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How Healthy are Sugar Substitutes?

Aspartame is bad for you but stevia is good? Or is it the other way round?  Understanding the confusing world of sugar substitutes.



Agave nectar
This syrup comes from the sap of the agave plant, says Johan Leech, a dietitian and nutritionist from Darwin Dietitians in Australia. It has a low GI (Glycemic Index), which means it will not cause your blood sugar levels to shoot up.

Eating high-GI foods that cause these blood sugar spikes may increase your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, so low-GI sweeteners are a good substitute for table sugar, which has a high GI. However, agave nectar contains up to 90 per cent fructose, which can cause bloating and diarrhoea if you consume more than 10g (about two teaspoons) at a time.

Evaporated cane juice
Made from sugar cane syrup, it is less refined than table sugar and contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. “But it has the same number of calories as table sugar (4 calories per gram) and a high GI,” says Rebecca Collins, a dietitian and director of Health Management, a private dietetic practice in Australia. “There are no real benefits in choosing this over normal sugar.”

Made up mainly of fructose, glucose and water, Johan says honey has a moderate GI, and the same number of calories as white sugar. But if you eat too much of it, honey can cause tooth decay and weight gain, and increase your risk of getting diabetes. Johan adds that there are no guidelines for honey intake, but he recommends no more than two teaspoons at a time, and no more than four to six teaspoons a day.

Maple syrup
A natural substance from the sap of maple trees, maple syrup is mainly sucrose and water, and has a moderate GI. It can be as bad for your health as table sugar. There are also no guidelines for how much maple syrup you can take, but Johan advises taking no more than two teaspoons at a time, and no more than four to six teaspoons a day.

This comes from beaten sugar cane or sugar beet. One tablespoon contains about 11.1g of sugar – a substantial amount, making this a high-GI sweetener. Long-term consumption of more than two teaspoons a day can lead to health issues. But blackstrap molasses, one of the grades of molasses, is also a good source of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron, says Rebecca.

It’s made from the leaves of the stevia plant, a member of the chrysanthemum family. But unlike the leaves, which contain magnesium, potassium, selenium, zinc and niacin, the refined product may have far fewer nutrients. Johan says it has a no-GI rating. Older studies linked stevia with increased blood pressure and toxic risks, causing it to be banned in many countries in the 1990s. But newer, more comprehensive studies have refuted them. And many countries have now approved its use, says Johan.

This sugar alcohol can be made from hardwoods and corn cobs, or fruit and vegetables. Xylitol has 33 per cent fewer calories than sugar and a low GI. Excessive consumption can result in bloating, gas or diarrhoea, says Rebecca. Research has also shown that xylitol reduces dental plaque formation and inhibits the growth of bacteria that cause cavities.


This consists of the amino acids phenylalanine and aspartic acid, and the chemical methanol. Johan says there is no evidence that using aspartame as a sweetener has adverse side effects. Aspartame has a no-GI rating because it doesn’t contain carbohydrates (GI is calculated from the carbohydrate content of a food). People with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic condition, should not take aspartame because they cannot metabolise phenylalanine, and a high content of it in their blood can cause seizures.

Made from chlorinated table sugar, this is 600 times sweeter than sugar. Rebecca says that sucralose has a low GI. She adds: “It is not absorbed by the body; it is simply excreted. The World Health Organization deems it safe to use, and no side effects or long-term consequences have been reported.”
An appropriate amount to consume is 15mg per kg, per day. So if you weigh 65kg, this would translate to 975mg a day.

Its base ingredient is a chemical compound called benzoic sulfilimine. It has a no- GI rating. Johan says there is no evidence of negative side effects in humans using saccharin, but adverse side effects were found in rats in studies conducted in the 1970s.

Johan adds that some people are unsure about consuming saccharin because there are many conflicting rumours about their side effects. “But if you’re only consuming it as a sweetener, or in moderate amounts in sweetened food products, it is safe,” he says.


Sasha Gonzales, Simply Her, August 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

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