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Amelia Freer: The truth about sugar alternatives and sweeteners

March 21st 2016 / Amelia Freer / 2 comments


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Our expert nutritionist Amelia Freer gives the lowdown on the sugar alternatives you should and shouldn't be eating

I often get asked about which sweetener is best to use. Before I get into the pros and cons of different options out there, I think it is important to first touch on a few key facts.

Sugar, is sugar… is sugar

There are many natural forms of sugar out there - some ‘sugar free’ baking recipes could lead you to believe these options are 100% healthy just because they are natural. However, until the last few hundred years, sweet foods were a luxury and our access to them was usually dictated by the seasons, as we didn’t have refrigeration or preserving techniques now available to us. The fruiting season was short and honey was rare. It is estimated that by the time a child is 8 years old today, they will have consumed as much sugar as an adult did in their entire lifetime 100 years ago.

All forms of natural sugar (honey, maple syrup, fruit, coconut nectar, date puree, raw sugar), impact blood glucose levels to some extent and lead to the release of insulin. The hormone insulin instructs the body to move glucose from the bloodstream and into the cells where it is either used for energy or converted into fat for storage. No matter how natural or nutrient rich a sugar may be, the body responds in much the same way. For this reason, all sugars should be used in moderation, regardless of their source.

Phasing sugar out

Reducing both obvious and hidden sugars from the diet is one of the most effective things that we can do for our health. Going ‘cold turkey’ can be tough for a few weeks but before long, the body adjusts and we become better at controlling our blood sugars, which thankfully means fewer cravings. Also, our taste buds adjust and we are able to appreciate the flavour and variation of whole foods much more. By cutting back your usage of all types sugar, you are making it much easier to enjoy the variety of flavours which comes from eating real food.

No sweetener is 100% healthy

Low calorie ‘natural’ sweeteners (such as stevia or wood alcohols such as xylitol) are a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing - they aren’t quite as harmless as you might think. By all means, use them now and then for a treat but regular use of these sweeteners will continue to encourage your taste buds to want more sugar. To beat sugar cravings and take control of your blood sugars, you really want to take a break from all sweeteners, to allow your taste buds, and brain, to adjust.

Also, recent research has demonstrated if the taste buds and mind are receiving signals to suggest sweet food is being eaten, the body prepares for an influx of glucose. This means that the body does in fact trigger a range of hormonal and metabolic responses ready to manage a blood sugar increase, even though with low calorie sweeteners, the sugar never comes. So you still end up with some of the metabolic consequences of eating sugar anyhow. This may go some way to explain why low calorie drinks and products don’t seem to have the positive impact on obesity that people had expected.

Artificial sweeteners come with all the issues associated with natural sweeteners outlined above, but with the additional burden of being highly processed, man-made chemicals which are not recognised by the body and often need to be detoxified by the liver.

It is often possible to substitute white sugar/caster sugar with alternatives in recipes. Sometimes a little trial and error is required to get the balance right but once you’ve done it a couple of times, you’ll get the hang of it. As baking is a form of chemistry, there are some recipes which will not work if a ‘real’ sugar is replaced with a sugar substitute such as xylitol or stevia – this is because you lose the physical properties that sugar brings to a recipe. An obvious example is a meringue or pavlova.

The best (and worst) sugar alternatives

My preference is always to eat real food so no surprise that my recommendation is to use ‘natural sugar’ products, but in moderation. Below is a list of natural sugars and sweeteners roughly ranked in my order of preference but different recipes or situations may lead me to use a sweetener that might not be suited to another occasion.

Palmyra Jaggery

What is it: Palmyra Jaggery (also known as SugaVida by Conscious Foods) is the crystalised nectar collected from the flower of the Palmyra palm, grown in Sri Lanka and India

Why it's a good option: Palmyra Jaggery is a traditional ayurvedic ingredient that is nutrient dense – 1 tablespoon provides 133% of daily vitamin B12 requirement, 222% of vitamin B6, 665% of your vitamin B1. It also has a glycaemic index of 40 making it less disruptive to blood sugar levels - by comparison, white sugar has a GI of 100 and no added nutritional benefit. Palmyra Jaggery is also organic, ethically sourced and a sustainable business for the communities who farm it.

