Sweeter than sugar

Green Lifestyle

Sugar isn’t as sweet as it seems. We explore some alternative sweeteners to find the best and healthiest alternatives that really do help the medicine go down.


Alternative sweeteners, from top to bottom, left to right: stevia, raw honey, coconut sugar, date sugar, rice malt syrup, agave, and xylitol.

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Sugar cane is a crop that needs to be grown in large spaces. This large-scale monoculture crop affects surrounding biodiversity, and the lack of trees with deep root systems over vast tracts of land can lead to serious soil erosion problems. Herbicides and pesticides are commonly used on most sugar plantations, and sugar cane removes loads of nitrogen from the soil. Agricultural runoff contaminates waterways, and the effects of sugar cane production in Queensland are seen in the Great Barrier Reef and Fiji’s Great Reef.

Glucose is a syrup made from maize (corn) or sometimes other starch crops, such as potatoes, wheat, barley, rice and cassava, but not many people know that it is often hidden in a range of processed sweet and savoury foods. Considering the glycaemic index (GI) can help people choose foods that provide long-lasting energy, rather than a quick hit with a corresponding slump soon after. Glucose is the 'reference' carbohydrate, ranked with a GI of 100, with most foods falling below this value thanks to their fibre and starch content, among other factors. It causes a rapid rise and fall in blood glucose levels which leaves you feeling tired and craving more glucose. Most people will benefit from eating low GI foods, which can help with energy levels, weight management and controlling blood glucose and insulin levels.

White sugar (or sucrose) is a pure carbohydrate, with no nutritional benefits. The refining process removes naturally occurring phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium. With a GI rating of 65, there are better options on the table than regular table sugar.

Lee Holmes, blogger and author of Supercharged Food: Eat Yourself Beautiful, chooses to omit sugar from her diet. “I have found sugar to be an inflammatory agent in the body and because I suffer from fibromyalgia [a type of autoimmune disease], I am eating an anti-inflammatory diet. I found that when I ate sugar, my symptoms, such as widespread muscle pain and fatigue and hives worsened. Once I ate less sugar, my condition improved dramatically.”

“I learnt to cook without sugar using natural alternatives such as stevia, and increasing the amount of flavour and delicious spices in my diet – such as turmeric, which is a powerful anti-inflammatory,” Holmes says. “If you learn how to cook with real, unprocessed ingredients, it’s amazing how different food tastes... and how when you do eat sugar, that it tastes so sweet and almost artificial.”

Glycaemic Index:

The Glycaemic Index (GI) ranks carbohydrate-based foods based on how quickly they raise blood glucose levels. High-GI foods are of particular concern to people with certain medical conditions, most notably type 2 diabetes.

Low = GI 55 or less
Medium = GI 56–69
High = GI 70 or more

Sugar alternatives:

The all-round winner for sweetening your food, stevia is a green leafy plant. The leaves are crushed to form syrup or crystals. With no calories or GI and 300 times the sweetness of sugar, a small teaspoonful achieves the same effect. But make sure you read the label – some brands of stevia are adulterated with fillers, or even sugar! We recommend Nirvana Organics Stevia. Or, try growing a plant of your own to harvest fresh. GI: 0

Raw honey
Referring to unpasteurised and unfiltered honey, raw honey is solid at room temperature with a milky appearance. A naturally occurring product, it is known for its antibacterial properties. Obviously not suitable for some vegan diets, it can be purchased locally and ethically at most farmers’ markets. It contains more calories than sugar, but it is sweeter – so you can use less. Dr Kate Marsh from Northside Nutrition & Dietetics says that: "The GI of honey varies widely depending on the variety and its fructose content – many varieties have now been tested and range from 30 up to 87". GI: 30–87

Coconut sugar
Sap is removed from coconut palm blossoms and reduced to form coconut sugar crystals. While it is low GI and has many nutritional properties, it is high in calories. It is a sustainable sweetener, producing more 50–70 per cent more sugar per acre compared to sugar cane, and is noted for its ability to restore damaged soils. GI: 35

Date sugar
Made by grinding dehydrated dates, date sugar can be substituted for regular white sugar in baked treats. However, because it is not a crystal like sugar, it won’t dissolve in liquids. Date crops need heavy fertilisation and irrigation, which can lead to soil salinisation and groundwater contamination, so choose fair trade or organic-certified products that use more ethical farming methods. GI: 62

Rice malt syrup
Made by culturing and cooking brown rice to form a caramel-tasting syrup, this thick syrup contains complex carbohydrates, maltose and small amounts of glucose, resulting in a sweetener that’s a slightly lower GI than glucose, but not sucrose. GI: 98

Believed to be healthy, this syrup contains up to 90 per cent fructose and is highly processed. In the lower quantities found in fruit, fructose doesn’t usually pose a problem, but some people believe that large amounts of this sugar (such as those found in high-fructose corn syrup and agave) can be dangerous. GI: 15–20

Though sourced from fibrous fruit, vegetables and some hardwoods, xylitol is extracted using a range of synthetic chemicals. These include sulphuric acid, calcium oxide, phosphoric acid and active charcoal. Its separation from woods such as birch can lead to deforestation, and excess can have laxative effects and cause stomach cramps. GI: 12

Sweet choices:

Lee Holmes, who blogs at Supercharged Food (www.superchargedfood.com), says: “My preferred sugar alternative is stevia. I think it’s up to the individual to choose the sugar alternative that works for them and their body. I follow the 80/20 rule and I don’t believe in cutting out anything from your diet 100 per cent, unless there is a specified medical reason for it. It’s important to give yourself some wriggle room, and if you feel like a hazelnut gelato once in a while then go for it!”

Holmes was kind enough to share some of her delicious recipes using stevia with us – click here for her healthy, tasty recipes with stevia.

This feature was originally published in the May/June 2014 issue #50 of Green Lifestyle magazine, however the GI listed for Rice malt syrup was incorrectly listed as 25, whereas it has been corrected to the much higher GI of 98 in this online article. Sydney University maintain a database of foods which have been tested and this is the best place to check GIs, particularly for Australian foods: www.glycemicindex.com.