Unfortunately refined white sugar and high fructose corn syrup plague our food supply and can be found at the root of many chronic diseases. They are everywhere and it takes focused effort to evade their tentacles. I cannot encourage you enough to read labels and get a better understanding of what you are eating and it's connection to your current physical and mental health.
There are two things to consider when choosing a healthy sweetener: How processed it is and how high it is on the Glycemic Index? It's always the most nutritious to eat foods closest to their natural state so look for labels that say "natural" or "unrefined" to make sure your are getting your nutrients in. Refined sugar is used as a flavor enhancer and can be found in most packaged foods, condiments and drinks (read the labels). The refining process strips the sugar of all its nutritional value leaving it with loads of empty calories in addition to being very high on the GI. The Wikipedia definition of Glycemic Index is a measure of the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar levels. Carbohydrates that break down quickly during digestion and release glucose rapidly into the bloodstream have a high GI; carbohydrates that break down more slowly, releasing glucose more gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI.
Simple sugars include honey, molasses, date sugar or syrup, turbinado/raw sugar, sorghum, succanat, maple sugar or syrup, fructose and fruit juice concentrate. The simple sugars are unprocessed and natural but can still be high on the GI which is not good if you have diabetes or blood sugar issues. If you are prone to yeast or other fungus they can still feed these organisms and make it harder to get rid of them. Also remember sugar turns to carbohydrates and must be used as fuel or else it turns to fat and contributes to weight gain.
Then there are the complex sugars like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The complex sugars take your body longer to break down and are considered healthier than the simple sugars.
Remember it is important that our bodies do get some form of sugars – sugars turn to carbohydrates and that is what our bodies burn for energy. So once you are healthy eating simple sugars in moderation is a good thing. In the meantime I recommend getting your sugar from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
There are some low GI healthy sweetener alternatives available on the market. These are Agave Nectar,Lo Han, Stevia and Xylitol. They are very low on the GI and thus are suitable for both healthy blood sugar and weight loss.
So your dietary needs will determine whether you choose a sweetener simply because it is unprocessed (but may still have a high GI) OR because you need to maintain your blood sugar or lose weight by choosing sweeteners low on the GI.
Artificial Sweeteners: Never a Healthy Sugar Alternative
All artificial chemical sweeteners are toxic and should be avoided. In fact, given a choice between high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, I recommend high fructose corn syrup by far (though it's essentially asking if you should consume poison or worse poison).
Stevia: GI-0, Best Healthy Sugar Alternative though it is 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar, stevia is not a sugar. Unlike other popular sweeteners, it has a glycemic index rating of less than 1 and therefore does not feed candida (yeast) or cause any of the numerous other problems associated with sugar consumption.
Xylitol: GI-7, Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol sweetener found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables which can cause bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence with initial consumption. It's said to be safe for pregnant women, and is said to possibly treat ear infections, osteoposis, respiratory infections, candida, and is it even helps fight cavities. In fact, in Finland, virtually all chewing gum is sweetened with xylitol.
Agave Nectar: GI-15 to 30, A sweet syrup made from the Blue Agave plant, Agave Nectar is obtained by the extraction and purification of "sap" from the agave plant, which is broken down by natural enzymes into the monosaccharides (simple sugars): mainly fructose (70-75%) and dextrose (20-26%).
Fructose: GI-17, Though fructose has a low glycemic index rating, fructose consumption should be limited. Fructose is linked to heart disease as it raises triglycerides and cholesterol. It is devoid of nutrition.
Brown Rice Syrup: GI-25, Though it is said to have a low glycemic index (25), it is not recommended for diabetics, since its sweetness comes from maltose, which is known to cause spikes in blood sugar.
Raw Honey: GI-30, A Healthy Sugar Alternative in moderation. With antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates, and phytonutrients, raw, unprocessed honey is considered a superfood by many alternative health care practitioners and a remedy for many health ailments. Choose your honey wisely. There is nothing beneficial about processed honey.
Barley Malt Syrup: GI-42, Barley malt syrup is considered to be one of the healthiest sweeteners in the natural food industry. Barley malt is made by soaking and sprouting barley to make malt, then combining it with more barley and cooking this mixture until the starch is converted to sugar. The mash is then strained and cooked down to syrup or dried into powder.
Amasake: GI-43, This is an ancient, Oriental whole grain sweetener made from cultured brown rice. It has a thick, pudding-like consistency. It's not easy to find in the U.S., but it is a great alternative to refined table sugar.
Sugar Cane Juice: GI-43, Healthy Sugar Alternative in moderation. Sugar cane juice has many nutrients and other beneficial properties and is said by some health practitioners to be almost as medicinal as raw honey.
Organic Sugar: GI-47, Organic sugar comes from sugar cane grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides. It is usually darker than traditional white sugar because it contains some molasses. (It has not been processed to the degree white sugar is processed).
Maple Syrup: GI-54, Maple syrup is made by boiling sap collected from natural growth maple trees during March & April. It is refined sap and is therefore processed. It has a high glycemic index, and though it is much more nutritious then refined table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, there are better choices.
Evaporated Cane Juice: GI-55, Evaporated cane juice is often considered unrefined sugar, but juicing is a refining process, and evaporating refines further. Though better than turbinado, cane juice (unevaporated) is a better choice as a sweetener.
Black Strap Molasses: GI-55, White refined table sugar is sugar cane with all the nutrition taken out. Black strap molasses is all of that nutrition that was taken away. A quality organic (must be organic!) molasses provides iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and is alkalizing to the body.
Turbinado: GI-65, Turbinado sugar is partially processed sugar, also called raw sugar.
Raw sugar: GI-65, Raw sugar is not actually raw sugar. It is processed, though not as refined as common white table sugar. Therefore, given a choice between raw and white, choose raw. There are many different variations of raw sugar with many different names depending on how refined it is.
Corn Syrup: GI-75, Corn syrup has very little nutrition and should be avoided.
Refined, Pasteurized Honey: GI-75, The nutrition is gone, and there is often high fructose corn syrup added to processed honey. Refined pasteurized honey is no better than white table sugar.
Refined Table Sugar: GI-80, Conventionally grown, chemically processed, and striped of all beneficial properties, many health advocates believe that refined sugar is one of the two leading causes (high fructose corn syrup is the other) of nearly every health ailment known to man (or woman or child). Not only does it have a high GI ranking, but it also is extremely acidic to the body causing calcium and other mineral depletion from bones and organs (sugar is alkaline but has a very acidic effect on the body).
High Fructose Corn Syrup: GI-87, Many health advocates believe that high fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are the two biggest contributors to health ailments in our society. High fructose corn syrup is a combination of sucrose and fructose.
Glucose (AKA Dextrose): GI-100, White bread was the 100 benchmark, but for consistency glucose now holds the rating at 100.
Maltodextrin: GI-150, Foods that have maltodextrin often say "Low Sugar" or "Complex Carbohydrate", but this sweetener should be avoided!
NOTE: The GI numbers here are only estimates. There are many variables that help determine how quickly a sugar is absorbed. These numbers represent an average of several respected studies.