What’s The Best Sugar Alternative?

Make smarter choices for your family when it comes to sweetening food. Here are some of the popular sugar alternatives available…

There’s little doubt that too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back. Research shows sugar increases the risk of many chronic diseases including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer. One European study concluded that the consumption of just one sugar-sweetened drink a day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 22%.

Sugars are found naturally, of course, in foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and as lactose in milk. The main concern, however, is around added sugars usually in the form of sucrose (table sugar), syrups and high-fructose corn syrup. It’s estimated that a third of added sugar consumption comes from sugar sweetened drinks, a sixth comes from foods such as chocolates, ice creams, and biscuits, but half comes from everyday foods such as ketchup, salad dressings, and bread.

New WHO guidelines recommend we all aim to cut our intake of added sugars (including sugar present in honey, syrups and fruit juices) to 6tsp a daily. That’s about 25-30g for an adult every day. To put this in context a typical can of fizzy drink contains about nine teaspoons of sugar.

As we all become savvier about refined sugars in the diet, the wealth of new sugar alternatives on supermarket shelves can make it difficult to know which ones to choose. One particular form of sugar that has received bad press is fructose. While it is naturally present in fruits it can be harmful when processed and added to products or used in large amounts.

One of the main concerns surrounding fructose is how it is processed by the body. Fructose is almost exclusively metabolised by the liver. When we eat a lot of it, much of it is converted into fat. This leads to an increase in triglycerides, which increases the risk of heart disease. Excess fructose consumption is also linked to skin ageing, diabetes, gout and weight gain particularly around the tummy. It can also contribute to digestive symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhoea.

That’s not to say you should avoid whole fresh fruit – especially the lower glycemic fruits such as berries, avocado, cherries and citrus fruits. They are packed with antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals. The fibre content helps slow down how quickly the sugars are digested and metabolised to help avoid sudden surges in blood sugar levels.

Another method of measuring the effects of sugars is to look at their glycaemic index or load (GI / GL). This indicates how certain foods affect your blood sugar levels. Glucose has a score of 100 as it is rapidly metabolised by the body. Those with a low GI score will have less effect on our blood sugar levels meaning they are metabolised more slowly avoiding sudden surges and dips in blood sugar levels, insulin and energy. So when you are looking at sugar alternatives it is useful to look at both, fructose content and GI scores, as well as the amount of processing involved.


Honey is a popular sweetener but just because it is ‘natural’ does not mean it is as healthy as many people assume. It is high in fructose (on average around 53%). There is a difference between raw honey and processed honey. Raw honey has a lower glycaemic index (around 30-40) compared to processed honey (around 60-70). And while honey does contain antioxidants, enzymes and antimicrobial benefits these are seen in raw and Manuka honey rather than the majority of honey, which is heat-treated and processed.

CONS Don’t assume that just because honey is ‘natural’ it is much healthier. As it is in liquid form it’s also easy to go overboard! If you are going to use honey then use only in small amounts and choose raw or Manuka honey, which will have a slightly lower GI score and contain more enzymes and nutrients.

Best For Use a small amount (1/2 -1tsp) of raw or Manuka honey over cereal or add it to a bowl of fruit.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup is the boiled and refined sap from maple trees and is a popular choice among vegans. It has a GI of 54 and a slightly lower fructose content (around 40%) meaning some people with digestive problems may find it easier to digest. While it does contain some manganese, iron and calcium, nutritionally speaking it is not really significantly different from white sugar – especially as many brands are highly refined. A few studies have look at its antioxidant properties but as yet there is little research to show its clinical significance for human health.

CONS As a liquid sweetener that is typically highly processed, it is easy to use in excess. The GI score and fructose content is still high, meaning it can quickly upset blood sugar levels.

Best For Ideal for drizzling over pancakes. Use in small amounts only and select unrefined organic maple syrup.

Date Syrup

This is typically made from mashed up dates, which are drained and the liquid is then boiled to make a syrup. It is high in fructose as 80% is sucrose (which contains an equal mix of glucose and fructose). There is a little research that suggests date syrup may have antibacterial properties, which may be down to the presence of phenolic compounds, but more research is needed.

CONS A thick syrup which is less sweet meaning you may be tempted to use more – so watch your consumption. As it is high in fructose it can also contribute to digestive symptoms

Best For A popular ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine, where it’s used in both savoury and sweet foods, try date syrup in marinades or salad dressings.


