Sucrose is getting such bad rap these days. But if you need that sweet kick what can you substitute? There are plenty of alternatives but they're not all good for you. This handy guide to low calorie sweet varieties, such as stevia, xylitol, erythritol, sucralose, aspartame, saccharin and coconut sugar gives it to you in a nutshell.
Sugar has been getting bad press of late. It's being linked to behavioural problems, obesity, diabetes, ageing, depression, tooth decay and even cancer, so no wonder more and more people are trying to cut it out of their diet and looking at low calories, low carb substitutes.
There's much confusion when it comes to sugar alternatives. Many believe that honey, maple and agave syrups are low Glycemic Index (how fast you get the kick into the blood stream) and calorie options that can be consumed by those with diabetes and those on slimming diets.
This is not entirely true as these substitutes are also packed with the white stuff. For example, 100 grams of honey contains a whopping 82 grams of sugar (albeit in it's most natural form) , agave and maple 68! So what are the alternatives and how safe are they? We take a look at the most popular on the market, both natural and artificial.
Extracted from the leaves of the South American plant Stevia Rebaudiana, this sweetener is of natural origins, has virtually no calories and is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar. Stevia has been shown to lower blood sugar levels in diabetics and even have a small impact on high blood pressure.
Pros: Natural, ideal for those with diabetics, sugar intolerances and those trying to lose weight. It comes in powder and liquid form. Great in baking.
Cons: Many products claiming to contain Stevia only utilise a minimum amount of the plant. It can have a slight bitter after taste, so it's important to try different brands.
This sugar alcohol is found in a small amount of fruit and vegetables and is processed in trees like birch. It has a similar texture to sugar but only 2/3 of the calorific value of sugar. Unlike sucrose, it doesn't cause a sugar spike in the blood , making it ideal for diabetics. Some studies have also seen some benefits for dental health.
Pros: Can be consumed by diabetics and those on a slimming diet. Can be used in cooking and baking. It has anti-bacterial properties and studies suggest it can help maintain dental health. Easy to digest and tolerate
Cons: It has a 'cooling' after taste (the same as sugar-free gum) which not everyone likes. It's toxic for dogs, so make sure you keep it well out of reach of your canine friend.
Just like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol with 70% of the sweetness of sugar, but only 6% of its calories, a very negligible amount, and no incidence on sugar levels or insulin. It's noncarcinogenic and safe to use. Can be used in cooking and baking although it crystallises when cold, so if you need a confectionary sugar replacement you may want to grind it to a very fine consistency before adding it to a recipe.
Pros: Virtually no calories, easy to digest, ideal for those on slimming diets or diabetics. Can be used in cooking.
Cons: Just like xylitol, it can have a slightly cooling, minty after taste. However when mixed with Stevia, the taste of both sweeteners improves, cancelling out the bitter and 'refreshing' aromas.
This low in calories artificial sweetener is one of the most used as a sugar replacements in the food industry and it has also been one of the most controversial. After being linked to various cancer scares, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and US National Cancer Institute have deemed aspartame safe for human consumption.
Pros: 200 times sweeter than sugar, meaning that only a small amount is needed. Similar taste to sugar, cheap and widely available.
Cons: Can't be used in baking or cooking, unless in the latter is added right at the end of the process. Must be avoided by those who suffer from phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder where the body cannot break down phenylalanine.
Artificially derived from sucrose, sucralose is a substitute that must be mixed with ingredients such as dextrose or maltodextrin to decrease its intense sweetness. Just like aspartame, sucralose has had a bad reputation, with various cancer scares surfacing over the years, although recent studies have concluded sucralose is safe for human consumption.
Pros: No insuline or blood sugar spikes. Fine to use on a diet and safe for diabetics. No bitter after taste. Very good to use in cooking and baking as it dissolves instantly.
Cons: Some people claim sucralose can trigger migraines. It's also very sweet, so the taste, whilst neutral, can linger a little bit.
The oldest artificial sweetener and the one with the worst reputation, saccharin was very popular in the 70s and 80s. After lab studies saw it could cause cancer in male rats, more studies where commissioned to test for safety in humans. In the 90s reports deemed the sweetener safe for human consumption but in Canada
it's still banned as a food additive.
Pros: Very sweet, so only a small amount is needed. Can be eaten by diabetics and those on slimming diets.
Cons: Slightly bitter, at times metallic, aftertaste. Still quite a controversial sweetener and not one of the best tasting. These days it has lots of competition from newer products.
There's a been a lot of talk about coconut sugar as an alternative to standard sucrose of late. This natural product is extracted from the sap of the coconut tree. Unlike standard sugar which is devoid of nutrients, this type is said to contain some zinc, iron, calcium and potassium, and some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. What's more, whilst coconut sugar seems to have a lower glycemic index (GI) thanks to the fibre inulin it contains.
Pros: It contains some nutrients and it's said to have a lower GI than sugar.
Cons: The amount of nutrients it contains is tiny, so you'd have to consume a lot of it to see the benefits. Whilst it has a lower GI than sugar, it still causes a fairly quick spike in the blood so it's probably not ideal for those trying to lose weight, cutting down on the white stuff or those suffering from diabetes. The same issue is found in honey, agave and maple syrups and molasses, which are high in sugar and are best consumed in low quantities or not at all if suffering from diabetes or trying to lose weight.