Sugar Substitutes

Refined sugar is not good for you & I don’t think that info is a big surprise to anyone.  It has no nutritional value; zip, nil, nada – no fibre, no nutrients & no healthy fats.  Evidence suggests that too much sugar & too many refined carbohydrates actually cause inflammation & curbs your immune system.

Sugar, it’s pretty addictive.
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

However, our taste buds love sweet & concentrated sources of sugar have a long history as part of our diet.  Sugars in fruit & honey have provided carbohydrate energy of millions of years.  So, what do we do?  There are some healthier natural sweeteners available but not all are created equal.  If you are looking for something to use as a steppingstone on the path of cutting out sugar – look for minimal processing, so it still contains minerals & phytonutrients, but not the extra chemicals or enzymes.    

Here are some commonly available options which I see pop up in recipes.  It is a balancing act, some have good points, some bad, & some have both.

Agave Nectar

This has a higher fructose content than most common sweeteners, even high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).  It has a low GI & doesn’t affect blood sugar levels in the short term.  It can increase your risk of fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, & high cholesterol in the long term.

Rice Malt Syrup / Brown Rice Syrup

This may start from organic brown rice but there is a lot of processing using enzymes to break down the starches to produce a liquid mix of sugar with the excess water then cooked off.  Hmm, I don’t think good health is a goal here, it is just a sweet syrup with clever labelling.

Sugar Alcohols

You may have heard of these as xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol or isomalt.  They can be found naturally in foods, but they are also added to a lot of processed items.  These taste sweet but they have a different chemical structure, so your body doesn’t absorb them very efficiently.  They can have a negative impact on your digestion, blood sugar levels & oral health.


Honestly, this one is a mixed bag.  Commercial varieties of this are often highly processed & mixed with other sweeteners.  This can disrupt healthy levels of gut bacteria & may contribute to a higher body weight in the long term.  On the flipside, it doesn’t affect blood sugar levels & generally you don’t get sugar/carb cravings.  If you decide to go for stevia, find one that is JUST stevia as a lot of the options have added maltodextrin, flavours, glycerine & alcohol.

Maple Syrup

This is made from tapping sugar maple trees for sap, the sap is then boiled to produce a thick syrup.  It is generally produced in Eastern Canada.  Whilst it does have good amounts of some minerals, it has loads of sugar too.  OK, it is a great source of manganese & zinc, plus antioxidants.  So, if you choose to purchase maple syrup make sure you buy organic as many commercial brands use chemicals in the processing.

Raw Honey

The best way to describe raw honey is “as it exists in the beehive” – meaning it is extracted from the hive, strained & poured into the bottle.  Commercial processes often involve heating or pasteurization which destroys the goodness in the honey.  Why is this done?  To extend shelf life & make the product smoother.  Some manufacturers also add in sweeteners or sugars to reduce the cost.  I am a big fan of raw honey but use it sparingly.  Raw honey contains antimicrobial properties, antioxidants, plus a range of vitamins & minerals.

Rapadura Sugar

This is an unrefined cane sugar, so you get the natural caramel taste.  However, it is still a sugar & should be enjoyed in moderation, as any added sugars can be a factor in weight gain and obesity.

Special Mention – Dates

These are often used in cooking/baking to add in some sweet.  Be aware they have a very high sugar content & should only be eaten in moderation.  On a positive note, they contain potassium, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium & vitamin B6.

You have probably heard (over & over) about the message of eating less sugar.  Natural sugars don’t get special treatment from your body, it tries to break it down as sugar.  Bottom line – sugar consumption will still impact weight, so have sugar as a treat on special occasions & try to consume less added sugars in your daily diet. 

Published by Shân

I am incredibly passionate about food and its healing power – it is pretty amazing how what you eat affects how your body works! In fact, I was so fascinated, I went & got myself a degree in it – a Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional and Dietetic Medicine). Now in all honesty I don’t eat or live a perfect lifestyle, nor will I ever pretend I do. Realistically I know you won’t be perfect either. And that’s OK. As a Clinical Nutritionist I focus on what we eat and how this has an impact on our health and wellness – everyday.

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