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A Guide To Natural Sugar Substitutes

by Liz Bygrave (Jan 2009; updated Feb 2014)


This is an exciting time to be involved in the world of natural sweeteners. The list of healthier alternatives to sugar gets ever longer, so I thought it was high time I listed my top favourites here and explained what’s so good about them. So here goes…


Xylitol


There’s a separate article about xylitol on the site so I won’t repeat myself too much here – suffice it to say that xylitol looks and tastes like sugar but has a glycemic index* of just 7 (whereas that of sugar is 68). It also has only 60% of the calories of sugar and bacteria can’t grow in it, so it won’t rot your teeth. You can use it just as you would sugar, the only things it won’t do is caramelize or make yeast rise. Xylitol is recommended by many leading alternative nutritionists as a good alternative sugar.


In the UK, xylitol is relatively freely available from many supermarkets and health food shops. Xylitol should be suitable for most diabetics (but of course consult your doctor first).


Disadvantages: it can have a slight laxative effect until your body gets used to it. It is therefore recommended that you don’t eat more than 50g a day at first. 50g of xylitol is however quite a large amount so you would be unlikely to exceed this anyway. Like chocolate, xylitol should not be fed to dogs as it can be poisonous for them.


Like chocolate, xylitol is not safe for dogs – so don’t feed it to them!


It is difficult to find out how processed xylitol is – some say it is quite heavily processed, others that the only catalyst used is water. It is also not possible to get organic xylitol at this moment in time, although the make I use, Perfect Sweet, is definitely non-GM.


Raw food eaters – please note that xylitol is not a raw product.


Click here to buy xylitol



Agave Syrup


Also known as agave nectar, and with a taste and texture akin to golden syrup, agave comes from Mexico and is made from the agave plant, the same plant that tequila is made from. Agave is a fructose. Fructose is usually seen as being only a little more healthy than sugar, ie not an ideal food for the body. But because agave has a medium to low glycemic index - of around 40, it is seen as being better for us than other fructose-based sweeteners. The GI of the raw version may well be even lower.  Agave is a delicious and versatile sweetener that is not too expensive and is readily available in most health food shops.


In 2010 there was a lot of negative press about agave. Some people believe, for instance, that it is not good for the liver, whilst others have doubts about the production methods. I’m not sure I agree with this, but want to keep you informed so that you can make your own decision.


Disadvantages: the raw version is expensive; unlike xylitol, agave is bound to have some effect on your teeth, though this should be less than that of sugar.


Agave syrup is available by special order. Please email for pricing etc.



Yacon Root Syrup


Yacon root is from South America. It gets its sweetness mainly from ‘fructooligosaccharides’ (FOS) which cannot be absorbed by the body and which feed the friendly bacteria in our guts. It is therefore seen as a low-calorie sweetener which shouldn’t adversely affect blood sugar, although there seems to some variance in opinion as to exactly what proportion of the sugars in yacon root syrup are absorbable - it could be more than some people think . The FOS may also aid the absorption of nutrients from the gut.  


Yacon can also be obtained as a powder (though it went rock hard in my cupboard before I had time to experiment with it – the downside of not using anti-caking agent I guess!). You can also buy the dried root – this makes a delicious low-calorie snack, not that sweet, and with a slightly smoky flavour.


Disadvantages: Yacon has a slightly bitter taste. This isn’t unpleasant, but I find that it does restrict its use in sweet recipes. I use it primarily to sweeten things like muesli, porridge and drinks, though I did once taste some chocolate someone had sweetened with yacon and it was delicious. Yacon is also expensive – it retails at around £12.50 per 250ml.


Yacon root syrup syrup is available by special order. Please email for pricing etc.



Sweet Freedom


This sweetener has only been available for the last few years, but is already pretty established in the UK as an alternative sweetener. It is made from apples, grapes and carob and, like agave, has the texture of golden syrup. Taste-wise, for me, it falls somewhere between agave and yacon root - there is a slight bitterness but it’s not pronounced. I offer it as an alternative to gave in my chocolate making kits and it works well, whereas something like yacon wouldn’t.


