The lowdown on sugar swaps
Which ‘healthy’ sugar alternatives should we use to sweeten things up a little and which may be masking nothing more than sweet poison?
Xylitol is a naturally occurring carbohydrate, that looks and tastes just like regular table sugar. It is a natural sweetener that can be extracted from any woody fibrous plant material. Xylitol has around 2/3 less calories than table sugar and is low GI.
Made from boiling down the sap of the maple tree. Grade B is darker, stronger and higher in minerals than grade A maple syrup so look out for this. A natural sweetener that works with both sweet and savoury flavours with a round 1/3 less calories than sugar. Raw maple syrup has been through less heat processing so will retain a higher level of nutrients and antioxidants.
Date Puree / Nectar
Pre bought or simply homemade from soaking dates in boiling water and blending, this natural fruit based sweetener is great in porridge and baking as it adds bulk and moisture as well as flavour. A good source of fibre and minerals including potassium, dates (particularly medjool dates) are a current favourite with healthy eating bloggers the world over!
Similar to maple syrup, the process involves boiling down the sap from the flower of the coconut palm tree. Often heat treated to evaporated all moisture, it finishes as a crystalline texture. Lower GI and more nutritious than sugar, coconut sugar is a source of iron and calcium and polyphenol antioxidants.
Stevia-based sweeteners use purified extracts from the leaves of the stevia plant. The ‘natural sweetener’ is up to 300 times sweeter than sugar, suitable for diabetics and calorie free. It is often combined with other artificial sweeteners to help mask the sometimes bitter aftertaste but unsurprisingly, pure stevia is favourable. Research thus far has concluded it to be non-toxic. Some do report digestive bloating as a side effect of large intakes.
A naturally occurring sugar that may have marginal advantages by containing small amounts of vitamins & minerals but overall it behaves very much like pure sugar in the body and so should be used sparingly. There are potential benefits for hay fever suffers if you use local, raw honey and there is a specific type called ‘Manuka Honey’ that is thought to possess medicinal benefits.
A continually debated option made from the sap of the Mexican plant used to produce tequila. It is lower GI than sugar and 50% more sweet in taste so in theory you need to eat less of it, reducing overall calorie intake. In its raw form agave nectar is thought to hold some health benefits but the processing strips commercial agave of these beneficial compounds and alters the structure of the carbohydrates meaning the end result is similar to high fructose corn syrup. The jury’s out on this one!
A chemical based calorie free sweetener that rose to fame in the 1980s and became very popular, being used in everything from ‘diet’ drinks to yoghurts to chewing gum. However, a growing wealth of research is now reporting it to be a potentially carcinogenic neurotoxin and bring on a whole host of side effects in people ranging from migraines to stomach cramps to palpitations. Best avoided! Look out for it disguised on food labels as E951.
A more recent emergence in the market, favoured for less of an aftertaste than aspartame. Sucralose is marketed as a ‘natural sweetener’ as it is chemically derived from sugar but what they don’t tell you is they have manipulated a sugar molecule and replaced a hydrogen atom with a chlorine atom. Possible reason for concern in itself but research is ongoing and more long term studies are required.
TOP TIP: Love a hot chocolate but hate all the empty calories from sugar? Try this delicious and simple recipe: heat 1 tsp. raw cacao powder with 150ml unsweetened almond milk & 50ml full fat coconut milk and add ½ tsp. of cinnamon to boost the blood sugar balancing effects (optional xylitol to taste).
Learn more about sugar in our Nutrition and Weight Management course
References: Robert H. Lustig, Kathleen Mulligan, Susan M. Noworolski, Viva W. Tai, Michael J. Wen, Ayca Erkin-Cakmak, Alejandro Gugliucci, Jean-Marc Schwarz. Isocaloric fructose restriction and metabolic improvement in children with obesity and metabolic syndrome. Obesity, 2015; DOI: 10.1002/oby.21371
Magnuson, B. A.; Burdock, G. A.; Doull, J.; Kroes, R. M.; Marsh, G. M.; Pariza, M. W.; Spencer, P. S.; Waddell, W. J.; Walker, R. (2007). "Aspartame: A Safety Evaluation Based on Current Use Levels, Regulations, and Toxicological and Epidemiological Studies". Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 37 (8): 629–727. doi:10.1080/10408440701516184. PMID 17828671.