Sugar posers: the facts on sugar substitutes

Sugar posers: the facts on sugar substitutes

In our last blog, we got crystal clear on what sugar is. In this blog, we are going to look at sugar substitutes so that if you are trying to lose weight, be healthier, or have a medical condition that limits how much sugar you can healthily consume, you still have sweet options.

It’s important to know that not all sugar substitutes are a good idea. They may look and taste sweet on the outside, but some are jerks on the inside. We’ve got Dr Margo De Kooker back to help us understand what’s what in the sugar substitute pot.

In this blog, you will learn about:

  1. Sugar substitutes that are still sugar.
  2. Sugar substitutes that are plant extracts.
  3. Sugar substitutes that are artificial sweeteners made in the lab.
  4. The healthy and still satisfying way forward.

1. Sugar substitutes that are still sugar

These are things we use to sweeten food that we consider a healthier option than refined sugar, like fruits or honey.

The main thing to remember here is that sucrose is sucrose, and sucrose in excess is a problem. Sucrose is made up of a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule, and either in excess is also a problem.

What sucrose does is:

  • It spikes your blood sugar.
  • It makes your insulin spike at the same time.
  • It gives your brain a happiness hit/reward response.
  • It makes you want more.

So, it really depends on your reasons for finding a sugar substitute. If you are already metabolically in the red and have a condition or are very overweight, these aren’t going to do you much good.

If you are trying to lose weight, these are helpful in moderation as things like dates, if used whole, still contain the fibre needed to move the sugar along your digestive canal more quickly and avoid over-absorption.

Examples of sugar substitutes that are still sugar


Using a whole fruit or fruit puree

Using a whole fruit like a berry or date or using a whole fruit puree is fine in moderation as they contain fibre and nutrients.

Fruit Juice

Fruit juice concentrates/fruit juice

These are a no-no as you lose out on fibre and nutrients, and they are packed with sugar.



Honey is the safest thing that’s closest to natural sugar, but remember that you need raw honey that is full of minerals and nutrients, and you need to use it sparingly. It’s also important to know that when you heat up honey, it destroys the natural ingredients, so baking or cooking with honey is no better than using sugar.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup

This is high in fructose and glucose and is not quite as good for you as honey, but it’s still better than sugar.

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar

This is very similar to normal sugar, but has a slightly lower glycaemic index, which means it won't affect your glucose levels or spike your insulin quite as much as sugar. It still needs to be used in moderation.



Stay away! According to Dr Margo, agave is one of the worst substitutes for sugar. It is almost completely fructose, which makes it super sweet.

2. Sugar substitutes that are plant extracts

These don’t spike your blood sugar and are what Dr Margo calls a ‘zero element’ in food. They don’t have nutritional value, but they do give you the sweet taste you are craving.

What they don’t do is give your brain the hit that sugar does, so they won’t leave you wanting more but also don’t have the same reward response. Sometimes this won’t be enough for you and you’ll still be craving sugar, especially if you are a bit of a sugar addict.

The good news is that once you start transitioning to a sugar substitute, your tastes will change and your cravings for sugar will lessen to the point where sugary things will start tasting too sweet.

Examples of sugar substitutes that are plant extracts


Sugar alcohols

These are any substitutes ending in ‘ol’ – xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, sorbitol. They are structurally different from sugar and they don’t spike your blood sugar. Note that some people have an intolerance for these. If you have to avoid the FODMAP diet or you get wind/diarrhoea after using them, then they’re not for you. Don’t have more than 50g a day – 5-7 tsps. go a long way.



This comes from a plant from Brazil, is super sweet and has a slightly lemony taste. Because it is so darn sweet, you have to dilute it a lot or it will oversaturate your sweet taste receptors and make your brain unable to detect it which, ironically, will make it taste bitter.

Monk Fruit

Monk fruit

This got its name from the fact that monks used to grow them. Monk fruit is 150-250 times sweeter than sugar.

Overall, plant extracts are the best sugar substitutes out there. One thing you do need to consider if you really want to protect your health is where the original plants are coming from. Is that stevia or xylitol coming from non-GMO plants? In this case, quality counts.

3. Sugar substitutes that are artificial sweeteners made in the lab

Overall, these are just bad. All the above sugar substitutes were natural things coming from natural sources that have been used for centuries by cultures around the world.

Artificial sweeteners are just that: artificial. Most of them were discovered by happy accident in a lab, where a clumsy scientist happened to lick their fingers after mistakenly mixing something and tasted something sweet.

The problem with them is that they won’t immediately harm you, but, for example, aspartame attacks your mitochondria. So, if you use this artificial sweetener for 30 years, your cellular energy is being decreased daily and eventually, something’s gotta give. And that something is often organ function.

Examples of sugar substitutes that are artificial sweeteners made in the lab

Artificial sweetener

There are many, but four main ones are:

Saccharine, Cyclamates, Aspartame and Sucralose

4. The healthy and still satisfying way forward

According to Dr Margo, we ‘need to move away from the intense sweetness of things and train our palates’. If you have achieved your goals and are eating carbohydrates consciously, there is nothing wrong with a sweet treat once in a while, but chances are, once you have trained your palate, a little will be as good as a sugar feast.

Dr Margo also points out that you need to be careful of the sugar products you choose to indulge in. If you buy a cake from a supplier (like us) that uses a minimal amount of sugar to make it taste good but still has other nutrients and value, that’s completely different to buying sweet treats from companies that use sugar to hook you on their products.

Some advice to new parents from Dr Margo

If you are starting your baby on solids, try bitter and bland things first. Your child’s first food shouldn’t be baby food with sugar in it but rather eggs yolk, veggies, and rooibos.

If you start this way, when your kids go to a party, they’ll gobble down the first three sweets and then will self-regulate and won’t even be able to finish their cake.

Final thought

A sweet treat is not the end of the world when you have a well-functioning metabolism. The problem comes with the emotional attachment to sugar when you use it as a reward.

Many people think of sugar as treating themselves.
The question is: are you going to treat yourself badly or well?

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Lisa Parsons

Lisa is a content writer and strategist with experience across many platforms. She is also a personal trainer and has a keen interest in holistic health encompassing physical, mental and emotional wellness. She enjoys travel, books, puzzles, learning languages, and a buttery Chardonnay.

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