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Are sugar substitutes safe? Are they healthy? Can they make me fat? Can sugar substitutes raise my insulin levels?

Reducing your sugar intake and incorporating sugar alternatives into your diet is a significant lifestyle change. So, you'll probably have plenty of questions before you make the switch.

Sugar – the good, the bad and the ugly

Wait. Don’t clear your cupboards of all things sweet and sugary just yet. It’s important to recognise that sugar (in the broadest sense of the term) isn’t all bad for you. In fact, it can play a vital role in keeping you alive.  For example, glucose is derived from carbohydrates (including sugar) and is critical for cell function.

But, as with most things in a balanced diet, it’s all about moderation. As for all its sweetness, refined sugar (that’s processed sugar such as icing sugar, caster sugar and granulated sugar) provides no nutritional value. And at 4 calories per gram it’s empty energy and calories. When it comes to looking after your body, finding a suitable sugar alternative to use and enjoy in moderation is a gamechanger.

Why use a sugar substitute?

Perhaps you’re focusing on making healthier choices for yourself, your children or others you shop and cook for. Or maybe you’ve noticed the adverse reactions and side effects of sugar on your mental and physical wellbeing. Has your GP advised you to cut down on sugar for medical reasons? Or have you started a low GI diet or a Slimming World or Weight Watchers plan? Whatever your motivation, the decision to reduce sugar intake and start to use sugar substitutes is a positive step in the right direction.

But are sugar substitutes safe?

Sugar substitutes such as honey, maple syrup, agave and coconut sugar are abundant both in nature and at your local supermarket or health food store. But just because they’re naturally occurring doesn’t mean to say that they come with an automatic healthy green light.

Whilst most sugar substitutes offer more in terms of nutritional content than refined sugar, many still have the same calorific value as refined sugar. Consequently, they may (if used in excess) lead to weight gain and raised blood sugar levels. Though there are reports that compared to sugar, honey can have a lower glycaemic effect.

There can be other health considerations too. For example, raw honey is unpasteurised, making it unsuitable for pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.

In short, it all depends on your own body makeup and the amount you ingest. So, as you’d expect, it’s best to continue to use in moderation and to research the best sugar alternative for your own specific health and culinary needs.

Quick wins for substituting sugar

That sprinkle of sugar on your breakfast cereal. The teaspoon in your morning tea. The dollop on your porridge, and the sprinkle on dessert. It’s easy to see how quickly your personal sugar mountain can grow if you enhance your food and drink with a little sugar here and there. And that’s not even taking into account the sugar that’s used in baking and in meal preparation.

When you’re ready to switch to a low sugar diet, there are lots of alternatives to satisfy your need for sweet flavours. Different sugar substitutes have different flavours and lend themselves to different uses. So, it’s useful to understand which to use and when. For example, honey is a great natural sugar substitute for sweetening porridge or tea, but Stevia works well in place of icing sugar. This guide is a good place to start for inspiration and ideas about how to use different unrefined sugar alternatives in baking and cooking.

But beware, some sugar substitutes are naturally sweeter than refined sugar. Whilst they may have similar calorific values on a like-for-like basis, you may need to use less to achieve a similar level of sweetening.

More sweeteners lurking in your cupboards

Aside from seeking out sugar substitutes, you may be surprised at how easy it is to find healthier ways to sweeten recipes from ingredients you already have in your kitchen cupboard. How about a handful of raisins, apricots, dates or summer fruits to sweeten cereals or smoothies for example? And blueberries are a great way to add flavour to pancakes or muffins.

With a little creativity and forethought, it’s relatively easy to think of ways to add flavour and sweetness, without the need for the white powdery stuff.

Summary: Sugar substitutes are sweet and tasty – but do your research first

Replacing refined sugar with suitable sugar substitutes is a step in the right direction. But how healthy, safe and suitable they are will depend on a multitude of factors. There are lots of tasty alternatives to seek out and enjoy, but your own health needs and any underlying medical conditions should be at the forefront of your sugar-slashing decisions.

Last updated: 7 October 2020