13 Kinds of Sugar Ranked from Best to Worst

By Danielle McAvoy, MSPH, RD
December 1, 2021

There’s no escaping it, we’re built to love sugar. As babies, we’re born with a preference for sweet flavors and there’s even evidence that early humans who ate fruit were more likely to survive. Craving sweetness was a benefit when it compelled us to eat more plants, but now that we’re surrounded by sugar that sweet tooth can feel pretty inconvenient. While small amounts of sugar aren’t a problem, regularly eating too much can lead to diabetes, fatty liver disease, and a decline in brain function.

Despite marketing claims, there are no truly healthy sugars. Your body doesn’t care if you drown your pancakes in organic maple syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Once it gets past your tastebuds, all sugar, no matter its form, is just a simple molecule soup.

Glycemic index (GI) is a popular way to rank sugars, but a low GI doesn’t equal healthier. It’s just an indication of where the response happens in the body, and it changes based on what other foods are eaten. If a sugar has a high proportion of fructose, which is digested in the liver and doesn't trigger a blood sugar response, it'll have a lower GI. Excess sugar is harmful no matter the source.

There are also sugar alternatives that have no calories and no impact on blood sugar. The downside is that they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and must be combined with bulking agents like sugar alcohols that can cause stomach upset. And even though many of them are derived from plants, they are highly processed.

But the news isn’t all bad. Though no sugar is “healthier” than any other, minimally processed sugars do retain some plant nutrients, which are stripped from highly processed versions. The naturally occurring sugar found in whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruit and vegetables is full of fiber and other nutrients that slow digestion of the sugars and prevent insulin spikes. 

Minimally processed sugars are also often produced in more sustainable ways. Sugarcane production has a devastating effect on the environment. It fuels deforestation, pollutes freshwater ecosystems, and is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. Those are good reasons to find alternatives to ultra-refined sugar.  

The truth is that despite all its negative impact on our health and the environment, we need to make peace with the fact that most of us want something sweet to eat every once in a while and there is no shame in that. The question then is what types of sugar do the least harm.

Here’s our list of sugars ranked from best to worst. 

  1. Maple syrup has minerals like manganese, zinc, and iron, and is also a good source of antioxidant plant nutrients. Properly tapped trees can produce syrup for more than 100 years, making it the most sustainable sugar. Territory partner Bakefully Yours uses organic maple syrup to naturally sweeten their paleo vegan chocolate chip cookies.
  2. Date sugar has a small amount of fiber, antioxidants, and minerals like potassium and calcium. But even though it’s made from whole food, date sugar is still a concentrated source of calories.
  3. Honey has anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to soothe coughs and sore throats for ages. It’s extremely sweet and packs more calories per teaspoon than other sugars, but is minimally processed. 
  4. Coconut sugar has a small amount of minerals, but not enough to provide any health benefit. There is a lot of marketing around its glycemic index, which just means it has a different ratio of sugar molecules than white sugar. It’s a good choice because of its minimal processing. Bakefully Yours sweetens their paleo fudge brownies with coconut sugar.
  5. Molasses is concentrated sugar cane juice, with blackstrap being the most concentrated. It has a few vitamins and minerals, but you would need to eat at least 5 tablespoons of molasses to get your daily dose of any of those nutrients. 
  6. Panela, sucanat, evaporated cane juice, whole cane sugar are all names for boiled and dried cane sugar juice. This is the least processed type of cane sugar and has trace amounts of minerals like calcium, iron, and magnesium. Of the cane sugars, panela or sucanat has the fewest processing steps and retains the most nutrients. 
  7. Demerara, turbinado, and muscovado are sometimes called “raw cane sugar,” even though they’re not raw. Traditionally, these sugars were only partially refined and retained some natural molasses. To make a consistent product, many manufacturers now use refined white sugar and then add molasses. There isn’t a good way to tell how they’ve been made, so these sugars are considered highly refined.
  8. Agave syrup is extracted from the agave plant and treated with heat or enzymes, a process that destroys most of the plant’s nutrients.
  9.  Cane and beet sugar has many forms, but the most common is granulated white sugar. It’s 100% sucrose (which is half glucose, half fructose) and one of the most highly refined and widely used sugars. Brown sugar is white sugar with a small amount of molasses. Other than its color and slight molasses flavor, brown sugar is the same refined product as white sugar.
  10. Brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup, and corn syrup are all highly refined and don’t retain any plant nutrients.


Natural no-calorie sweeteners ranked: 

  1. Allulose is a rare sugar found in small amounts in foods like figs, raisins, and corn. Allulose can be absorbed by the gut, so it doesn’t cause stomach upset like sugar alcohols. It’s very low in calories and has minimal impact on blood sugar. It’s fairly new to the sugar scene but looks to be a promising option.
  2. Monk Fruit is a no-calorie sweetener made from mogrosides extracted from monk fruit. Because monk fruit isn’t absorbed in the small intestine, it doesn’t impact blood sugar. Try it for yourself in Bakefully Yours grain-free snickerdoodles. 
  3. Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It’s not metabolized by the gut so it has no impact on blood sugar.