Xylitol is one of most popular low GI sweeteners. What makes it different from many of the others is its low GI score at around 7. Xylitol also has been extensively researched. The most well-known health benefit of xylitol is its effect on dental health: there is plenty of evidence for xylitol’s ability to prevent tooth decay. This is why it is often added to sugar-free chewing gum. Naturally present in fruit and vegetables, it is normally derived commercially from birch or corn. Xylitol contains 40% less calories than table sugar yet with a similar sweetness so it is ideal for using in baking as a sugar replacement.

CONS Like fibre, it is not fully digestible, so can cause bloating. Be careful not to feed it to your dog. It’s metabolised differently by them and can be very detrimental for their health.

Best For Replacing table sugar in baking without affecting its texture and with no after taste. You can swap it weight-for-weight, making it ideal for converting regular recipes into healthier options. Great for sweetening hot drinks and puddings too.

Coconut Sugar

Made from the sap of the coconut palm flower buds, it has a relatively low glycaemic index (35) and also contains traces of certain nutrients including iron, zinc, calcium and potassium. It contains inulin, a type of fibre, which may slow glucose absorption and helps to feed beneficial gut bacteria.

CONS Calorie wise, it is similar to table sugar so don’t be fooled into thinking it is a low-calorie alternative. It is 70-80% sucrose, half of which is fructose.

Best For With a rich molasses-like flavour, it is popular in baking.


Stevia is fast becoming a popular low-calorie sweetener. It is extracted from the leaves of a plant, Stevia rebaudiana, and has been used for centuries in South America. It is incredibly sweet and has virtually no calories. It also has a low GI and very low in fructose. The most potent sweet compounds in the stevia leaf are called stevioside and rebaudioside A and they are both many hundred times sweeter than sugar. Current research suggests it is a useful sweetener for people with diabetes.

CONS Ideally, choose a brand that uses the whole plant. Many on the market make use of only certain active ingredients and not the entire plant. Usually, it’s the synergistic effect of all the agents in the plant that provide the overall health effect. Read labels carefully as some brands mix regular table sugar or artificial sweeteners with stevia, meaning they may not be the pure or low calorie option you think. It can have a slight bitter after taste and is normally used in small amounts as a sweetener.

Best For A sweetener in drinks or dressings where only a minute amount is needed.

Luo Han Kuo (Monk Fruit)

Lo Han Kuo, or Monk Fruit, is another natural sweetener similar to Stevia, but harder to find. In China, the Lo Han fruit has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and it’s about 300 times sweeter than sugar. The Chinese call luohanguo the ‘longevity fruit’ because the steep mountain fields in Guangxi Province, where it is grown, have an unusual number of residents that live to the age of over 100 years. The mongrosides in the fruit appear to have antioxidant properties as well as benefits for diabetes and potential anti-cancer properties. Like stevia, it has no impact on blood sugar levels, with a zero GI and 30% fructose.

CONS Lo Han products are difficult to find. It is often combined with artificial sweeteners or flavourings, which can alter its GI level. Read labels carefully.

Best For A useful addition in small amounts to drinks, dressings and sauces.

Yacon Syrup

Yacon syrup comes from the yacon tuber, an Andean crop that’s commonly used as a food tuber in South America. To make syrup, the tuber is juiced, the pulp removed, and the liquid reduced and concentrated.

The syrup tastes a bit like molasses, yet with a low glycaemic score (between 1 and 5 depending on the source). Its low GI level is mainly because it contains a large amount of inulin, a fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS) that tastes sweet but is not digested in the small intestine and instead acts as a prebiotic fibre helping to feed beneficial bacteria.

CONS It contains a reasonable amount of fructose at around 40%. As it is high in inulin this can cause bloating and flatulence in people with IBS.

Best For Choose 100% yacon syrup without additives. Useful drizzled over puddings and pancakes or added to cakes to replace golden syrup or molasses.

Palmyra Jaggery

Jaggery is basically unrefined sugar made from sap tapped from trees. You can get it from coconut, date and palmyra trees. It has a rich, caramel flavour making it useful in baking. One of the benefits is its relatively low GI score of around 40 and, in particular, its low fructose content compared to other sugars. As it is less processed it contains more vitamins and minerals including iron, B6, calcium, potassium and B12. However, in a typical serving, it is unlikely to contribute significantly to your daily intake. Jaggery is also said to help support immune, liver and digestive health, as well as help prevent anaemia. However, there is no good evidence available to support these claims.

CONS Jaggery may have a better nutrition profile than sugar but it has similar calories to table sugar – use sparingly.

Best For It is versatile. It can be grated or broken up, and then used as a replacement for refined sugar in drinks, sweet and savoury dishes.

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