Alternatives to sugar

Alternatives to sugar

Yesterday we put sugar on trial and found it guilty as hell. But a world with sweet things is a sad world indeed, and I happen to like happiness and cupcakes. So, what are the alternatives?

It’s important to note that while there are better alternatives to sugar, using them doesn’t mean that your baking is now sugar free. Refined sugar free, yes, if you’re not using cane sugar. But all forms of natural sugar still have an effect on blood sugar levels and lead to the release of insulin.

You’ll recognise insulin as the diabetic’s Achilles heel. It’s the hormone that instructs the body to move glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream into the cells where it is either used for energy or converted into fat for storage. In diabetics, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin for this process or doesn’t respond adequately to the insulin produced. Without treatment, this causes blood sugar imbalances which can be fatal. In non-diabetics, excess consumption of sugar causes similar blood sugar imbalances, however as they are corrected with insulin, they aren’t life threatening. However, they do have long term effects on your health, as discussed in this post.

Regardless of how natural or nutritious a sugar is, it still affects your blood sugar levels. It therefore goes without saying that all sugar alternatives should be used in moderation – don’t think you can eat 5 cookies just because they’re made with maple syrup.

The Good Alternatives

Coconut Nectar / Sugar

What is it? The crystalised nectar collected from the flower of the coconut palm in either liquid or crystal form.

Why’s it good? It’s a good source of nutrients like vitamin C, B2, B3, iron and magnesium. It’s also low GI (30-35) – foods that are low on the glycemic index are less disruptive to blood sugar levels. By comparison, white table sugar has a GI of 60 and no added nutritional benefits.

What’s the catch? It’s fairly new to SA and is very expensive. 250ml will cost you R120 – that’s not going to go very far in your cupcake recipes.

Fruit purees

What is it? Homemade mashed up fruit such as soaked dates blended to a paste, apple sauce made from stewed apples (no added sugar!) or smashed ripe bananas.

Why’s it good? You get the flavour of the fruit along with the vitamins, minerals and fibre that it contains.

What’s the catch: It can be hard to bake with fruit purees because they affect the quantities of wet to dry ingredients. Practice makes perfect, but prepare for a few batches of wet, sludgy muffins.

Maple Syrup

What is it? The concentrated sap of the Canadian maple tree.

Why’s it good? It’s lower in calories and fructose content than honey and has a GI rating of 54. It has some nutritional value in iron, zinc, manganese and potassium, however, it is lower in vitamins than honey.

What’s the catch:  In SA it is also fairly expensive – Woolies sells 250ml organic maple syrup for just under R100. Also watch out for ‘Maple flavoured syrup’ – this is not real maple syrup and has an extremely high glucose content.


What is it: Made by bees out of nectar gathered from flowers.

Why’s it good? Honey contains vitamins B6 and C and has a GI of between 40 and 55. It is roughly 50% fructose (fruit sugar) – a 50:50 ratio of fructose to glucose is easier for the body to metabolise than a product with higher fructose content (ie pure fruit). Raw honey ie not pasteurised has additional antibacterial and antifungal benefits.

What’s the catch? Heating honey at high temperatures destroys all its goodness. Most mass produced honey is made this way during pasteurisation. Always buy raw for maximum nutritional benefits. Never microwave your honey – rather place the jar in warm water and wait until its liquid enough to use. Honey is not recommended for babies under a year.


What is it: A protein found naturally in the stevia plant grown in Peru, which stimulates the sweet receptors on the tongue. The purest form is the green powder made from the leaf of the plant.

Why’s it good? It’s extremely low calorie and very sweet, so a small amount goes a long way.

What’s the catch? There is an aftertaste to stevia that some people find very metallic, myself included. I won’t bake with it. Be careful of the more processed options – there are many stevia variations with added processed sweeteners to balance the taste.

The Bad Alternatives


What is it? A sugar alcohol derived from the fibre of various plants like oats, mushrooms, corn and raspberries.

Why do people use it? It’s low GI and prevents the growth of oral bacteria. For this reason, it is often used in chewing gum.

Why won’t you touch it? While it’s true that xylitol is a naturally occurring substance, mass manufactured xylitol is produced by the process of sugar hydrogenation, which involves chemical reactions using a powdered nickel-aluminum alloy. Basically, there is heavy metal residue on the final product. Studies on hydrogenated sugars are still out, but given what we know about hydrogenated fats, do you really want to take the chance?

Brown Rice Syrup

What is it? A high glucose syrup derived from fermented cooked rice.

Why do people use it? It sounds healthy.

Why won’t you touch it? Brown Rice Syrup looks and sounds natural but it is actually highly processed and has a GI of 98 – that’s basically the same as white sugar. It also contains little in terms of nutritional value.

Agave Syrup

What is it: the pulp of the Agave cactus, a plant which grows in Latin America.

Why do people use it? The syrup was originally used by Native Americans, but what they extracted bears little resemblance to the Agave syrup we find in supermarkets today. It’s a highly processed syrup with a fructose content of 70-97%. Fructose doesn’t cause a glucose/insulin spike like glucose does, and so Agave was originally marketed as a low GI sweetener. However, we know now that fructose goes directly to the liver for processing and is actually worse for us than glucose.* Agave is similar in composition to High Fructose Corn Syrup, the processed sugar which is responsible for the outbreak of obesity in the Western world.

*But wait, doesn’t fruit contain fructose? Oh shit, now what?

Yes it does, but it contains glucose as well – only a few fruits contain more fructose than glucose, like apples and pears. You’d have to eat around 25% of your daily calories in fruit for the fructose to have a real impact. So add your banana and apple to your morning smoothie and don’t stress.

My choice

I use raw honey. I’m an advocate of wholefoods, so wherever possible I will always choose a natural product. If coconut nectar was more affordable I’d use it, and while stevia is tempting, I don’t like the aftertaste in my baked goods. Due to its very recent rise in popularity, there’s also uncertainty around the processing of some product. When in doubt, leave it out!




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