Sweet Freedom is available in two varieties: Sweet Freedom Original which has a lovely neutral sweetness and works for all uses from sweetening tea through to baking, and Sweet Freedom Dark which has a richer, deeper sweetness. Whilst I prefer the mild version, in my workshops I’ve found that people divide fairly equally down the middle in terms of  which one they like better. At £3.50 for a 350ml bottle, Sweet Freedom is reasonably priced.


Sweet Freedom has a low GI (35) and GL** so it is suitable for diabetics as part of a balanced diet. It also has 25% less calories than sugar but despite that it is actually sweeter. It contains no colours, additives or preservatives and is water extracted without chemicals or enzymes. It consists of only naturally occurring sugars from fruits and is suitable for vegetarians and vegans.


Disadvantages: not suitable for raw food eaters as it is not a raw product. Probably has some adverse effect on the teeth, though this is likely to be less than sugar.


Click here to buy Sweet Freedom



Lucuma Powder



This is the dried yellow powder of a Peruvian fruit and tastes absolutely divine – of butterscotch and shortbread. It’s not hugely sweet but using it in a recipe does mean you can use less of other sweeteners and it is low glycemic. It is also nutrient dense, being especially high in betacarotene, Vitamin B3 and iron. Lucuma powder is raw.


Disadvantages: you would probably need to use another sweetener as well.


Click here to buy lucuma powder



Algarroba Mesquite Powder


You will either love or hate this one! Mesquite comes from the mesquite tree of South America and is a relation of carob. It is lighter in colour and has a more caramelly flavour, though it is quite bitter & has quite a ‘distinctive’ taste. Again, it is not that sweet (less so than lucuma I would say) but adding it to recipes - it works well in smoothies for instance - does mean you can add less actual sweetener to your recipe. Mesquite is raw, nutrient-rich, has a low glycemic index* of 25 and research shows that it can help to balance blood sugar.


Disadvantages: not sweet enough to use as the only sweetener in a recipe.


Click here to buy algarroba mesquite powder



Other sweeteners

There are other sweeteners out there – apologies if I haven’t included your personal favourite – this will either be because I have decided not to use it, or because it’s not available in the UK, or because I can’t find enough information on it to know whether it’s something I would use.  I will update this article as more information comes in.



*What is Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) represents the rate at a which a food is broken down in our digestive systems and released into the blood stream. The more slowly a food is broken down, the lower the glycemic index, and the better that food is for us, as it keeps our blood sugar stable. Foods which are broken down quickly (sugar is one such food) are regarded as less healthy, among other things because they force the pancreas to release lots of insulin all at once in order to transport the glucose extracted from that food from the bloodstream into the cells. In the short term this can lead, among other symptoms, to that well known sugar rush, quickly followed by an energy slump. In the long term, it is likely that this kind of eating over taxes the pancreas and the cells, and may be a factor in weight gain and diabetes.


**Glycaemic Load is another way of  measuring the rate at which a food is broken down in the body.  It is regarded by many nutritional experts as a more accurate way of assessing a food’s affect on our blood sugar as it measures the effect on blood sugar of eating a normal portion of a particular food, as opposed to the amount of that food that contains 50g of carbohydrate.  This can mean eating an awful lot of a food that contains a lot of water for instance.  Most, if not all, of the sweeteners mentioned in this article would have a low GL as well a as low GI.


You can buy these sweeteners from the Sweet Sensations online Sweet Sensations online shop.


Other articles on this site:

Xylitol: A Healthier Way To Sweeten Your Food?

What’s Up With Agave?

My Top Six Favourite Ingredients

A Beginners’ Guide to Raw Chocolate

Superfoods Part One

Superfoods Part Two

Essential Equipment for a No Cook Sweet Treats Kitchen


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Please note that any information given on this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be taken as such.