The low down on popular sugar substitutes

Love to have your cake and eat it too? Even though we know sugar is bad for us, most of us still like to indulge in something sweet from time to time and I am by far, no exception! Cherry Ripe Slice, After Dinner Mints and Banana Bread? Hell yes!! But, as a nutritional medicine student and all-round health conscious lass, I choose sugar substitutes as a healthier alternative to the refined white stuff. The problem is that many of our tasty alternatives are just as bad and in some cases, even worse than regular sugar.  You’ll find various opinions regarding the best sweeteners to use and I feel it’s important to make an informed choice, so today I wanted to give you some clear and simple information on 5 popular substitutes. I’m also going to cover chemical sweeteners in a future post, as these are a completely different kettle of (viscous, ugly piranha) fish.


Raw Honey

Raw Honey is a sweet, wholefood substance produced by bees that collect nectar from flowers. Raw honey has not been processed or pasteurised so it retains all its natural health properties (unlike the honey you find at the supermarket which is basically just sugar and has no nutritional value at all) Raw honey has came into the limelight in recent years (Manuka honey anyone?!) and is touted for its natural healing abilities such as providing relief from the symptoms of common colds, skin healing properties and as a sleep aid. Superfoods expert David Wolfe says wild honey is the best choice because it’s lowest in free fructose and higher in trace minerals.

Before you get too excited, honey is still really high in sugar so it should only be consumed in moderation. Due to its high fructose content, it also spikes blood sugars quite dramatically so keep portions small. I love a good quality, local raw honey but only use it sparingly.

Rice Malt Syrup

Rice Malt Syrup (RMS) is a natural sweetener made by fermenting cooked rice. To get to the honey-like product we purchase, there is quite a lot of processing that needs to take place, therefor I don’t consider this a ‘wholefoods’ alternative, but I do personally use this product. Why? Because RMS is fructose free which makes it highly appealing to those who follow the research and recommendations from Australian sugar-quitting pioneers, David Gillespie and Sarah Wilson (people like me!)

RMS has a low glycemic index (GI) which means that the energy is released slowly, avoiding the big sugar rush you get when eating sucrose (which is normal table sugar and consists of one part glucose, one part fructose). To help you understand the GI lingo, let’s look at the break down of RMS:

  • 50% soluble carbohydrates (2-3 hours to be absorbed)
  • 45% maltose (takes an hour to an hour and a half to be absorbed)
  • 3% glucose (absorbed and metabolized immediately)

Within the internet realm, you might come across people who believe RMS is unsafe because it contains Arsenic. Well I can’t vouch for my OS readers, but here in Australia and NZ there are strict guidelines in place for both organic and non-organic use. Further to this, the lovely Jenine from contacted Pure Harvest regarding this issue and they very promptly supplied her with their test results, showing their levels of arsenic are far below that of the guidelines. I feel comfortable to say it’s a non-issue for Australian made RMS

maple syrup 2

Pure Maple Syrup

Maple Syrup is a wholefood sweetener, made by repeatedly boiling down the watery sap of the sugar maple tree. Just for fun, here is a video of how simple it is to make. Pure maple syrup offers some nutritional benefits but it important to understand that it consists of at least 67%  sugar, so needs to be treated as such. To emphasize the ‘some nutritional benefits’ this is what 100 grams (which is a LOT!) of maple syrup contains:

  • Calcium: 7% of the RDA.
  • Potassium: 6% of the RDA.
  • Iron: 7% of the RDA.
  • Zinc: 28% of the RDA.
  • Manganese: 165% of the RDA.

As you can see, if you divided that down into a 20g serving, your not getting a lot of those minerals (with manganese begin the exception) so don’t get caught up in the hype with this one. Further, maple syrup is very high in fructose and it will cause blood sugar spikes. I seldom use this sweetener but when I do, I thoroughly enjoy its unique taste.

A word of warning – always check the ingredients list before purchasing as most ‘maple syrup’ is actually just ‘maple flavoured syrup’ and this is NOT something I recommend consuming.


Agave comes from a succulent that grows in the southwestern U.S. and in the northern part of South America. Interestingly, it’s the same plant used to make tequila! Ye-ye-ye-ye-yeeee! Agave is highly processed, has no nutritional value and can contain up to 90% fructose which is totally redic. Due to this nutritional make-up, agave is linked to type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, raised cholesterol and abdominal obesity (just to name a few). Unfortunately, it’s somehow slipped passed the gate-keeper of the health realm and is being marketed as a ‘healthy’ ‘low GI’ alternative, especially to the vegan community. Don’t be a sucker to this clever marketing, agave isn’t healthy and I do not recommend this sugar alternative at all.


Stevia is defined as a natural, no-calorie sweetener, made from a South American plant (currently the only non-chemical zero calorie sweetener on the market).  Stevia is a safe alternative to sugar but let it be known that the version on the market today is highly processed – how else would they get white powder or crystals from a green leaf! So for this reason, if you are going to use stevia, the better choice would be green leaf stevia.

My other concern with Stevia is that there may be a mismatch in the bodies perceived calorie intake and the actual intake and the possible effect this could have on metabolic disorders (think obesity).  Further to this, the natural chemicals that give the sweet flavor are very similar in structure to the plant hormones gibberellin and kaurene, which isn’t ideal to be ingesting on a regular basis. For more info on this go here.

Having said the above, short term or occasional use should be completely fine and I’ve used stevia on a number of occasions in cooking. It’s not my preferred choice because of the above and I also don’t like the aftertaste.

The grand finale

I advocate a balanced diet and understand that this means different things to different people, we are all individuals and should be treated as such.  In light of all of the above information, the best advice I can give anyone is to reduce daily sugar consumption as much as possible (eliminating sugar all together is the best option), and in particular, avoid fructose if you wish to enjoy good health.

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