Your simple guide to sugar alternatives

guide to sugar alternatives

‘Sugarfree’ has been a fad for some time now, but it’s backed by hard evidence about the damage that high sugar diets are doing to our bodies. I’ve blogged about giving up sugar elsewhere, in explaining my own efforts to quit sugar. Here’s a quick, handy guide to sugar alternatives to help you make sense of the fructose-free frenzy.

Why use sugar alternatives?

By ‘sugar’, most of the time this means fructose, as this is the one that has been copping the bad press lately. When you see ‘sugar’ listed on a food label, this usually means table sugar, refined white sugar that is a combination of fructose and glucose.

I talk more about fructose here in my Benefits of a No Wheat and No Sugar Diet post

In excess consumption (which is how most of us consume it these days, by default) fructose is said to be the one that is most likely to cause diabetes. Sarah Wilson’s I Quit Sugar goes into some of the scientific detail around why this is so. It’s an easy read and I highly recommend it if you’re interested in going sugar free.

Fructose, based on my understanding, causes some damage along the way as your body processes it to turn it into glucose (which is where all foods ultimately end up – being converted to glucose to then be used as energy).

Most importantly, fructose doesn’t appear to have a corresponding ‘off switch like other types of food do, so you end up eating far more of it than is healthy before your body finally tells you you’ve had enough. For many people, myself included, sugar addiction is a real thing, and therefore we need to be alert to opportunities to find ways to replace fructose.

I’m not suggesting everyone should stop eating sugar, but if you are so inclined to give it a try, Sarah’s I Quit Sugar program is excellent, and it seems many people are having great success with it.

sugar alternatives - I Quit Sugar Your Complete 8-Week Detox Program and Cookbook

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Guide to sugar alternatives: Best sugar substitutes

In the meantime, here are some sweet alternatives, some of which you might consider trying:

Artificial sweetener

There’s been a lot of controversy about these over the years, particularly aspartame which is one of the most common artificial sweeteners. A quick Google search will put the frighteners on you about the side effects of artificial sweeteners with a looooong list of proven health concerns. In very small doses, it may be fine, but in larger quantities such as found in diet soft drinks, I would avoid this altogether.
sugar replacements

Sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols are a sugar/alcohol hybrid (surprise!) that act as a sugar alternative in many foods. Mark’s Daily Apple does a good job of explaining how they work. You can spot sugar alcohols on a label because they end in ‘tol’ – maltitol, xylitol, etc.

While they’re marketed as ‘sugarfree’ and are low in calories, be warned that excess consumption, in fact almost any consumption WILL have a laxative effect, or at the very most make your intestines bubble and growl. The body doesn’t process sugar alcohols at all well, but again they’re a reasonable alternative in small doses.

Natural (herbal) sweeteners

Stevia and Natvia are the most popular healthy sugar substitutes on the market. Stevia is a plant, native to South America, which contains zero calories and is commonly found now in sugarfree health foods.

It’s most often used in combination with small quantities of a sugar alcohol. Stevia is a great option, if you’re not bothered by a slightly bitter after-taste. It’s reported to be 300 times sweeter than sugar so you really only need a tiny bit. Natvia is my preferred substitute.

It’s a blend of stevia and a sugar alternative known as erythritol. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to tasting like ‘real’ sugar, and again it’s practically zero calories and a little goes a long way.


Agave is a plant native to Central America and its nectar has been used to sweeten foods for centuries. In concentrated form, agave is still very high in fructose – about 90% fructose according to WebMD and this concentration will vary considerably depending on what it’s been ‘cut’ with in the refining process. Agave contains a similar level of calories to table sugar and won’t necessarily help you quit sugar.

The nutritional benefit of agave is minimal, so it’s really no better or worse for you than ‘normal’ sugar. The Huffington Post argues that commercially produced agave syrup is actually in many cases worse for you than high fructose corn syrup. I’m convinced.


There’s no mystery around honey. Honey is approximately 40% fructose, so should technically be avoided IF you’re on a fructose-free program, however it has been argued as having a number of health benefits that outweigh the minimal harm the fructose can cause. Some of these benefits are summarised here. Honey is not a bad sugar alternative.

Glucose syrup

Pure glucose syrup (also known as dextrose) is, as the name suggests, glucose that has been extracted from corn starch. Glucose is the form of sugar that other carbohydrates break down into, so this is the purest form.

Liquid glucose isn’t as sweet as other sugar, but this study reported in Time magazine concludes it is much better for you and is being used as a ‘healthy’ sugar substitute more often in home cooking. Being less sweet it’s not yet being used in mass produced products.

Maple syrup

Pure maple syrup (don’t be fooled by maple flavoured syrup which is not the real thing) has a similar calorie content to honey but less overall sugar, and a lower percentage of that sugar is fructose. It has fewer vitamins than honey but more minerals as explained here. Again this is a good alternative ‘natural’ sweetener if you’re cutting down or giving up sugar.

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup is unsurprisingly made by extracting the starch from rice.  “The final product contains soluble complex carbohydrates, maltose and a small amount of glucose. RMS is 100% fructose free” as the Natural Nutritionist states. Brown rice syrup is increasingly being found in ‘no sugar’ recipes.

This list contains the most commonly used sugar alternatives. There are new products coming on the market all the time, and new natural alternatives being found. It’s an exciting time to be exploring the benefits of a sugarfree diet. My top tips for giving up sugar can be found here as well as the 9 Benefits of a No Sugar and No Wheat Diet.

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