The evidence suggests sugar shouldn’t be a staple in our diet. But what are the best sugar substitutes? But we also live in a world where food has deep emotional and cultural meaning, where we also embrace birthday cakes, holiday treats, traditional foods and special occasion desserts. When you couple that with the rise in refined carbohydrate (i.e. processed and manufactured food) availability, it’s not much of a surprise that over the last number of years, our appreciation for sugar has moved in a sharp upward trend. Interestingly, so have the rates of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune disease. These foods are delicious, but from a nutritional standpoint offer very little. 

While we know the ‘white stuff’ is bad but what we don’t realise is that one, it’s very well hidden on the label and two, there are some great alternatives available to you! Read on to find out the what are the best sugar substitutes or if you would like to learn more about nutrition check out our Nutrition and Health Coaching Course

What are the best sugar substitutes: introduction

Over the last number of years, few foods have taken over our diet habits quite like sugar. 

A note on carbohydrates:

All carbohydrates are composed of chains of single sugar units called saccharides. The best recognised is probably glucose, which also plays a key role in energy production. We can classify carbohydrates into simple sugars (monosaccharides like glucose, fructose and galactose, and disaccharides like sucrose), starches (longer units composed predominantly of glucose and/or fibre (long chains of sugars that don’t get fully broken down by our digestive enzymes and instead are fermented by the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts). 

When we eat carbohydrates, they get broken down and digested into sugars. Whole food sources of carbohydrates contain a mix of simple and complex carbohydrates which helps with the digestion process, slowing down the release of sugar into our bloodstream and managing our energy levels. Refined carbohydrates refer to carbohydrates that have been processed. The processing removes certain components like fibre so that these foods are digested and absorbed rapidly, sometimes raising blood glucose levels as quickly and creating peaks and troughs in overall energy. 

A note on energy production:

To understand the above, it’s worth mentioning what actually happens to the sugar units. Carbohydrates are broken down during digestion mostly into glucose, which is absorbed into our bloodstream and shuttled into our cells by insulin. Once it enters the cell, glucose is used to make ATP, the energy currency for all cells. A single glucose unit can make many ATP molecules. While glucose isn’t the only molecule to be able to do this, it’s the preferred source for cells. 

The number 50

When it comes to sugar, the problem starts with our diet. Many of us consume a large amount of processed and/or packaged foods where the label can tactically mask sugar and dupe you into a false sense of security. Did you know that companies can choose from over fifty different names when it comes to sugar, artificial sweetener and even natural substitutes? The ingredients list is marked in order of most abundant to least abundant ingredient. So one tactic is to choose a couple of different ‘sugars’ on purpose and spread them across the ingredients list and in this way avoid placing it first on the list. Whether it’s due to sugars’ addictive properties or perhaps more just to meet consumer demand, there is a marked increase in ‘unlikely’ products that contain copious amounts of sugar. 

It’s not just cake and biscuits! Flavoured yoghurt can carry as much as 19g of sugar per serving, tomato sauce can have up to 15g and even salad dressings often contain sugar. What blind’s us even more, are clever marketing terms like ‘no added sugar’, ‘natural’ or ‘organic’! 

Dangers of Sugar

According to WHO, we should limit our daily sugar intake to just 6 teaspoons a day or circa 24 grams. However, it is estimated that the average Briton consumes circa close to 22 teaspoons daily! Not good at all especially when sugar wreaks havoc on your health! There are over 141 reasons sugar ruins your health! To list just a few:

  1. Too much sugar can lead to insulin resistance and type II diabetes
  2. Sugar can lower your immunity
  3. Sugar can inhibit vitamin and mineral absorption
  4. Excess sugar is stored as fat in the body.
  5. Sugar can cause anxiety, inability to concentrate and hyperactivity

When it comes to inflammation and sugar, the poison is in the dose. A byproduct of energy production is the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), aka oxidants or free radicals. In general, the more energy (food) consumed, the more ROS produced. A healthy body has the ability to control both the amount of and the damage caused by ROS but overconsumption food and glucose is associated with increased production of ROS and markers of inflammation, even in healthy people. However, it is exaggerated in people who are obese or have type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, or metabolic syndrome. This is because there is a relationship between inflammation and insulin sensitivity (source). 

