Why use a sugar alternative?

By now I think we can all agree that refined, white sugar isn’t the best thing to consume. However the real confusion sets in when we talk about sugar substitutes. Honey, stevia, xylitol, erythritol, monk fruit sugar…the list is endless and overwhelming! Allow me to break it down for you in the simplest way possible.

First, let’s talk science. In most cases, sugar is sugar. (Yep, that’s how scientists talk). Whether it’s white sugar, brown sugar, evapourated cane juice, turbinado sugar…it’s processed the exact same way in your body and if you overeat it, you will gain weight.

The question then becomes “why care about using sugar substitutes at all?”

For two main reasons:

  1. Impact on blood sugar levels
  2. Nutritional value

1. Impact on blood sugar levels:

If you eat a lot of sugar in your diet (from any source), your blood sugar level will rise, which encourages greater fat storage, greater appetite and cravings, mood swings and irritability, fatigue, proliferation of bad bacteria in the gut and a host of other problems, such as insulin resistance and hormonal problems.

That being said, the key to keeping your blood sugar levels in check is to a) eat sugar sparingly; b) eat it alongside some fibre, good fat or protein to slow down the release of sugar into your bloodstream (this is why it is best to opt for fruit); and c) choose sources of sugar that are lower on the Glycemic Index. This indicates how much a particular food raises blood sugar (glucose) after consumption.

Below is a list of common sugar substitutes ranked by their Glycemic Index (the higher the greater the blood sugar spike). This is by no means comprehensive, as sugar hides under many names, it is simply to give an overview of the most common forms.

Dextrose                                       100

Maltodextrin                                 90

Table Sugar                                   65

Brown Sugar                                 64

Molasses                                        60

Unrefined Cane Sugar/Juice     55

Raw Honey                                    55

Maple Syrup                                  54

Coconut Palm Sugar                    35

Brown Rice Syrup                        25

Agave*                                            15

Xylitol**                                         12

Sorbitol**                                       4

Yacon Syrup                                   1

Erythritol**                                    1

Monk Fruit                                     0

Stevia                                               0

*Ensure that this is organic, raw, premium blue agave nectar. Most commercial agave has been diluted with high fructose corn syrup.

**These are just some of the most common sugar alcohols. This group typically ends in “ol” so it is easy to identify. While they have a low GI, they are known to cause gas, bloating and cramps, especially for those who are sensitive or consume it in excess.

Furthermore, the following substitutes are a no-no. Despite them having a low GI, research has shown that they are damaging to our health. In the spirit of keeping this article short and sweet, I will not delve into the controversy behind each one, but there are plenty of reasons companies are now banning or removing these from their ingredient lists entirely!


Sucralose (Splenda)

High Fructose Corn Syrup

2. Nutritional Value

If you’re going to consume a sweetener, might as well make it the most nutritious type possible. The reason I stay away from table sugar is because it is completely devoid of nutrients, especially in comparison to some of its more nutritious substitutes.

For example, 2 tsp. of unsulphured blackstrap molasses fulfill the following daily mineral requirements: calcium (11%DV), iron (13.28%DV), copper (14%DV), manganese (18%DV), potassium (9.73%DV), magnesium (7.35%DV). Not bad at all!

The Bottom Line

Stay away from pure white sugar and any heavily processed or artificial sweeteners. Stick to minimally processed natural sweeteners that are high in nutrients, and then still use them sparingly. At the end of the day, the goal is to try and minimize how much we crave the “sweet” taste and learn to enjoy other tastes like pungent, bitter, sour, salty and astringent as well. (Whaa—pungent and astringent? Yep, there’s more to life than sweet and salty!)

I personally enjoy eating a modest amount of fruit every day and use sweeteners only when I’m making dessert, baking or making a salad dressing. My favourites are raw honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and when it comes to baking I aim to use whole foods like bananas, applesauce, sweet potatoes and dates where I can!

If you have any more questions about this topic, feel free to email me at hello@alinaislam.com.


About Alina

I'm a Holistic Nutritionist based in Toronto, Canada and my official title is Certified Nutritional Practitioner (CNP). I received my diploma in Applied Holistic Nutrition from the Institute of Holistic Nutrition. I'm a coach and an educator. Follow Alina on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram for all of the latest updates.
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