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Low sugar drink alternatives

December 17 2020/ By Aele Bayomi Dietetic Student at Rutgers University

Reviewed by Jinan Banna, PhD, RD

Sugar sweetened beverage consumption

Reducing sugar intake has been a common health concern for many years now, especially with the rise of obesity worldwide. Sugar sweetened beverages (SSB) have been consumed at an all-time high and have been shown to hinder normal physiological function in the brain.  With a more health-conscious generation on the rise, many have gravitated towards low sugar drink alternatives to get their fix without hindering their health. The consequences of daily consumption of sugar sweetened beverages such as soda and juices with added sugars have short and long-term effects on the body. The primary source of added sugars in most diets today is from SSB.  Cutting sugar out of the diet is no easy feat, but with healthier alternatives becoming more common, making the switch to cut out sugar has become easier.

Effects of sugar consumption

For years, studies have been conducted to link the high consumption of SSB to the rise in the obesity epidemic, especially in the younger generation. SSBs contain added sugars such as sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, and more. 

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated how sugar consumption decreases the feeling of being full, which leaves you craving more sugar.  Further studies have shown us that regular consumption of SSB is associated with the risk of obesity and chronic disease, such as type 2 diabetes. The recommended amount of sugar consumption according to the USDA Dietary Guidelines is no more than 10 tsps. of sugar a day for the average adult. However,  in Today’s Dietitian, Sharon Palmer, RD states that consumers are now eating over 30 tsps. of sugar a day, which is 3X the amount recommended. This overconsumption of sugar leads to a high sugar tolerance which leads you to crave more. 

Reducing intake of refined sugar

The use of added sugars in processed foods and beverages has added to the sugar debate and has caused consumers to look at alternative sweeteners that are not refined sugar. In the food trend, we usually see this in the form of honey, agave, maple syrup, raw sugar, stevia, date sugar and more. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association shows a significant difference between the antioxidant levels of sugar alternatives compared to refined sugar. Alternative sweeteners such as agave, raw sugar, and honey could be substituted for refined sugar and increase the antioxidant intake to match that which is found in berries. This is something to keep in mind as we are considering low-sugar drink alternatives. 

Coconut water

Coconut water is a low-calorie, refreshing beverage that contains many beneficial nutrients. Coconut water has an astonishing 61g of potassium, which is more potassium than what is present in over 4 bananas. Coconut water contains sodium, potassium, phosphorus, proteins, free amino acids, and more. Coconut water has catechins and kinetin, which give it the health benefits that people rave about. Catechin is an antioxidant that aids in digestion and has anticancer properties. Kinetin present in coconut water is known to delay aging in skin cells. This beverage is a great alternative for those who gravitate towards sports drinks due to coconut water’s ability to replenish electrolytes without adding too much sugar. 

Sparkling Water

Sparkling water is a good no-sugar alternative to those who love soda. It gives the bubbly sensation that many love, and comes in a variety of flavors such as strawberry lemonade, lime, black cherry, and more. Fruits and supplement powders can be added to the sparkling water to provide additional benefits and flavor to the carbonated drink.

Herbal Tea

The guys at Black Leaves, an Australian tea company, explain that whether it is cold or hot, tea serves as a low to no added sugar beverage. Sweeteners such as agave and honey are favorites for less refined sweeteners that are commonly used to sweeten tea. Iced teas can be infused with other fruits such as peach, strawberries, and blueberries to add flavor and sweetness. This would be a good alternative for those who crave fruit juice without the added sugar. For example, a simple peach iced tea recipe would be:

  1. Take half of a sweet, soft peach and smash it in the bottom of a pitcher to extract the juices (this could be made in bulk or used for a single-time use).
  2. To the peaches, add tea bags (amount will vary based on the strength of tea that you prefer), water, a dash of lemon, and mint leaves. 
  1. Optional: add an alternative sweetener of choice such as agave, date sugar, etc. if you would like a sweeter tea.
  2. Cover the pitcher and leave it in the fridge for 3-8 hours (depending on level of infusion desired).
  3. Once ready, remove from the fridge, strain the tea over ice and enjoy!

Note:  this recipe can be recreated with any fruit of choice, such as raspberries, oranges, mangos, pineapple, and more.

