Alternatives to sugar…and are they really healthier?

Doctors, dentists, and nutritionists have been warning us of the adverse effects of sugar for a while now. Too much sugar causes obesity (it is calorie dense), dental problems, mood swings and fluctuations in energy levels. It is also thought to be responsible for causing liver disease which is linked to insulin resistance, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The culprit, it seems, is fructose which is present in most sweeteners. Table sugar (sucrose) is 50 percent fructose; corn syrup contains a similar amount, but even supposedly ‘healthy’ sweeteners like agave, honey, and maple syrup contain fructose. Our bodies cannot digest fructose and it is only metabolised by the liver. When too much fructose enters the liver, the liver can’t metabolise it fast enough for the body to use as sugar. Instead, it starts making fats from the fructose and pushes them into the bloodstream as triglycerides which could lead to the aforementioned health problems.

Eons ago, fruit was the only source of fructose for human beings. The fructose contained in fruit is considerably less than most sweeteners and fruit has the added benefits of fibre, vitamins, minerals and being all natural! Fruit juices, even all natural ones, contain more concentrated amounts of fructose and virtually no fibre. Still – far better to drink a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice than a glass of coke or artificially flavoured fruit juices, which are full of processed white sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup. White sugar and corn syrup (contained in so many food products) are highly processed and devoid of nutrients…they’re often referred to as empty calories. Furthermore, they do not fill you up, so you tend to consume far more than you should. It is a popular misconception that brown sugars are healthier. Most brown sugars are just white sugar with molasses added back in. The darker the sugar, the more molasses has been added back in. Raw cane or Turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice are the healthiest options when it comes to cane sugar, in that they are least refined, however, as far as fructose and calories are concerned, they are right up there with processed white sugar. In short, try to eat the less processed stuff, and even then, in moderation. According to current guidelines in the UK, you should try to consume no more than 90 grams of sugars a day, and that includes sucrose and natural sugars found in fruit, dairy, and vegetables. 1 level teaspoon of table sugar contains about 16 calories and 4-5 grams.

There are a growing number of natural sweeteners that claim to be healthier than sugar. I have used a few of them in my cooking so I thought I would research and do a concise review of these sugar alternatives, and share my findings with you so that we can all be better informed!


Honey has been around for centuries. Raw honey is completely natural. It is also rich in antioxidants and contains more nutrients than cane sugar, albeit too small an amount to be considered a good source of these nutrients. Honey has about 21 calories per teaspoon, more than sugar, but we tend to use less, because it is sweeter. In addition to being high in calories, it is also high in fructose, about 55%! However, there are people who swear by the medicinal properties of raw honey and have reported improved health after consuming it regularly. Furthermore, there are some brands of honey, particularly the floral ones, that have a low glycemic index, or GI, in that they release their sugars slowly and therefore do not cause rapid spikes in your blood sugar levels. Most commercial honeys have a GI of about 58 or more, while that of cane sugar is 65. If you want to use it in baking instead of sugar: for 1 cup sugar use 3/4 cup honey and reduce other liquid by 2 tablespoons for each cup replaced, and lower oven temperature by 5C or 25F to prevent over browning.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar had been touted as an all natural healthier alternative to sugar but recent evidence proves otherwise. It is a product of the agave plant (like sugar is a product of the cane or beet plant) but most of the agave nectar available in stores is highly processed and refined, the lighter coloured it is, the more so. Furthermore, most brands of agave nectar, contain more than 70% fructose (compared with 50% in table sugar)! The main benefit of agave nectar appears to be its low GI of about 30, which means that it is much less likely to cause your blood sugar levels to spike rapidly. Calorie and sweetness wise, it is similar to honey. If you want to use it in baking instead of sugar: for 1 cup sugar use 3/4 cup agave syrup and reduce other liquid by 2 tablespoons for each cup replaced, and lower oven temperature by 5C or 25F to prevent over browning.

Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup is the boiled sap of sugar maple trees. Grade A is light and comes from early sap runs while Grade B is from later runs and has a stronger flavor. Try to buy the organic variety. It contains small amounts of polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help quell inflammation and is high in manganese and zinc. Like honey, it has more calories than cane sugar per teaspoon. The GI for maple syrup is about 54, which is considered moderate. Very popular for pancakes, but also very good to use in your drinks, cereal, cooking and baking. For 1 cup sugar use 3/4 cup maple syrup, reduce liquid by 2 tablespoons for each cup replaced, and lower oven temperature by 5C or 25F to prevent over browning.