When to use it: use it as a direct substitute for recipes that call for sugar. Often you can halve the amount of sugar being suggested.

How does it taste: It has a deep, warm caramel flavour which will improve most recipes.

Watch out for: Indian food markets may sell blocks of ‘Jaggery’ however usually it is not the real thing made from the palmyra palm and doesn’t confer the same nutritional benefits (there are very few palmyra plantations left).

Coconut nectar crystals / blossom / syrup

What is it: is the crystalised nectar collected from the flower of the coconut palm.

Why it's a good option: a natural sugar which is similar to Palmyra Jaggery but not quite as nutritious – low GI (30-35) and a source of nutrients such as vitamin C, B2, B3, iron and magnesium. It is a little more affordable and more readily available than Palmyra Jaggery for every day use. Sustainability and organic status will vary from product to product.

When to use it: use it as a direct substitute for recipes that call for sugar. Often you can halve the amount of sugar being suggested.

How does it taste: It has a deep, warm caramel flavour which will improve most recipes.

Watch out for: Aim for organic options where possible.

Fruit purees

What is it: use fruit instead of sugar in recipes. A mashed ripe banana, a few dates or apple sauce (stewed apple), for example.

Why it's a good option: You get the added flavour of the fruit along with the vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients that the fruit contains. Apple is rich in quercetin, for example.

When to use it: Substitute sugar in cakes, muffins, porridge, pancakes.

How does it taste: like real food – well balanced without being too sweet.

Watch out for: Depending on the recipe, you might need to adjust other ingredients to account for the changes in liquid which the fruit brings. Apple sauce, for example, will add more moisture than 4 medjool dates. When using dates, remove the stone and place in a blender along with the liquid of a recipe and blend until completely pulverized. No need to strain.

Maple Syrup

What is it: maple syrup is the concentrated sap of the Canadian maple tree. It is lower calorie and fructose content than honey and a GI rating of 54.

Why it's a good option: A natural sugar which has some nutritional value providing minerals such as iron, zinc, manganese and potassium. However, it is lower in vitamins than honey.

How does it taste: a deep, caramel flavour which is delicious as a topping (buckwheat pancakes, of course!) or used in recipes in place of sugar.

Watch out for: Grade A is lighter and milder. Grade B is darker and has higher nutritional value. Don’t be fooled by ‘Maple flavoured syrup’ – this is not real maple syrup and is to be avoided.


What is it: honey is made from bees out of nectar gathered from flowers to feed the hive. Raw honey has more nutrition and health benefits than more highly processed products. GI of 50, and is roughly 50% fructose (a 50:50 ratio of fructose to glucose is easier for the body to metabolise than a higher fructose content product).

Why it's a good option: honey is a natural sweetener and has moderate nutritional benefit providing vitamins such as B6 and C. Some types of honey, such as Manuka or those which are not pasturised confer additional antibacterial/antifungal benefits if used raw. Many people find eating a local honey around hay fever season can reduce their symptoms.

How does it taste: honey varies greatly depending on the flowers the bees have been feeding from. Can really add to the taste of a dish if used well.

Watch out for: Just because honey is natural, that doesn’t mean you can use it without consequence – it is still a sugar. Cheaper honey may be blended with HFCS or glucose syrup to reduce production costs. Honey is not recommended for children under the age of 12 months due to the risk of exposure to Clostridium botulinum bacteria before the immune system is equipped to cope with it. As a side note, I would avoid introducing small children to ANY additional sugar or sweetener until they are several years old – why start their taste buds off on the wrong path when you can usually keep them happy with fruit for a good few years?

Xylitol / Sorbitol / Mannitol

What is it: wood alcohols which can be derived from the fibre of many types of plants such as oats, mushrooms, corn and raspberries. They aren’t a sweetener that I use or recommend but it may be a useful option for some people, including diabetics who may only be able to use natural sugar options sparingly.

