Sugar substitutes – which ones are best and what exactly are they doing to my body?

Sugar substitutes – which ones are best and what exactly are they doing to my body?

Got an insatiable sweet tooth that never seems to let up? I know the feeling. Just because you've transitioned to a healthy lifestyle, doesn't mean you need to give up the sweet stuff altogether. Like many changes when undertaking a challenge or adopting a healthier diet, it's more about swapping rather than stopping. There are so many sugar substitutes out on the market, but which ones are actually viable options to integrate into a healthy diet and what exactly are they doing to your body and insulin levels? Here is my list of top sugar substitutes to help curb those sweet cravings without undoing all your hard work.


Stevia is renowned as one of the healthier sugar alternatives as it's naturally derived from the stevia plant. Native to South America, the stevia plant essence is excreted and turned into a powder or liquid for consumption in sugar free recipes like sugar free banana muffins, sugar free pancakes, sugar free cheesecake or just stirred into your tea or coffee for a natural sweet hit. Stevia is generally around 100-300 times sweeter than refined sugar, so much less is needed to make a sweet impact, and contains no calories so doesn't impact our blood sugar levels like refined sugar does. Some do find stevia can have a very distinct, somewhat metallic flavour, so it isn't the sugar substitute choice for everyone, however, I know many who absolutely love it and their morning coffee is never without.

Monk Fruit

Also known as Luo Han Guo, monk fruit sweetener is one of my top picks for healthier sugar alternatives. Derived from a sweet melon-like fruit grown in Southeast Asia, monk fruit is a non-caloric, natural sugar substitute. In Eastern medicine, it is used as a traditional herbal remedy for coughing and sore throats and is thought to increase life expectancy (I can't make any promises there, but that sure sounds great to me). Like stevia, monk fruit is about 200 times sweeter than refined sugar, so again, much less is needed. Due to that intense sweetness you will usually see on the packaging that it contains Erythritol. This is to make it a 1:1 sugar replacement ratio (see more on erythritol below) One benefit of monk fruit over stevia is it lacks the odd aftertaste and blends seamlessly into sugar-free recipes. Not only is it a great low-calorie option, but monk fruit won't cause a spike in blood sugar like refined sugars do and contains antioxidants for immune support. I'm really pleased to see options like Monk fruit are now readily available in your usual supermarket.

With only 6% of the calories of refined sugar but 70% of the sweetness, Erythritol comes in as one of my best picks. A sugar alcohol that naturally occurs in many plants, fruits and veggies, it has a clean, sweet taste that blends seamlessly into a range of sugar-free recipes like sugar-free banana bread, sugar-free cakes, sugar-free biscuits, sugar-free jam, you name it! As mentioned in my Monk fruit point, most Monk fruit has an Erythritol base, which is not a bad thing at all.


Sourced from the katemfe fruit found in the rainforests of West Africa, Thaumatin is a great natural sugar substitute. Considered a protein and not a carbohydrate, unlike many other natural sweeteners, Thaumatin takes much longer for the body to break down, keeping you satisfied and full of energy for longer, and contains a low 4 calories per gram. It has a fairly potent sweet flavour in comparison to refined sugar and is considered 2000-3000 times sweeter, so only a very small amount is needed. A downfall though is that Thaumatin is not as commonly found as some other substitutes.
Coconut sugar
Made by dehydrating the sap of coconut palm flowers, this natural sugar substitute contains trace amounts of minerals and naturally occurring inulin which acts as fibre within our bodies. It is lower GI than refined sugar and Its deep caramel flavour makes it a great brown sugar substitute for baking or making a range of sugar-free desserts and can be used in a one-to-one ratio.
Similar to coconut sugar, Rapadura is made from evaporated cane juice, meaning it's an unrefined version of sugar cane. It also has a rich, caramel-like flavour which makes a great brown sugar substitute.
Because it is unrefined, it still contains its micronutrients, minerals and antioxidants. This makes it a much better option than common white sugar. However, it does act similarly in our bodies.
One of our globe's most ancient sweet sources, this sweet, golden nectar is a great natural alternative to refined sugar. Honey contains B vitamins and minerals like iron, manganese and potassium however the biggest health benefit of raw, unpasteurized honey comes from its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. These properties can dissipate when honey is heated, so it's important to do your research and find a natural honey that's in its raw state and preferably from Bee hives local to you. Honey also tastes slightly sweeter than regular sugar, meaning you can use less while still achieving the same sweet taste.
High-fructose corn syrup
This is my least recommended sugar substitutes. As it's a cheap alternative, you'll often find corn syrup added to many processed products like spreads and sauces and doesn't serve our bodies in the best way.

The making of high-fructose corn syrup includes converting corn starches to liquid sugar. In this process, some of the glucose in corn syrup converts to fructose. This makes it sweeter, which means manufacturers use less, thus cutting costs. The fructose level in high-fructose corn syrup ranges from 55-90% almost always from genetically modified methods. Because of this, it's considered a very unhealthy sugar substitute. One that will likely cause an inflammatory response, increase cravings and therefore it's not only one that I recommend against adding into your diet, but one to avoid completely.
Maple syrup
Maple is made by boiling down the sap from maple trees and if natural, its flavour and colour can vary greatly from its time of harvest. It's considered to be high in antioxidants and contains trace amounts of nutrients like manganese and zinc as well as being a low-GI alternative, so is a great sugar substitute in things like sugar-free cheesecake or atop some sugar-free pancakes.
Agave syrup
Years ago, agave syrup became incredibly popular and was deemed a healthy substitute, however after extensive research and the benefit of time (and science) we've learned this isn't exactly the case. It's derived from the agave plant which is also used to make tequila. However undergoes intense processing to reach its final sticky, sweet stage. After extracting, it is filtered then heated until a thick syrup is formed – a process quite similar to high-fructose corn syrup.

Proponents of agave praise it for being low-GI and its trace elements of minerals like iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, though many of these benefits are long gone after the heating process. It also contains 1.5 times more calories than refined sugar and with much higher levels of fructose. While most sweeteners have a roughly 50/50 mix of glucose to fructose, agave is 90% fructose. Consuming too much fructose can lead to increases in abdominal fat along with a host of health problems down the track.
Agave syrup
Rice malt syrup is a popular option among those who like to steer clear of fructose altogether or vegans as a honey replacement. It's made from brown rice treated with enzymes to break down the starches until a thick, sweet syrup is formed. It's slightly less sweet than refined sugar, so more is needed to create a sweet taste and while it's still considered to impact our insulin and blood sugar levels, this can put a lot of strain on our systems, in particular, our livers.

That being said, there are worse sweeteners than refined sugar. When you have the option, choosing one of the less refined options like honey, maple syrup, and dates is a better choice. However, it can be more challenging to use some of the healthier options without changing the taste and texture of the food you're trying to make.
There you have my rundown of (mostly) all the popular sugar substitutes out there. Every body is different so a lot of it is finding the right one that suits your body and system.

To check out my Thermomix sugar free recipes, take a look at my Healthy Treats Recipe Ebook for just $24. It's filled for over 30 recipes to whip up when those sweet cravings strike, all gluten, grain and refined sugar-free with just one including dairy, so great for vegans or those steering clear of dairy products.
Author: Noni Jenkins
Noni Jenkins is a Personal Trainer, Weight Loss Specialist and Thermomix® Enthusiast. With over 10 years experience helping people live a healthier lifestyle.
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