Matcha tea

Matcha quickly became a popular beverage among consumers after being hailed as a superfood. Matcha is a potent concentration of green tea and possesses a higher amount of antioxidants than traditional green tea. The health benefits of matcha are from the theanine and polyphenols, which are found in high concentration in the tea. Theanine is an amino acid that improves mental function and clarity to aid in stress and anxiety. Polyphenols are organic compounds that have become popular in nutrition research as of late due to the substantial evidence that found polyphenols can benefit the prevention and management of certain chronic diseases. In this blogpost, Kristen Yarker, RD breaks down the difference in caffeine content between traditional green tea and matcha, as well as explaining factors that affect the content in each. Matcha can be served hot or iced and has become a popular product in many coffee shops.


Coffee has been a cult favorite among consumers of all ages for years. With companies like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts creating new flavors every season, it is easy to see why people keep going back for more. However, these drinks are typically made with more sugar than is recommended for consumption. For people who drink more than 1 cup, this could become a problem.

Coffee itself has been linked to a reduction in diabetes and liver disease and is speculated to reduce mortality. To add flavor to coffee, instead of using sugar syrups and additional sweet ingredients, vanilla extract could be used. Vanilla extract is made by extracting the flavor from vanilla pods in a solution of alcohol and water. To avoid putting too much sugar in the coffee, sugar free flavored syrups have become popular for those looking to flavors such as caramel, vanilla, gingerbread and more.

These sugar free syrups are made with purified water, sucralose (a sweetener that is ingestible, making it non-caloric and yielding no sugar content), xanthan gum, natural flavors, potassium sorbate, and sodium benzoate. Sucralose is one of the five artificial sweeteners approved by the FDA. However, smart use of sweeteners is advised because overuse of these can also create a tolerance that may affect taste receptors. A simple, low-sugar coffee could be made with coffee, an unsweetened nut milk, sugar-free flavored syrup of choice with a dash of agave or a packet of stevia.

Infused Water 

Infused waters became a trend to increase water consumption for people who did not meet their daily water intake. These infusions could be done with fruits, herbs, and alternative sweeteners if desired. Infusions are created by letting fruits sit in water for a few hours to infuse the natural flavors and sugars. For example, to make an infusion with strawberry, lemon, and mint we would take a pitcher of water and add:

  • ½ cup of sliced fresh strawberries
  • 1 whole lemon or lime, sliced thinly
  • 10 fresh mint leaves

Let the fruit sit in the water for 1-3 hours, add ice and enjoy! Other combinations are: 

  • Pineapple, mango, and orange
  • Raspberries, blueberries, and rosemary 
  • Watermelon, kiwi, and lime

Another way to make a refreshing infusion would be by making a slush. Just add ice to any of the combinations above, blend it, and you now have a fruity slush to replace high sugar smoothies or juices. 

100% Juice

Sugar from fruits is different from refined sugars that are added to sweeten beverages. Juice cocktails and juice from concentrate usually have added sugars added to the product to increase its consumption. Sticking to 100% juice with no added sugars is the best option on the shelf for consumers. A better alternative would be to make fruit juices at home. This gives you the option to mix your fruits and vegetables, without adding any extra sugar. Also, by leaving the fruit pulp in the juice, you retain the fiber and vitamins that would usually be lost had they been filtered out like store-bought juices.

Final Thoughts

Many of us drink our calories and up our sugar intake from SSB, but with the increasing market of sugar alternatives and low sugar options, we can make the change to swap out high sugar beverages for low sugar ones. The current food market is committed to coming out with healthier drink choices to appeal to the current demographic. With the new generation prioritizing healthy eating, physical activity and overall wellness, the increase in demand for healthier food products in the food industry is sure to skyrocket. In the meantime, because of our current environment, we are able to create little cafes in our home and play with different flavor combinations that we enjoy the most. Reducing our sugar intake is important to our health both in the short and long term and will ultimately benefit us in the end.

Have questions? Comments? I would love to hear what you think below!

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2 thoughts on “Low sugar drink alternatives”

  1. My Nan has recently been diagnosed with diabetes so this will really help us all learn about some alternatives for her. Thank you for sharing ?

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