The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends consuming a maximum of 50g of sugar per day (that’s a whopping 12 teaspoons), but in reality, most of us are likely having far more. Demand for lower sugar or no sugar is on the rise, as consumers become more health conscious and want to be able to enjoy the same tasty foods and drinks without the health consequences of a high-sugar diet. Fortunately, there are alternatives to ensure your products are sweet enough without sugar.
There are plenty of alternatives to standard, granulated white sugar on the market, all with different characteristics and flavours.
Here are nine—some common, others not so well known—that you might come across, and the pros and cons of each.
Agave nectar (also known as agave syrup) is made from the juice of the agave plant from Mexico. Agave is a most versatile plant, also producing alcoholic beverages Mezcal and Tequila.
It is described as tasting somewhat like honey, but with a thinner consistency.
- Vegan friendly
- Thinner consistency makes it more readily soluble in foods and drinks
- Contains some trace vitamins and minerals
- Lower GI than regular sugar because it contains mostly fructose and not glucose.
- Contains approximately the same number of calories as honey; not much less than regular sugar
- Too much fructose over a sustained period can elevate blood fat level, potentially leading to a number of medical conditions.
Substitute 2/3 cup of agave in place of 1 cup of white sugar in recipes, and reduce other liquid in a recipe by 1/4 to 1/3 cup. Because using agave may over-brown baked goods, it’s also worth decreasing the oven temperature and increasing cooking time.
Honey is considered to be one of the oldest sweeteners in the world, and the best part is, it’s natural and bees do all the hard work of collecting flower nectar, breaking it down into simple sugars and storing it in honeycombs.
- Contains valuable nutrients as well as antibacterial, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties and has long been used as a natural healing agent
- 100g of honey contains almost as many calories as white sugar
- Only about 80 per cent as sweet as sugar because of the water content
- Similar impact on blood sugar levels as sugar (due to sucrose).
Use 1/2 to 3/4 cup of honey for each one cup of sugar in the recipe and reduce the liquid by 1/4 cup for each cup of sugar replaced.
Monk Fruit Extracts
Monk fruit is native to southern China, resembles a small green melon and was first used by Buddhist monks.
It has been used for centuries in eastern medicine as a cold and digestive aid, and now it is also being used to sweeten foods and beverages. Monk fruit sweeteners are created by removing the seeds and skin of the fruit, crushing the fruit, and collecting the juice.
- Monk fruit extract is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar
- The extract contains zero calories, zero carbohydrates, zero sodium, and zero fat
- Because they are stable at high temperatures, monk fruit sweeteners can be used in baked goods.
- Texture of goods baked with monk fruit extracts may be different, as sugar contributes to structure and texture in baking.
Use one teaspoon of monk fruit extract in place of one cup of sugar. To start with, try halving the amount of sugar and substituting the rest with monk fruit extract and see how the product bakes in terms of texture.
Dates / Date Paste
Dates are a popular choice of sweetener in alternative healthy snacks (you’ll often see them as an ingredient in “bliss balls”). Coming from the date palm, they can be eaten as a snack in themselves or added to sweeten a product.
- Dates are very rich in vitamin A and B vitamins, potassium, as well as magnesium
- High in fibre for healthy digestion.
- High in sugar and calories.
Date paste is best used as a sugar substitute in recipes that call for brown sugar, with one tablespoon of date paste being the equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar.
This sugar substitute is made from the nectar of the flower buds of the coconut palm and has a similar taste to caramel.
- Said to contain many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, iron and zinc
- Sweetness comparable to ordinary white sugar
- Lower GI (like agave nectar).
- Despite being lower GI, this is a fairly pure form of sugar
- Its production is labour intensive (being extracted by hand), making it comparatively expensive.
One cup of coconut sugar can be used in place of one cup of regular sugar.
Birch sugar (xylitol)
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which is used as a sugar substitute and is better known as birch sugar. Xylitol is a natural constituent of some vegetables and fruits and can be produced industrially by hydrolysing xylan (a hemicellulose) into xylose, which is then further processed to obtain xylitol.
- Birch sugar has about 40 per cent fewer calories than refined sugar and does not cause your blood sugar level to rise as high after eating
- Same sweetness as regular sugar.
- Not calorie free (about 240 calories per 100g)
- May cause digestive upset if too much is consumed.
Xylitol responds much like regular sugar in baking, however, it absorbs liquids readily, meaning you may need to increase the liquid in your recipe.
Extracted from the sugar maple tree, maple syrup is delicious on pancakes and also a good alternative to sugar in tea.
- Maple syrup is a natural product
- It contains more than 50 beneficial compounds including antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties, as well as calcium, potassium, magnesium and iron.
- The sweetness of maple syrup is 60 to 70 per cent lower than refined sugar
- Some brands sell a version watered down with sugar water, so you need to pay attention to purity
- Ingredients and proportions of glucose and fructose can vary depending on the producer.
Replace 1 cup of white sugar with 3/4 cup of maple syrup and reduce other liquids in the recipe by two tablespoons for every cup of maple syrup used. Because maple syrup is brown, your products will be darker than they would be using regular white sugar.
Erythritol is a sugar substitute similar to Birch sugar. It occurs naturally in foods like strawberries, pears, melons, and grapes, however is extracted from corn and mushrooms for industrial purposes.
- Erythritol contains almost no calories and does not damage the teeth
- Does not affect blood sugar levels.
- Expensive (depending on the manufacturer)
- Only about 70 per cent as sweet as regular sugar.
Erythritol is an excellent substitute for sugar in cooked fruit desserts such as pies and cobblers, and browns like sugar when baked. Sweets baked using erythritol are best consumed on the day they’ve baked, as the flavour changes over a day or two.
Commonly known by the brand name Stevia, Steviol glycoside is a sugar substitute that is extracted from the South American plant species stevia rebaundiana.
- Stevia is three to four hundred times sweeter than granulated white sugar
- No effect on blood sugar levels
- No calories
- Does not cause cavities in teeth.
- Does not contain any essential nutrients
- Has a bitter aftertaste.
Steviol glycoside comes in several different forms. Using undiluted powder, approximately ½ teaspoon can replace a cup of sugar, while you’d need one teaspoon of liquid steviol glycoside. However, because sugar plays a role in the structure of baked goods you’ll need to replace the lost bulk of the sugar. For each cup of sugar substituted, replace with 1/3 cup of a bulking agent.