Sugar Alternatives – An Expert’s Advice

A dipper and molasses


We all know sugar is bad for us! However, if you have a sweet tooth and can’t imagine not having a little sweetness in your life, you can always reach for alternative, natural sweeteners – and there are lots of them.

We asked Dr Marilyn Glenville, leading nutritionist and author of Natural Alternatives to Sugar to give us the low-down on the most popular…


Naturally found in fruit, you can buy fructose as a white powder. The problem? It is totally refined and all the goodness and fibre that would be in the fruit is absent.

Fructose does not trigger the release of insulin as sucrose and glucose do, so initially it was thought to be a healthy form of sugar. However, it goes straight to your liver – which has to metabolise it – in the same way that alcohol does. So it can make you gain weight, increase your appetite and also give you fat around the middle.

Fructose interferes with production of hormones like leptin, which should send a signal that you have eaten enough, and can raise levels of a hunger hormone called ghrelin. Fructose does not supply any energy either to your brain or your muscles; it is only stored as fat.

Dr Glenville’s view: Contained within the fruit, fructose is fine – but I would not buy it as a white powder.


In Mexico, traditionally the sap of the agave plant would be boiled for hours to obtain the sweet syrup. To cut costs and produce it on a commercial scale, agave sweetener is now made from the starch of the root bulb. The final product is just refined fructose.

Some companies may produce agave syrup in the traditional way. It is not easy to tell, though they would be definitely more expensive.

Dr Glenville’s view: I would not recommend using agave as it could be up to 90% fructose.


Although this is a natural sweetener, you should use it sparingly. Honey is a simple sugar, primarily made up of glucose and fructose, and is absorbed into your bloodstream quickly. Not ideal if you’re trying to control your blood sugar or lose weight. Fructose content can be up to 40% in some honeys.

Avoid types which are “blended” or “produce of more than one country”. These are often heated to temperatures as high as 71°C, destroying their natural goodness.

Bees gather nectar from flowers to take back to the hive. Honey is often harvested from hives in the autumn, which means bees will struggle over the winter, so they are fed sugar water as a substitute. So you may not be buying “pure honey”, even though it might say so on the label, because the sugar water gets mixed with the honey in the hive. Basically, the raw material for honey is simply white sugar.

Dr Glenville’s view: If you use honey, try to buy organic and use very sparingly.


Blackstrap molasses, a sugar alternative, on a honey dipper

Blackstrap molasses contains minerals not found in refined sugar

Molasses is the by-product of the process used to extract sugar from sugar cane or beet.

Sugar cane juice is boiled, and sugar crystallised from it. The syrup left over is molasses. Normally, the cane is boiled three times to remove as much sugar as possible. The molasses left over at the end of this third stage is called black strap molasses and is dark, very syrupy and has the lowest amount of sugar but the highest quantities of vitamins and minerals. It is strong-tasting but is a good source of vitamin B6 and potassium and a very good source of magnesium and manganese.

About half of the sugar content is made up of fructose and glucose, and the other half sucrose.

Dr Glenville’s view: This is not a sweetener I have used. As a by-product of sugar extraction, it may have higher levels of pesticides and other chemicals used in sugar cultivation and processing.


Sold as a white powder, xylitol occurs naturally in plants. It is low in calories and does not need insulin to be metabolised so it is very useful for diabetics. It also reduces dental caries. Xylitol’s main side effects are diarrhoea and bloating as it ferments in the digestive system.

Xylitol is found in the fibres of plants including sugar cane, corn cobs and birch. However, it requires a lot of refining.

Basically, xylitol is made from the hydrogenation of a sugar called xylose. We have been moving away from hydrogenated fats after we found out about health risks associated with them. There may be concerns about hydrogenated sugar in years to come.

Dr Glenville’s view: Xylitol requires far too much processing to be considered a natural product.


Like xylitol, sorbitol is a sugar alcohol and is often used in foods designed for diabetics because it requires little or no insulin. It is usually made from corn syrup. Sorbitol is found naturally in stone fruits such as prunes, plums and dates.

Sorbitol can cause diarrhoea because it stimulates bowel motion. Both sorbitol and xylitol can worsen IBS.

Dr Glenville’s view: I would not recommend using sorbitol because of the negative effects on the digestive system and the fact that it is a heavily-processed sweetener.

Maple syrup

maple syrup, a natural sweetener, in a glass bottle on a wooden table

Maple syrup is a healthy alternative to sugar

Maple syrup is harvested from maple trees by making a hole in the trunk and collecting the sap. It contains 34 beneficial compounds which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It is usually recommended for IBS sufferers as it causes least problems with digestion.

