We, humans, have a natural sweet tooth. It’s because when something in nature has a sweet taste, it means it’s a good source of energy – and getting enough energy used to be crucial for survival.
We still have this preference encoded in our DNA but the problem is, there’s too much sugar and sweet stuff everywhere. We know we should watch how much we eat and there’s a tonne of sweeteners to lighten our calorie intake but it’s hard to know what to choose with so much confusing information out there.
Bear in mind that any sweetener is an extract and what follows applies only to these concentrated extracts, not to naturally occurring sugars such as in fruit.
Back to basics
When it comes to good old sugars, there are three basic sugar molecules and understanding what’s what will help you make sense of the rest:
Glucose is a sugar naturally present in many foods and serves as the main source of energy for our metabolism. When we talk about blood sugar, it means glucose. In response to absorbing glucose from food, our bodies release the hormone insulin which allows glucose to enter into our cells. Excess glucose that can’t be used immediately is stored in the form of glycogen in our muscles but can also be turned into fat.
Fructose is a type of sugar found naturally in fruits and vegetables. Your body doesn’t use it as the main energy source and it can’t be absorbed in the same way as glucose – it has to be processed by the liver first. That’s why fructose doesn’t produce high blood sugar levels and doesn’t rely on insulin but can still cause weight gain if eaten in excess. Many processed food and drinks manufacturers use high-fructose corn syrup and that’s certainly not a healthy option.
3. Sucrose aka Sugar
Sucrose, commonly known as table sugar, has molecules made up of glucose and fructose joined together. Sugar is usually extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet. When you eat sucrose, the enzymes in your gut split the molecule into glucose and fructose and each then follows its own absorption route – glucose goes directly into your bloodstream whilst fructose is processed by the liver. It follows that eating more than just small amounts of sucrose can cause weight gain.
Molasses aka Black Treacle
Before sugar cane becomes sugar, it goes through several stages of processing. One of these stages is a dark, thick, syrupy liquid that still contains many vitamins and minerals naturally present in sugar cane – molasses.
Sugar beet molasses is not very palatable so the stuff you get in shops is always made from sugar cane. It contains a lot of sugar but is also rich in iron, magnesium, potassium and manganese. If you the taste of molasses, use molasses to sweeten biscuits and other baked goods – it’s definitely healthier than other sweeteners!
White, Brown, Cane and Muscovado Sugar
These are all varieties of the same thing but there can be huge differences. White sugar is essentially just sucrose, everything else has been stripped off – it should be left to special occasions only as it offers no health benefits whatsoever. Brown sugar – unless it carries a specification – is not much better as it’s simply just white sugar with a tiny bit of molasses added to give it the beige colour.
Raw cane sugar and its many varieties (such as muscovado, turbinado or demerara) are somewhat healthier as they haven’t been so highly processed and retain some natural vitamins and minerals. And these sugars have one more advantage too – they are always vegan-friendly because they haven’t been bleached. White cane sugar can be bleached using bone char (made from cattle bones) or through other methods that don’t use any animal parts but there’s no way of knowing.
Popular product available in most health food shops, palm sugar is less refined than ‘normal’ sugar and contains small amounts of minerals, such as iron, zinc, potassium and calcium, trace amounts of antioxidants and fiber.
However, it’s mostly sucrose, about 75-80 percent so it’s no miracle sweetener. It can still contribute to weight gain, blood sugar highs and lows and tooth decay.
Golden syrup is nutritionally no different to sugar. The only difference is that golden syrup is liquid because it contains invert sugars - made by splitting sucrose (sugar) into its component molecules of glucose and fructose. This syrup is then mixed with sucrose syrup to achieve the final product. Both sugar and golden syrup contain 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose – same thing!
Agave syrup is everywhere these days, advertised as a healthy sweetener. Is the reputation justly earned? Agave syrup contains most of its sugars in the form of fructose, which is absorbed more slowly than glucose and doesn’t cause blood sugar spikes. However, that’s about the only benefit. Despite ‘natural’ claims, it’s still a very processed product and with minimal amounts of nutrients.
Maple syrup is made by extracting maple sap and boiling it to reduce water content and achieve the right syrupy consistency. The main component in the finished product is sucrose (sugar) and it also contains small amounts of the sugar component molecules – glucose and fructose. Maple syrup is surprisingly rich in riboflavin (vitamin B2), the mineral manganese (important for healthy bones, connective tissue, nervous system and more) and contains some antioxidants but its high sugar content doesn’t make it a healthy sweetener; it’s only a little better than regular sugar.
Stevia is a plant, native to Brazil and Paraguay, with super-sweet leaves – which is why it’s also called candyleaf or sweetleaf. The leaves contain compounds known as steviol glycosides, which taste very sweet but don’t contain any calories. Most stevia-based sweeteners are purified stevia leaf extracts, which are 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Extensive tests revealed that stevia is safe to use for people of all ages and that your body rapidly breaks the molecules down without storing them (Momtazi-Borojeni, 2017). Stevia is a smart choice if you’re in need of sweetening your life the healthy way but, perhaps ironically, stevia can have a bitter aftertaste which is why it’s best mixed with other sweeteners.
