Nutrition • 15.05.2017 • Julia Denner

Sugar Substitutes: Are These 5 Alternative Sweeteners Healthy?

Sugar provides calories but no essential minerals. This means you take in empty calories when you eat sugar. Since people like to eat sweet foods, sugar is added to many products. In fact, 80% of all packaged foods contain added sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends consuming no more than 50 grams of sugar per day (max. 10 % of total daily energy intake). That is equal to 12 teaspoons for an average adult. Cutting down to 6 teaspoons would be even better according to the WHO.

Did you know?

The WHO recommends consuming no more than 50 g of sugar per day.

From honey to stevia: nowadays, there are lots of sugar substitutes on the market that claim to be safe and healthy. But is it really true?

1. Honey

Honey is a natural product. It is produced by bees collecting flower nectar, breaking it down into simple sugars and then storing it in honeycombs.
Did you know: Honey has many essential vitamins and minerals. It is one of the oldest sweeteners in the world.

A bowl full of honey

The pros:

Honey has long been used as a healing agent in natural medicine. It has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antiseptic properties. Paired with ginger, honey can be used to fight colds.

The cons:

What you should know: 100 g of blossom honey contains about 310 calories. That is almost as much as 100 g of white sugar. Therefore, honey isn’t going to save you many calories.
Caution: Children under the age of one should not eat honey. The natural sweetener may contain a bacterium that can grow in the child’s immature digestive system and even cause infant botulism. The sweetener also increases your risk of cavities (like sugar, too).

2. Birch sugar

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol (E 967) which is used as a sugar substitute and is better known as birch sugar. Xylitol is a natural constituent of some vegetables and fruits (e.g. cauliflower, berries and plums). Birch sugar can be produced industrially by hydrolyzing xylan (a hemicellulose) into xylose, which is then further processed to obtain xylitol. However, since this process is very expensive, birch sugar is most often produced from corn cobs these days.

A spoon full of birch sugar

The pros:

Birch sugar has about 40% fewer calories than refined sugar and does not cause your blood sugar level to rise as high after eating. Plus, birch sugar doesn’t cause cavities.

The cons:

Xylitol is not calorie-free and provides about 240 calories per 100 g. Eating large quantities of it (20-30 g) can lead to flatulence or severe diarrhea. As there is still not much research on xylitol, the health-promoting aspects of it should be treated with caution.
Caution: Birch sugar is dangerous for dogs! The sugar substitute can cause severe liver damage in animals. Therefore, if you are a dog owner, be careful when using this sweetener in your cooking.

3. Stevia

Steviol glycoside is a new sugar substitute that is extracted from the South American plant species stevia rebaundiana. Stevia has been used as a food additive in the U.S. since 2008. In Europe, the sugar substitute was originally sold as a bath additive because it supposedly makes the skin velvety smooth.
Interesting fact: Stevia is four hundred times sweeter than white sugar.

Steviablätter und eine Schüssel Stevia

The pros:

Stevia has no calories and does not damage the teeth. It also has no effect on your blood sugar level.

Did you know?

Up until a few years ago, Stevia was only available in Europe as a bath additive.

The cons:

The stevia added to foods is a chemical extract (E 960) and thus does not contain any essential nutrients. Stevia may be much sweeter than sugar, but it has a bitter aftertaste. We recommend using this sugar substitute only in moderation since there has still not been much research on it.

4. Agave nectar

Agave nectar, also known as agave syrup, is produced from the juice of the agave plant found in Mexico. This sweetener tastes like honey but has a thinner consistency.

Agave syrup is dripping from a spoon

The pros:

In contrast to ordinary sugar, agave nectar contains metabolites, vitamins and minerals. The sugar substitute is runnier than honey and thus more soluble in foods and drinks. Plus, it is suitable for vegans.

The cons:

Agave nectar has about the same number of calories as honey and is thus not much lower in calories than sugar. Due to its high fructose content, the sweetener has a lower glycemic index, but too much fructose intake over a long period of time can be bad for your health: it can elevate your blood fat level and lead to a fatty liver.
Did you know: The glycemic index indicates the effect of a carbohydrate-containing food on your blood sugar levels. Pure glucose is used as a reference point and has a value of 100.

5. Coconut sugar

This sugar substitute is made from the nectar of the flower buds of the coconut palm. It tastes a lot like caramel.

A big spoon full of coconut sugar

The pros:

Coconut sugar is said to contain many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, iron and zinc.

The cons:

Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than sugar (35), but this is due to its high fructose content like agave nectar. Plus, this sugar substitute costs about 20 euros per kilo, which isn’t exactly cheap. But this isn’t surprising when you consider that it is extracted by hand. Thus, this sugar substitute has to be classified as a luxury good.

Take-away: Many sugar alternatives claim to be healthier than they actually are. Many of them contain high levels of fructose or are extracted chemically. Therefore, we recommend that you use sugar substitutes (as well as refined sugar) sparingly. Or try to slowly get rid of your sweet tooth. Ask yourself the question: “Do I really need to sweeten my coffee?” 😉


Julia Denner

Runtastic dietitian Julia is a creative cook. She is convinced that a varied diet and regular exercise are the keys to success.
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