Why is it an option: for occasional use as a low calorie sweetener. It is actually good for your teeth as it prevents growth of oral bacteria - it is often used in chewing gum for this reason. The ‘alcohol’ side chain on this sugar stops it from being absorbed from the gut – this stops any metabolic effect but can cause digestive issues (see below).

When to use it: In a recipe, 50:50 with a ‘natural’ sugar to reduce calorie content but still supplying the level of sweetness you may be looking for.

How does it taste: sweet – no added flavour benefits

Watch out for: moderate to high consumption of wood alcohols can lead to a laxative effect giving stomach cramps and diarrhoea. Often wood alcohols are made from GMO corn – look for non-corn or certified organic alternatives if you can. Wood alcohols are highly toxic to pets and animals – keep in a safe place and don’t feed snacks made with these sweeteners to your pets (be sure to tell your children as well).


What is it: is a protein found naturally in the stevia plant grown in Peru, which stimulates the sweet receptors on the tongue. Product varies from whole leaf (green) powders through to highly processed white sugar replacements which are mixed with other excipients so that 1tsp stevia – 1 tsp of sugar (such as Truvia).

Why it's a good option: very low calorie and very potent – a small amount goes a very long way.

When to use it: Once again, it is not a sweetener I use as I prefer natural sugar options but for diabetics, it can be a useful alternative.

How does it taste: some people dislike the ‘furry/metallic’ after taste of stevia but others don’t notice this at all.

Watch out for: the more highly processed versions. Go for the 100% pure leaf options. It is so potent, it is hard to use sparingly which may hinder your longer term goal of letting your taste buds adjust to a low sugar lifestyle.

Brown Rice Syrup

What is it: high glucose syrup derived from fermented cooked rice.

Why is it NOT a good option: Brown Rice Syrup looks and sounds natural but is highly processed, contains little in terms of nutritional value and has a high GI of 98.

When to use it: I recommend using other natural sugar options outlined above, which have more nutritional benefits and lower GI rating.

How does it taste: butterscotch flavour

Watch out for: can make some baked goods a bit too dry, better mixed with another sugar 50:50.

Agave Syrup

What is it: Agave is a cactus which grows in Latin America and the syrup is made from the pulp of the cactus leaf. Although agave syrup was used traditionally by native Americans, that ingredient bears little resemblance to the agave syrup we find on the shelves today.

Why is it NOT a good option: Agave syrup is highly processed and has a fructose content of somewhere between 70-97%. Agave was originally marketed on the back of being a low GL sweetener, because fructose doesn’t cause a glucose/insulin spike like glucose does. But we now know that fructose goes direct to the liver for processing and is actually worse for us than glucose. It is known to increase the risk of metabolic syndrome (cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes) and cause an increase in blood triglycerides and cholesterol. Agave isn’t too different in composition to High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) which is the processed sugar thought to be responsible for much of the obesity epidemic in the USA. Independent tests of agave syrup have shown that some brands actually water down pure agave with HFCS.

When to use it: Never – use other natural sugars/sweeteners instead

How does it taste: Similar to honey but without the floral notes.

Watch out for: Misleading claims that this product is good for your health.

The final word

I don’t think there is any place in a healthy diet for man-made chemical sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K or saccharin. My recommendation is to avoid these products / ingredients and enjoy real natural whole foods when you are looking for a ‘sugar fix’.

There is nothing more delicious and juicy than a beautifully ripe peach! If it isn’t peach season, there are plenty of other treats you can make using those natural sugars at the top of this list.

MORE GLOSS: Why gluten-free isn't good for you


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  • rupert beeley
  • January 7th 2015

You have missed out one of the best sugar substitutes: fresh cinnamon. Check out www.cinnamonhill.com

  • January 6th 2015

Great article, thank you - could you recommend any trusted brands for the Palmyra Jaggery and Coconut nectar crystals / blossom / syrup ?

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