Maltitol is a sweetener that has 75–90 percent of the sweetness of sugar but half the calories. It’s made from maltose, a type of sugar consisting of two glucose molecules extracted from starch, and undergoes a hydrogenation process. This changes its molecular structure so it’s still very sweet but not as calorie-dense as sugar.
Maltitol is often used in sweets, chewing gum, chocolates, baked foods and ice cream as it’s not broken down by the enzymes in our saliva (unlike sugar) and it doesn’t promote tooth decay. Because it’s absorbed more slowly than sugar, it has a lesser impact on your blood sugar. However, maltitol has a laxative effect if eaten in more than small amounts, causing diarrhoea and severe flatulence.
This low-calorie sweetener, extracted from a variety of plants, has been gaining in popularity as it’s natural and doesn’t promote tooth decay.
Xylitol is only partially absorbed after you consume it and what little gets through the gut wall, your liver converts into glucose. However, most of it is fermented by gut bacteria which release beneficial byproducts as a result (Salli et al., 2019). It may seem perfect but beware - if you have too much of it, for example eat a whole bag of xylitol sweets, it has laxative effects!
Warning: never give anything containing xylitol to your dog – it is highly toxic for dogs and can cause seizures and liver failure!
Sorbitol is a low-calorie sweetener derived from glucose, also known as E420. It’s not as sweet as sugar and has about 30 per cent fewer calories.
When eaten, it has a mouth-cooling sensation so it’s often used in toothpaste. Sorbitol also helps food retain moisture and this quality makes it a popular ingredient in the production of baked goods that have a longer shelf-life.
If eaten in small quantities, it’s perfectly safe but large intakes can cause bloating and diarrhoea.
Aspartame (NutraSweet® and Equal®) is possibly the most controversial artificial sweetener. It causes cancer in animals but, as far as research goes, not in people. It’s approved as safe but there have been reports of health issues such as headaches, dizziness, anxiety, insomnia and other mood and cognition related effects following aspartame consumption – however, there isn’t enough consistent data (Choudhary and Lee, 2018).
Scientists explain that these effects are linked to aspartame increasing the levels of stress hormone, cortisol, and free radicals in the brain, which can disrupt its fragile biochemical balance.
When you digest aspartame, it’s broken down into phenylalanine, aspartic acid and methanol – all of which your body can deal with. However, people who suffer with phenylketonuria (PKU) cannot break down phenylalanine so they should avoid aspartame.
Also known as acesulfame potassium or E950, it’s an artificial sweetener about 120-200 times sweeter than sugar but you cannot digest it so it’s calorie-free.
Health authorities declared it safe but it has many critics warning against it – there isn’t enough reliable data so more research seems to be needed. If you only consume small amounts, for example in chewing gum or an occasional soft drink, that should be perfectly safe but avoid relying on it daily.
Sucralose is derived from sucrose (sugar) in a multi-step process. It’s calorie-free and up to 650 times sweeter! You may also know it under the trade name Splenda. Unlike many other artificial sweeteners, it doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste which makes it very popular for the use in fizzy drinks, chewing gum, baking mixes, breakfast cereals and salad dressings.
Your body absorbs only some of the sucralose consumed, which enters the bloodstream and is then excreted in urine. Scientific reviews concluded that sucralose is safe for humans (Magnuson et al., 2017) but some people warn that it could be a migraine trigger.
The best choice?
The world of sweeteners is a sticky minefield – each option has its pros and cons. Deciding which sweetener is best depends on how you’re planning to use it.
For example, stevia can be good for baking, mixed with some cane sugar (that way you won’t have the bitter aftertaste of stevia but you will cut the sugar content); molasses for biscuits, raw cane sugar in small amounts for drinks, xylitol in chewing gum and agave or maple syrup for drizzling over the occasional treat.
When it comes to fizzy drinks, whether sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, they’re not a smart choice either way so try to break the habit if you have one!
Dried fruit is actually the best sweetener out there – with some natural sugars, plenty of fibre, vitamins and minerals, and even small amounts of protein! Use it whenever you can to sweeten cakes, biscuits, porridge, smoothies, ice cream, desserts and more.
Choudhary AK, Lee YY. Neurophysiological symptoms and aspartame: What is the connection?. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2018;21(5):306-316.
Magnuson BA, Roberts A, Nestmann ER. Critical review of the current literature on the safety of sucralose. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 2017;106(Pt A):324-355.
Momtazi-Borojeni AA, Esmaeili SA, Abdollahi E, Sahebkar A. A Review on the Pharmacology and Toxicology of Steviol Glycosides Extracted from Stevia rebaudiana. Current Pharmaceutical Design. 2017;23(11):1616-1622.
Salli K, Lehtinen MJ, Tiihonen K, Ouwehand AC. Xylitol's Health Benefits beyond Dental Health: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients. 2019;11(8):1813.