What are the Best Sugar Substitutes: Artificial Sweeteners

Anything artificial and not found in nature is best avoided full stop. To keep it very simple, ask yourself; if I can’t recognise the name on a label, how can I expect my body to know what this ingredient is, let alone what to do with it? Some names to take note of:

  • Aspartame – most commonly found in soda drinks
  • Saccharin – a common artificial sweetener
  • Stevia– There’s natural green leaf stevia and then there’s white/bleached, for example, Truvia. Avoid the latter. 
  • Sucralose – For example, the Splenda you see in the shopping aisle. 

Bottom line is if your body cannot process it, it is a toxin to the body. 

What are the Best Sugar Substitutes: Natural Sugars

When asking what are the best sugar substitutes, sweeteners that come from nature are always the first choice. As a basic rule always ask yourself does the item offer any real benefit (physical or otherwise) that you couldn’t get from an unsweetened source? 

The main reason natural sugars are considered superior to highly refined sources has to do with micronutrients. As one example, honey contains vitamins A, B1, B6, B9, B12, C, D, and E, as well as minerals including calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, silicon, iron, manganese, and copper. By contrast, table sugar has nothing to offer. 

Natural, non-chemical sweeteners include the following:

  • Raw honey – if you are going to consume honey, be sure to buy local and organic to make sure you get all the bang for your buck. Conventional store-bought honey can often be bulked up with high fructose corn syrup or heavily processed.
  • Molasses – kind of like marmite, you either love it or hate it. It is incredibly rich in nutrients and great for adding a brown sugar-like flavour to baking. Among the natural alternatives, this one is king packing a real bank for your nutrition buck! 
  • Date sugar, palm sugar, coconut sugar
  • Fruit juice – be careful with this one. Yes, it’s natural, but removing the fibre also leaves you open to consuming large amounts of fructose based sugar in one go. Stick to whole fruit where possible
  • Maple syrup – like honey, many store brands are not true maple syrup. Look for organic and grade B on the label.
  • Cane sugar – Look for organic and fair trade.
  • Green leaf stevia – not to be confused with bleached stevia products you might see in supermarkets. Green leaf stevia comes in green powder form and has quite a mild sweetness. 

The Poison is in the Dose

Overall, it is advisable to reduce sweeteners and sugar to a bare minimum because natural or not, too much is not good for your health.

Here are some tips to help you decipher labels better:

  • As mentioned above, remember that the ingredients are listed in order of abundance. The first item is the most abundant ingredient. So if a sweetener or a sugar is in the top three, you can assume that the product is high in sugar overall. Similarly, if you see a number of ingredients that fit into the next three points spread out over the whole ingredients list, it is probably best to avoid it.
  • Check the total carbohydrate grams in the food, then check the sugar grams. 1tsp of sugar is equivalent to about 4g so take note of how quickly it can add up to 6 tsp (24 grams)
  • Look for ingredients that end in “-ose” or “-tol” – this means it’s a sweetener. For example: sucralose, glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose etc.
  • Look for the words ‘sugar’, ‘nectar’, ‘syrup’. While these terms represent natural sources, they are STILL sweeteners you should be aware of.

So in short – take WHO’s advice of 6 tsp per day / 24 grams. Combine it with the natural sources above for that perfect sweet spot.

A note on the research:

It’s important to point out that the connection between sugar and health is still a controversial topic from a research cause/effect standpoint. Part of this is because there are a lot of parties involved so the food and beverage industry has taken some aggressive actions. For example, among the current research studies, there a hundreds that are funded by key players in the industry and so show a result that skews in favour of the funding party. One tip, is you can now search PubMed by company name to see very quickly who funded the research.