Maple syrup contains significant amounts of zinc and manganese and 15 times more calcium than honey. It is made up primarily of sucrose and very small amounts of fructose and glucose.

Beware products labelled “maple-flavoured syrup”. This may not contain any maple syrup at all!

Dr Glenville’s view: I use real maple syrup as a natural sweetener, organic where possible. I use it in cakes and to drizzle over the top of crumbles.

Barley malt syrup

This is an unrefined natural sweetener produced from sprouted barley malt, which is dried and then cooked, sometimes called Barley Malt Extract. The liquid is then filtered and reduced.

It is thick and dark brown and makes wonderful flapjacks. It is a reasonably good source of some minerals and vitamins and contains almost no fructose or sucrose.

Dr Glenville’s view: Barley malt syrup is a good choice as a natural sweetener. It has a malty taste so does not work well in all recipes but, as mentioned above, is brilliant in flapjacks!

Brown rice syrup

This natural sweetener is available in most health food shops, also called rice malt syrup. Brown rice syrup contains three sugars – maltotriose, maltose and glucose.

Cheaper versions are made from cooked brown rice cultured with enzymes to turn the starch in the rice into sugar. Others use sprouted grains that release enzymes that break down the grain into maltose and other sugars. Brown rice syrup contains no fructose, which is a good thing.

Dr Glenville’s view: I personally would use organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener. It does change the texture of baked foods, so is best used where a little crunch is of benefit. This makes it a good choice for a crumble, flapjack or healthy granola, in small amounts.


Stevia is derived from the leaves of a South American plant. It has been used for centuries as a sweetener. In 2011 it was approved for use in the EU. Stevia is 2-300 times sweeter than table sugar (sucrose).

Read labels carefully as some products can contain dextrose and flavourings. You need a product that is 100% stevia.

As stevia is not absorbed through the digestive tract, it is considered to have no calories, so it appears a good choice for weight loss. However, pure stevia primes your body to expect a corresponding amount of calories for the sweetness. When that calorie hit doesn’t happen, your body will send you off to get the calories from somewhere else!

It has a slight bitter aftertaste for most people, so is often mixed with other sweeteners.

Dr Glenville’s view: You could use pure stevia as a sweetener in moderation.

Palm sugar

Palm sugar is made from the flowers of palm trees, in particular the palmyra palm tree. The flowers are tapped to release the juice, which is boiled down to produce syrup then allowed to crystallise.

A traditional Ayurvedic ingredient, it contains good amounts of B vitamins including a plant source of B12. It has a low glycaemic index – great for weight loss.

Dr Glenville’s view: A good natural sweetener and a nice alternative to sugar – can be used in cooking as well as drinks.

Coconut sugar

Also known as coconut palm sugar, this is produced from the sap of the flower buds of the coconut tree. It is found in liquid form as a syrup (also known as coconut nectar and blossom syrup) as well as crystals.

The tree is tapped, as for palm sugar, and the sap is minimally heated to allow moisture to evaporate to form the syrup. When the syrup cools it crystallises.

Like palm sugar, coconut sugar is rich in nutrients such as B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, potassium, zinc, 17 amino acids, short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants, plus it has a nearly neutral pH. It also contains inulin, a prebiotic which helps feed beneficial bacteria.

Dr Glenville’s view: I have not used coconut sugar myself but it is supposed to taste like brown sugar and you would use it exactly the same. I would suggest buying organic.

Yacon syrup

This sweetener is made from the sweet root of the yacon, a member of the sunflower family also known as the Peruvian ground apple. It tastes like a cross between an apple and a pear.

Yacon contains a prebiotic, which helps feed the beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. Yacon also contains good amounts of vitamins and minerals. It is low GI, can help lower glucose levels and is said to be fine for diabetics. It is traditionally made without chemicals, using evaporation.

Dr Glenville’s view: I would recommend this. It can be used instead of a liquid sweetener such as honey, and also in baking. Choose an organic variety. However it may not be suitable for people with IBS, due to its high prebiotic content.

You can buy Natural Alternatives to Sugar, by Dr Marilyn Glenville, for £9.97 here.

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Sarah Proctor

I've worked on a variety of regional newspapers and national magazines. My Weekly and Your Best Ever Christmas are fantastic, warm-hearted brands with an amazing, talented team. I'm a sub-editor and particularly love working on cookery, fiction and advice pages - I feel I should know all the secrets of eternal life, health and happiness by now, but hey, we all need that regular reminder!