I prefer to use natural things whenever possible so have generally tried to avoid these chemical alternatives for most of my life. The natural sweeteners often have benefits beyond just being sweet. Not all are calorie free and not all are problem free. It is best for overall health to use all sugars only occasionally and in small amounts. But, when you just want a little treat or a healty substitute for your favorite cookies, these al can make a difference. I will go over the most commonly used sugar substitutes on the market right now.
This sugar substitute comes from the Cherry or Sweet Birch tree but can also be made in the industry from corncobs. The sugar, Xylose, is isolated from the tree bark and made into the sugar alcohol, Xylitol. Xylitol is as sweet as sugar but with less calories (1 gram = 2.74 kilocalories as compared to 3.87 kcal in sugar). It has a low glycemic index and, thus, is approved for use with diabetics. It has less of the usual aftertaste as compared to the more chemically derived sugar substitutes. It has gained some fame in also helping to fight dental cavitites because it promotes growth of good bacteria for the mouth. Some claim it can be used in baking as a 1:1 substitute but it absorbs more moisture so the recipes would have to have some adjustment for that. However, larger amounts of xylitol can definitely cause diarrhea or other gastrointestinal complaints so it is best to start with small amounts first and use in moderation. It is worth noting that the more natural version of this is Birch syrup, made just like Maple syrup, by tapping trees for the sap and boiling it down. The caloric content is still high but the syrup will naturally contain a lot of vitamins as well and causes less gastrointestinal issues. Of course, the syrup is not a good substitute for diabetics. (Same is true for Maple syrup).
Stevia, or Sweetleaf, is a plant from the Asteraceae (or Sunflower) family that is from subtropical regions. Its leaves have a sweet taste that is 300x sweeter than sugar. Even in its whole form it oddly has an aftertaste similar to artificial sweeteners and this is attributed to some of the bitter constituents found in the plant. Stevia can be used fresh or dried and powdered or in liquid extract forms. You can bake with Stevia but you generally need a lot less than the sugar in the recipe as it is much sweeter. Many don't like the aftertaste so much though in their recipes. There are many recipes that can be found on line that help guide you on how to work with Stevia for baking. There has been some industrial effort to isolate the sweet components of Stevia to make a sugar substitute but I suspect there will be health concerns and side effects associated with those forms, as there is often when we isolate one consitutent from a plant. An even bigger reason to not isolate just one constituent from Stevia is the that the whole plant has an added benefit of supporting pancreatic health and insulin stabilization, thus having the potential to reverse diabetes (type II). What more could you ask for from a sugar substitute? Stevia can be grown relatively easily in containers and eaten one leaf at a time as well which is a fun treat for kids.
Honey is the classic natural sugar that has been used for centuries to satisfy our taste buds. Yet, we still have arguments about its safety and its health benefits. Generally, the raw honey that you might find from a local beekeeper at a farmer's market is going to be the healthiest version as it will contain much more vitamins and minerals. Some claim that the miniscule exposure to local pollens also helps keep the immune system balanced and cause you to have less overreactions to local pollens. The honey that you find at most grocery store chains is more or less sugar water or overly processed honey that no longer contains most of the health benefits. Honey is also an excellent sore throat and cough soother, wound healer and soothing topical application for inflammed skin. It is still sugar and, thus, not the best thing for a diabetic. There is some research that indicates it is balanced better in the body than simple sugar and, if raw, will provide some nutrients, but it still should be used in moderation or in very small amounts depending on the individual's blood sugar response to it. It can be used in baking, though usually less than simple sugar because it is a liquid and will not absorb moisture. It will need lower baking temperatures too.
Agave nectar gained some popularity in people's search for healthier sugars. It is sweeter than honey but not as thick. It comes from Blue Agave which lives in Mexico and Central America, the same plant sugars fermented to make Tequila. Like, honey, much of what is found commericially is heavily processed and lacking many of the vitamins and minerals in the original nectar. Thus, the processed Agave is not much better than sugar itself. Its main sugars are fructose and glucose, however, the glycemic index is much lower than with simple table sugar. It is a good Vegan alternative for those looking for something besides Honey. It can be used to bake with, similar to honey. It comes in mild to dark amber colors, the darker is presumably better because it is less processed. Look for those with minimal processing and by local makers if you live in those regions.
The powdery sugar alternative made from Dates is worth discussing as well. It does contain a lot more vitamins, minerals and even fiber than table sugar and substitutes well in recipes. Date sugar is made from dried dates that are then pulverized into the sugar granules you can find bagged in many grocery stores. It does not, however, dissolve like sugar, so it doesn't mix well into your tea. It is a little less sweet than sugar, which some will notice depending on your sweeth tooth. It is however, metabolized more slowly, because it is from the whole fruit and so the body handles that sugar better than other simple sugars like table sugar and the syrups mentioned above. It has less calories than sugar too. It is more expensive than the other alternatives, though, but might be worth it for the occasional treat that is still healthier.