Molasses is a thick dark brown or black syrup, much like treacle, that is a by-product of sugar cane or sugar beet processing. There are 3 main kinds: sulphured, unsulphured and blackstrap. Unsulphured black strap is the most nutritious. Unlike refined sugars, it contains significant amounts of vitamin B6 and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese; one tablespoon of blackstrap molasses provides up to 20% of the recommended daily value of each of those nutrients. It also contains zinc and copper. It has a strong, toasty flavour so use it with caution the first time to gauge how much you need for your taste. It has a lower GI than sugar (55), but is similar in calories. When baking with it, for every cup of sugar removed, use 1¼ cups molasses, cut the liquid by up to ⅓ cup and add 1 teaspoon baking soda per cup of molasses. Also, lower oven temperature by 5C or 25F to prevent over browning.

Date Sugar and Date Syrup

Date sugar is dried dates reduced to powdered form. The syrup is pure dates in liquid form. They are both all-natural, unrefined wholefoods that have all the nutritional benefits of dates: high fibre, vitamins and minerals. While they are wholefoods, they are still predominantly sugar, so are high in calories and carbohydrates. I could not find any consensus about the GI count of date sugar/syrup but I will keep checking. Bear in mind that date sugar does not dissolve in drinks or when cooking and tends to clump up. Date syrup is more versatile and much better suited to cooking and baking. The same baking rules that apply to honey, maple syrup and molasses apply to date syrup.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is an all natural sweetener produced from flower buds of the palm tree. It is available in paste and powdered form. It is not processed, has a low GI of 35, tastes like caramelised brown sugar, and has far more minerals than cane sugar. It is also suitable for diabetics. Calorie wise, it is on par with cane sugar. Coconut sugar works very well in baking and works 1:1 as a substitute for white or brown sugar. I made these delicious banana cardamom oat muffins with coconut sugar and they came out beautifully.

Brown Rice Syrup

Brown rice syrup is made when cooked rice is cultured with enzymes which break down the starch in the rice. The resulting liquid is then cooked down to a thick syrup, which is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild butterscotch flavor.  Brown rice syrup has a relatively low GI of 25. However, while it is natural, brown rice syrup is highly refined, concentrated and similar to honey and maple syrup in calories. To replace one cup of sugar, use 1 1/3 cups brown rice syrup, and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup tends to make baked goods very crispy so keep this in mind if you prefer a softer, chewy texture in your baking.


Stevia is an all natural sweetener from a plant native to South America.  It is available in various forms. You can chew the leaves and use them to sweeten drinks and food, and it is also available in powdered and liquid form. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar in powder and liquid form, so a tiny bit goes a really long way. I’ve never tried it but I’ve read many reviews saying that it can have a liquorice after taste. There are also several different brands available so you will have to do your research and find one that you like – the Sweet Leaf and NuNaturals brands seem to be the more popular ones. The major benefit of stevia is that it is calorie and carbohydrate free! Some studies have shown that it has a GI of 0, so is safe for diabetics to use because it doesn’t cause a rise in blood sugar levels. It has been used in Japan for the past 40 years.  It was first introduced in the US in the mid 1990s as an herbal supplement but was finally approved as a food additive by the FDA in 2008. The EU approved it in 2011. When baking, replace all but ¼ cup sugar in the recipe; for each ½ cup sugar removed, use 3½ tablespoons powdered stevia.


Sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, molasses, date syrup, and coconut sugar are all-natural alternatives to sugar that contain more vitamins, minerals and, in the case of date syrup, more fibre than cane sugar. However, with the exception of molasses, they don’t contain enough of those nutrients to make a significant impact. Agave, brown rice syrup, and coconut sugar also have significantly lower glycemic index counts than cane sugar, causing lower spikes in blood sugar levels, but agave has much more fructose which, as we saw earlier, can be harmful when consumed in large quantities. Molasses, maple syrup and some brands of honey have moderate GI counts while stevia has a count of 0! As far as calories and carbohydrate content go, with the exception of stevia, all the sweeteners above contain high numbers. You have to watch your calorie and carbohydrate intake as part of a balanced diet. Therefore, if you’re going to use a sweetener regularly, use one that is natural, unprocessed and richer in nutrients; make your calories count, but watch your calories all the same.


Agave Nectar: Good or Bad?

One Reply to “Alternatives to sugar…and are they really healthier?”

  1. Pingback: Sugar Not So Sweet « Fun with Food Fun with Food

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