Not all sweetness is created equal. In this article, we look at the healthiest and unhealthiest – sugars and sugar substitutes.
Natural sugar substitutes and sweeteners are great for reducing the amount of table sugar (refined white sugar) in your diet.
A lot of us consume too much added sugar in our diets from consuming sugary products, including:
These foods and drinks are fine to enjoy in moderation but can be detrimental to your health if you consume too many.
In fact, too much added sugar can be one of the greatest risk factors to cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks, strokes and heart disease.1
There are 3 main types of sugar substitutes:
Intense chemical sweeteners made to mimic sugar with just a small amount.
They are often very low calorie / calorie-free and are used in a wide variety of foods and drinks.
Examples include aspartame and saccharin.
Natural sweeteners are the most similar to ‘normal’ sugar.
They tend to mimic the natural sweet taste of sugar really well, which is why many prefer them as their sugar alternative.
However, this means that many of them are quite high in calories.
If not eaten in moderation, they can also still contribute to health problems like unhealthy weight gain, tooth decay and poor nutrition.
Examples include agave nectar, coconut sugar, stevia (which is low calorie, actually!) and honey.
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These sweeteners have around half the calories of normal ‘white’ sugar. Some occur naturally in vegetables and fruits and some are manmade.
They’re low in calories and don’t cause cavities, which is why they’re often used in sugar-free gum.
Examples include sorbitol and xylitol.
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Food manufacturers claim that low calorie sugars like artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols can help control blood sugar levels, help prevent tooth decay and reduce calorie intake.
The Europe Food Safety Authority has approved these health claims made about sorbitol, sucralose and xylitol, among others, when it comes to controlling blood sugar levels and oral health.
According to the NHS, low calorie sweeteners are also considered a very useful sugar alternative for people with diabetes.
However, it’s also been suggested that artificial sweeteners may stimulate appetite and may contribute to obesity and weight gain.
Decided you want to ditch some of the sugar, try these 9 healthy sugar alternatives on for size!
Containing no calories, no carbohydrates, and no fructose – this natural sweetener is a healthy choice.
Derived from the Stevia leaf it will not cause blood sugar spikes, in fact it’s even been shown in animal studies to increase insulin sensitivity.3
The naturally sweet flavour (Stevia is 300 times sweeter than sugar) means it’s a great choice for baking and a little goes a long way.
Two tablespoons of stevia powder converts to one cup of sugar.
For a sweet chia seed pudding try combining three tablespoons of chia seeds with half a cup of almond milk and half a teaspoon of stevia and refrigerate overnight.
As for that box of refined-sugar-filled cereal? Keep it for a holiday treat.
Although honey is relatively high in fructose – 40% – it’s a completely natural food packed with nutrients.
There’s truth in the folk remedy that hot water, honey and lemon works for a cough or cold. In several studies, honey has proven beneficial for some respiratory conditions.
Consumed by our ancestors for thousands of years, it seems we are better able to digest and metabolise honey than refined sugar.
Coconut nectar is taken from the sweet nectar of coconut blossom.
It’s rich in the minerals zinc, calcium and potassium – and also contains inulin, a fibre, which may explain why the glucose is absorbed more slowly.4
Coconut nectar can be substituted (using the same proportions) for white or brown sugar in recipes.
Agave nectar is a syrup extracted from the blue agave plant – the same plant that is used to make tequilla!
It has a super sweet taste similar to honey and is good for yoghurts, porridge and hot drinks.
A tablespoon of agave nectar contains roughly 64 calories – similar to honey.5
This may seem like a lot, but it is much sweeter than normal sugar, so you don’t have to use half as much.
Dates and products like date pastes are excellent for adding natural caramel-like sweetness to cakes, bakes, smoothies and more.
Unlike table sugar, they are also packed with dietary fibre and micronutrients like potassium, magnesium, iron and antioxidants.6
Although dates do have a very high sugar content, eating them in moderation and substituting real sugar with them could support your health.
If you have diabetes or another blood sugar-sensitive condition, you should still be cautious as they are still very sugary at the end of the day.
Maple syrup is made by extracting the sap from sugar maple trees.
You often find it drizzled over pancakes or waffles, and it is most popular in North America.
It is very high in sugar, but does also contain vitamins and minerals like calcium, potassium, zinc and manganese.
So, if you’re replacing sugar with maple syrup you will probably have a more nutritious diet, but if you’re simply adding it to your diet (on top of regular sugar), the benefits won’t be the same.
Xylitol is a sugar alternative made from, wait for it… wood!
Now we know that doesn’t sound like the most appetising of alternatives, but people claim that it tastes and looks just like white sugar.
It usually has around 40% fewer calories, offers steady energy release, and actively helps promote healthy teeth, rather than help send you on the way to the dentist needing a filling!7
You can cook with it, bake with it, or simply use it in your hot drinks, the only downside is that it can be a little pricey.
Sorbitol is an alcohol sugar found naturally in some fruits like peaches, berries, apricots, apples, dates, plums and figs.8
This sweetener contains approximately 2/3 of white sugar calories and about 60% of the sweetness.9
However, it is not fully digested in your small intestine, which results in fewer calories being absorbed.
It is often used in foods marketed toward diabetic people, as it doesn’t have much of an effect on blood sugar as white sugar does.
You’ll find this artificial sweetener in fizzy drinks, diet products (including low-fat yoghurt) and chewing gum.10
Aspartame is comprised of three components:
In the body, methanol breaks down into formaldehyde.
A study commissioned earlier this year by Britain’s food watchdog found the controversial sweetener does not cause harm.11
Sugar has been branded ‘the new nicotine’ thanks to its addictive quality and often detrimental effect on our health.
Research has now linked the sweet stuff to diabetes, obesity, lowered immunity and cognitive impairment.
When you read ‘sugar’ on a label, it means refined sugar.
It is made from sugar cane or sugar beets that have undergone a process (involving heat and chemicals) to remove the molasses and bleach the substance white.12
In its natural state, raw sugar cane contains an array of vitamins and minerals, including potassium and magnesium.
However, refined sugar, or white sugar, has zero nutrients.
As a result, your body must borrow vitamins and minerals from healthy cells – including chromium, calcium and B-complex vitamins – to metabolise it.
Refined sugar is also high in fructose (50%), which has recently been identified as the main culprit when it comes to weight gain.
In the body, fructose is transported to the liver where it’s stored as glycogen, with the remaining portion converted to fat.
If that’s not bad enough, research shows that fructose may increase cravings for high calorie foods.
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Molasses is a thick syrupy sweetener made using crushed sugar beets or sugar cane – byproducts of the sugar-making process.13
Although it does contain some vitamins and minerals like manganese and magnesium, it is very high in sugar and most nutritionists suggest getting these nutrients by other means.
By all means, use it as a sugar substitute for its rich taste but know what it is almost exactly the same as using regular sugar.
Last updated: 6 September 2021
Joined Holland & Barrett: Jan 2018
Bsc in Nutrition, Registered Associate Nutritionist and Certification in Pre and Post Natal Nutrition
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018.
Donia has over 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.