Sugar is bad. No, artificial sweeteners are bad. No, just some of them. So wait - what are you supposed to do?! Here's your primer on sweeteners. Sugar in general is associated with a variety of negative health consequences. Elevated blood sugar, insulin resistance, increased cardiovascular risk, general inflammation, behavioral effects. The food industry's answer to the recommendation to decrease sugar consumption resulted in many artificial sweeteners that have now been shown to be just as damaging, or even more so, than just regular sugar. In general, it's best to limit your sugar intake as much as possible. For us - this means using sugar where it matters. Yes! We eat sugar. Sometimes too much! I try to choose sweeteners smartly at home for myself and for my daughter. Here is my philosophy: I don't need sugar in dried fruit or yogurt, and would rather save my sugar intake for something more worthwhile...occasionally! Flourless chocolate cake anyone?! I would not recommend artificial sweeteners in general.
Mmmmm - you guessed it! Honey is my favorite. The best honey is raw and unfiltered. This honey still contains pollen and has not been heated during production. I definitely prefer the flavor and I love that it's less processed. Honey is very sweet and I find I don't need as much as recipes often call for. Chemically, honey is mostly fructose and glucose with a small amount of other sugars present. Another reason I love honey is for all the non-food uses. Have a small burn? Honey can help. Homemade facial recipes? Honey. Your child is sick and coughing? Honey. Pediatric cough and cold medicines are not safe for children <6 years, and they generally don't help with symptoms for children of any age. 1-2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime can be really helpful for nighttime coughing. Remember that honey should be avoided for infants <12 months due to a possible risk of botulism.
Sugar is produced from sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar produced from sugar cane is available in a variety of refined states, whereas when produced from sugar beets is always highly refined. Side note - if you prefer to avoid GMO's, sugar from sugar beets should definitely be avoided as they are almost all GMO species. Chemically, sugar is sucrose: equal parts of fructose and glucose. Obviously - sugar is associated with all the negative health consequences that you are familiar with. My personal recommendation if you use sugar at all is to choose organic, coarse, unbleached varieties. I use sugar occasionally, and find that putting a couple slit vanilla beans in my sugar canister makes it easy to really reduce the amount of sugar in recipes without sacrificing flavor.
Maple syrup comes from the sap of Maple trees. It has much more of a rich aroma and flavor than sugar. You can read more about the different grading systems here. Chemically, it is mostly sucrose, with some fructose and glucose. There are some trace minerals in maple syrup, such as zinc. I think this is an acceptable sweetener in moderation. Please remember there are many highly refined and processed "syrups" that are made with high fructose corn syrup and all sorts of bizarre chemicals and I would not suggest using them.
I would love to love molasses, but I just don't! The flavor has never appealed to me. It is a byproduct of sugar production, where most of the sucrose has been removed. It has a high concentration of iron and magnesium. Typical use for molasses is more restricted than for sugar or honey, but some cakes and cookies use molasses, and some people consume for various health reasons. A related product is called Sucanat which is a type of cane sugar that retains it's molasses and other vitamins and minerals. It is a coarse, granulated substance that can be used in place of sugar for most things, but it does have a stronger flavor.
Agave nectar is a highly processed refined sweetener from the agave plant. Agave is a great example of dishonesty by the food industry. This product has been marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, however has a very high fructose content and may cause even worse glucose/insulin spikes than sugar. It has a nice clean sweet flavor and is a thin liquid. I don't personally use this and I wouldn't recommend it.
The only sugar alternative I would (cautiously) recommend. Stevia is an herb and can be easily grown. Unlike the chemical artificial sweeteners, stevia does not appear to effect blood sugar levels and is not associated with the same Western Disease risks. I say cautiously because yes - this is still a somewhat processed product and there is some controvery of how "natural" the finished product is. Do your own research and decide for yourself, but personally I think occasional use of stevia is fine and I would much rather see someone use this than "Sweet N Low" or similar. It's also an easy to grow plant if you're into the DIY thing - tips here.
Aspartame/saccharin/sucralose (Splenda) etc
Just don't! These are lab made chemicals, not food. These ingredients are in a variety of "diet" products and soft drinks. They are associated with WORSENED weight gain, insulin resistance, metabolic disease, etc. Unfortunately these have been heavily promoted as being a better, more healthy option, which is not the case. Additionally I am not convinced of the long term safety of consuming these.