my chances of developing Type 2 diabetes have greatly increased. Throw in my predetermined genes, and I have to work really hard to avoid the inevitable.

Women who have had gestational diabetes have a 35% to 60% chance of developing diabetes in the next 10–20 years, and studies show that immediately after pregnancy, 5% to 10% of women with gestational diabetes are found to have diabetes, usually Type 2.

Endocrinologist Dr. Nadia Yaqub is a mother of three girls and the Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. She regularly sees patients who suffer from diabetes, sometimes as many as a dozen a day and does recommend the use of alternative sugars for them. “Dietary modification is a cornerstone of managing diabetes,” says Dr. Yaqub. “I do recommend alternative sugars to patients in moderation in place of refined sugars and monitor their diets very carefully.”

To practice what she preaches, Dr. Yaqub maintains a low carbohydrate and low sugar regimen herself along with regular exercise. “A significant part of improving and extending your quality of life is by taking preventative measures,” advises Dr. Yaqub. “The best cure is to avoid the disease and that which can cause it. Our food is making us sick, and sugar is a big component of that. Finding alternatives is a great step towards preventative medicine.”

So using alternative sugars may not be the cure or the answer, but it is definitely a step forward in the right direction. By training our taste buds to lessen our liking of excessive refined sugars, we can feel better and do better with our health as well.

Tayyaba Syed is an award-winning children’s author and freelance journalist. She travels extensively to share her love for reading and writing. Her work has been featured in NPR, and she has written for more than 20 book titles including Encyclopedia Britannica. She lives with her husband and three children in Illinois.