Recently, I was browsing my local health food supermarket when I stumbled upon the alternative sweetener section. I was stunned by the sheer amount of options—the shelves were lined from top to bottom with colourful packets and bottles. “WTF is a monk fruit?” I mumbled to myself.
I felt like I was in one of those movies where the character wakes up after being in a coma for 30 years and is baffled by all the newfangled technology. Sure, I knew we’d come a long way since ol’ fashioned white sugar was our only option, but since when did we have so much choice? It’s hardly surprising really, given that the research on sugar’s negative impact on the body grows more extensive every day.
But with so many different types of sugar alternatives on the market, it can be hard to know where to start. Not all alternative sweeteners are created equal and some that present themselves as healthy can actually be just as bad for you as sugar (if not worse!) So, to help you choose the right one for you, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide on the different types. Keep reading for the good, the bad and the ugly.
What is it?: A sugar substitute derived from the leaves of the plant species Stevia rebaudiana, which is native to South America.
Where you’ve seen it: In healthy baking recipes, in little green packets at cafes.
Pros: Stevia is considered to be one of the most natural sugar alternatives and is 300 times sweeter than sugar so you don’t need much of it. It also has zero kilojoules, is better for your teeth than sugar and has been proven to have minimal effect on blood glucose levels.
Cons: Some people complain of side effects like bloating and nausea.
What is it?: A syrup or powdered sweetener made from coconut palm blossoms.
Where you’ve seen it: Some chocolate brands, in raw desserts and treats.
Pros: Coconut nectar and sugar are both quite low-GI and high in nutrients like zinc, iron, potassium and calcium. It’s also considered the most sustainable of the sugar substitutes, as farmers from places like Java, Indonesia harvest it all year round and use every part of the coconut tree.
Cons: They both tend to be quite high in fructose and carbohydrates, so aren’t suitable for all diets.
What is it?: One of the oldest types of synthetic sweeteners, first created in 1981 by mixing two amino acids, aspartic and phenylalanine.
Where you’ve seen it: Diet soft drinks, Equal, in many commercial low kilojoule and sugar-free products.
Pros: It’s 200 times sweetener than sugar and has zero kilojoules.
Cons: Where to start? The artificial sweetener has been the subject of great controversy due to its long list of side effects, from stimulating hunger and causing abdominal pain to increasing the risk of premature births and various types of cancer. While research is still being done into how harmful it really is, we recommend avoiding this one if possible (the same goes for the equally controversial high fructose corn syrup.)
What is it?: White, water-soluble solids derived through a chemical process from fruits and berries. Some common examples are xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol.
Where you’ve seen it: It’s found naturally in some fruits like apples and pears, but also in sugar-free chewing gum, protein bars and other processed products.
Pros: They’re low in kilojoules and do not cause tooth decay.
Cons: They tend to be quite poorly metabolised and digested, which can lead to side effects like bloating and cramps. They can also have a laxative effect.
What is it: A treacle-like sweetening agent extracted from the tuberous roots of the yacón plant indigenous to the Andes mountains. Despite being a relative newcomer in Western society, it dates all the way back to Incan civilisation. It has a caramel-like flavour and can be added to smoothies and desserts.
Pros: It’s low in kilojoules, doesn’t spike blood glucose levels and is believed to speed up the metabolism and restore healthy gut bacteria.
Cons: When used in high amounts, it can lead to unpleasant side effects like flatulence, bloating, cramps and diarrhoea.
What is it?: Otherwise known as Brown Rice syrup, the sweet liquid is derived by culturing cooked rice with enzymes from dried barley sprouts to break down the starches.
Where you’ve seen it: In sugar-free baking recipes and some muesli bars.
Pros: Rice malt syrup is low-GI and very low in fructose. It’s also ideal for baking recipes that need to rise.
Cons: It contains B vitamins, potassium, protein, and calcium but only in trace amounts, so it’s not as nutrient-dense as some of the other options. It also may not be suitable if you’re on a low-carb diet.
What is it?: Monk fruit sweetener is derived from the lo han guo, small round fruit grown in Southeast Asia. While it’s the new kid on the block here, it’s been used as a digestive aid and natural sweetener in Eastern medicine for centuries.
Pros: It has zero kilojoules and is 150-200 times sweeter than sugar so a little bit goes a long way. It’s also thought to have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Cons: It’s difficult to export, so it may be more expensive and difficult to find than the other sweeteners. It can also have a bitter aftertaste.
What is it?: A syrup made derived from the leaves of the Agave plant, which grows natively in the southern U.S. and South America.
Where you’ve seen it: Some chocolate brands like Loving Earth, in tequila.
Pros: Agave syrup is low-GI and while it has roughly the same amount of kilojoules as sugar it’s 1.5 times sweeter so you need less of it.
Cons: It’s very high in fructose, which is not easily metabolised in the blood stream.
What is it?: A gooey black syrup created in the process of refining sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar.
Where you’ve seen it: Brown sugar, in some alcohol including rum, rye bread.
Pros: Molasses is rich in vital nutrients like calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. It’s also digested more slowly than sugar, which can help to stabilise blood sugar.
Cons: It has a stronger and more bitter taste than some of the other sugar alternatives, so it’s not for everybody.