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The sweet stuff – Healthy alternatives to sugar

by Angela Seelig APD (BNut&Diet)

As a dietician some of the most commonly asked questions I get are about sugar. The biggest question of all – is it really that bad for you? If you have a sweet tooth, the good news is that there are plenty of naturally sweet alternatives to refined sugar available to tingle your tastebuds.

What is sugar?
Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in foods such as fruit, vegetables, grains and dairy known as ‘intrinsic sugar’; or as an added substance in the form of table sugar or other sweeteners known as ‘extrinsic sugar’. In our bodies both intrinsic and extrinsic sugars are turned into glucose and used for energy. We need some of these sugars for normal bodily functioning, but it is the refined sugars that most people should quit.

How much added sugar can I have?
The most important thing to know is that extrinsic sugars increase the kilojoule (energy) content without nutritional benefit. The National Health and Medical Research Council has highlighted that it is this type of added sugar that we need to watch out for as it can lead to excess weight gain, dental cavities, heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes.
The World Health Organization suggests that no more than 10% of overall energy intake should come from added sugars. To stay within these limits, aim for no more than approximately 5 teaspoons of added sugars per day.

Are sugar alternatives healthier than sugar?
In short, yes for some kinds, but most natural sweeteners are much the same as table sugar when it comes to kilojoule content so this needs to be factored into your overall daily added sugar intake.

How to choose a sweetener
Choosing a sweetener is a personal thing. For a sweetener with some nutritional benefits, choose honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar. If you are watching your waistline or have Type 2 Diabetes, try xylitol or stevia instead.
With the exception of xylitol and stevia the alternative sweeteners in the following table all break down in the body to glucose, raise blood sugar and insulin levels, and have similar kilojoule count.

Comparison of sugar and natural sweetener alternatives

Sweetener Source Kilojoules per 10g
(approx. 2 teaspoons)
*Glycemic index (GI) Qualities and usage Nutritional value
Table sugar Sugar cane 170 60 The most common form of sugar added to processed foods, beverages and soft drinks in Australia. None
Coconut sugar Sap of coconut palms 150 54 Not as sweet as sugar so good for those trying to tame a sweet tooth. Use in baking to replace sugar or add to hot drinks for a slightly caramel flavour. Small amounts of some minerals.
Rice malt syrup Rice starch 140 98 Very low in fructose so therefore may be suitable for individuals with Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS). Warning: Avoid if you have Type 2 Diabetes as the GI is very high. None
Agave syrup Agave plant 130 15 Twice as sweet as sugar and high in fructose therefore may not be suitable for individuals with IBS. The low GI makes this a popular choice. None
Maple syrup Maple tree 150 54 Not just for pancakes! Try adding it to porridge or use in baking in place of honey or golden syrup for a different flavour. Some antioxidants and minerals.
Honey Nectar of flowers collected by bees 140 50-65  When baking try replacing half the sugar with honey. Also tastes great added to hot drinks. Try mixing 1-2 teaspoons of Manuka honey with a squeeze of lemon juice in hot water to soothe a sore throat. Small amount of B vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Xylitol A sugar alcohol commonly sourced from either corn cob or birch tree 70  7 Can be easily substituted for sugar in baking in a ratio of 1:1 – a good choice for type 2 diabetics and those watching their kilojoule intake. May cause digestive issues in some people and may not be suitable for individuals with IBS. None
Stevia Leaves of the Stevia plant 0 Much sweeter than sugar, (approximately ½ teaspoon equals 1 teaspoon of sugar). Good for people with Type 2 Diabetes or those watching kilojoules. Can have a bitter after taste. None

*The GI refers to how quickly a food raises your blood sugar levels and therefore insulin. Measured on a scale of 1-100 the higher the number the more rapidly blood sugar levels and insulin are raised.

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