Birch Sugar, Erythritol, or Agave Nectar: Breakdown of 8 Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes

Sugar is addictive,(1) leads to obesity,(2) and is even suspected of increasing the risk of cancer.(3) Not great news – especially if you think that about 80% of packaged foods contain added sugar.

The World Health Organization (WHO)…

recommends consuming a maximum of 50 g of sugar per day (12 teaspoons). 

Most of us eat much more than this every day.  

To wean yourself off sugar, it can be helpful to opt for sugar alternatives, in addition to cutting down on your intake. Alternatives ranging from birch sugar to erythritol to stevia are available in shops and advertised as healthy – but are they?

We’ve compared 8 alternatives to sugar below. 

1. BIRCH SUGAR (XYLITOL)

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

  • Pros of Birch Sugar:
    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 good thing is, this sugar substitute has the same sweetness as regular sugar.
  • Cons of Birch Sugar:
    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.

Did you know?

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.

2. HONEY

Honey is a natural product, contains a lot of valuable nutrients, and is considered one of the the oldest sweeteners in the world. It is produced by bees collecting flower nectar, breaking it down into simple sugars and then storing it in honeycombs.

A bowl full of honey

  • Pros of Honey:
    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.
  • Cons of Honey:
    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. Due to the water content of honey, 100 g of honey is not as sweet as 100 g of sugar. In fact, honey is about 80% as sweet as sugar. It has a similar impact on blood sugar levels as sugar (sucrose). For diabetics or those trying to manage blood sugar levels, there is no advantage to substituting honey for sugar.

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).

3. STEVIA

Steviol glycoside is a sugar substitute that is extracted from the South American plant species stevia rebaundiana. It has been an approved food additive in the EU since 2011. Before that the sugar substitute was known as a bath additive.

Steviablätter und eine Schüssel Stevia

  • Pros of Stevia:
    Stevia has no calories and does not damage the teeth. It also has no effect on your blood sugar level, so stevia can also be used by diabetics.
  • Cons of Stevia:
    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.

Interesting fact:

Stevia is three hundred to four hundred times sweeter than white sugar (= granulated sugar).

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

  • Pros of Agave Nectar:
    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.
  • Cons of Agave Nectar:
    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, lead to a fatty liver, contribute to insulin resistance, while also raising the risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.

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. ERYTHRITOL

Erythritol, like birch sugar, is a sugar substitute. It occurs naturally in foods like strawberries, pears, melons, and grapes. However, this sweetener is extracted from corn and mushrooms for industrial purposes.

  • Pros of Erythritol:
    Erythritol contains almost no calories and does not damage the teeth. It also does not affect blood sugar.
  • Cons of Erythritol:
    This sweetener is very expensive. One kilogram costs between seven and ten euros, depending on the manufacturer.

Good to know:

Erythritol is about 70% as sweet as sugar. Keep this in mind if you bake with it. 

6. 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

  • Pros of Coconut Sugar:
    Coconut sugar is said to contain many vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, iron and zinc. The sweetness of coconut sugar is comparable to ordinary granulated sugar.
  • Cons of Coconut Sugar:
    Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than sugar (35), but this is due to its high fructose content like agave nectar. Despite having a lower glycemic index, it is a fairly pure form of sugar. So, individuals with type 2 diabetes should use it sparingly. 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.

7. DATES

Dates come from the date palm, which originated around the Persian Gulf. They are cultivated in palm gardens. At home in the desert, they need a lot of sun and water in the summer. There are over one hundred different types of date palms. The largest growing areas are in Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria.

  • Pros of Dates:
    Dates are a real power food. They are very rich in vitamin A and B vitamins, provide a lot of potassium (650 mg) as well as magnesium (65 mg). The high level of antioxidants make them an anti-inflammatory food. Do you struggle with constipation? Dates (and other dried fruits) are high in fiber and help stimulate the digestion. But don’t forget to drink a lot of water when you eat them!
  • Cons of Dates:
    Dates are high in sugar and contain a lot of calories (100 g have 290 calories). For this reason, diabetics should not consume this natural sweetener in large amounts.

Ideas for use:

There are many ways to use dates in the kitchen: as a snack, stuffed with almond butter, for baking, or in smoothies and salads – the possibilities are endless.

8. MAPLE SYRUP

Extracted from the sugar maple tree, maple syrup (also known as “liquid gold”) is delicious on pancakes and also a good alternative to sugar in tea.

maple syrup

  • Pros of Maple Syrup:
    Maple syrup is a natural product: unlike ordinary sugar, it contains more than 50 beneficial compounds including antioxidants and a molecule with anti-inflammatory properties. The darker the syrup, the higher the concentration of these compounds. Plus, 100 g of maple syrup has 90 mg of calcium, 185 mg of potassium, 25 mg of magnesium, and 2 mg of iron. However, the question remains how much of these benefits are actually derived when the syrup is consumed in the recommended (small) amounts.
  • Cons of Maple Syrup:
    The sweetness of maple syrup (100 g has 260 cal) is 60 to 70% lower than refined sugar. So you need more maple syrup to achieve the sweetness of sugar. Pay attention to the purity and the ingredients when you buy it. Maple syrup (not a protected name in Europe) often contains sugar water – not recommended for a sugar-free diet. The ingredients of syrups, such as maple syrup, often contain various proportions of glucose and fructose depending on the producer. That’s why diabetics need to be cautious about using this syrup – as it can cause the same response as plain white sugar, depending on the amount and the quality.

Did you know:

You need about 40 liters of maple sap to produce one liter of maple syrup!

8 Sugar alternatives >> So, which sugar substitute is the best?

Review the pros and cons of these sugar alternatives to form your own opinion:

  • Birch sugar doesn’t cause your blood sugar to rise much, but it does have 240 cal per 100 g. 
  • Honey has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. However, it is loaded with calories: it has 310 calories per 100 g. 
  • Stevia has no calories, but the sweetener is added to food as a chemical extract (E 960).
  • Agave nectar contains a lot of vitamins and minerals. If you eat too much of it for a longer period, though, it can elevate your blood fat level.
  • Erythritol has about 70% of the sweetness of regular sugar, but has almost no calories and doesn’t destroy your teeth. 
  • Coconut sugar contains magnesium, iron, and zinc – on the other hand, it is high in fructose. It is also rather expensive and considered a luxury good.  
  • Dried dates are an ideal source of energy as a snack and can stimulate digestion. However, they are high in calories and should not be eaten in large amounts.
  • Maple syrup is a natural alternative and contains many antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. But it is 60 to 70% less sweet than sugar, which means you need more sugar to achieve the same sweetness.

In summary, many sugar alternatives are often touted as healthier than they actually are. Indeed, many of them are high in fructose or are chemical extracts. This is why we recommend using sugar substitutes sparingly (just like refined sugar). Or try to slowly cut back on it – ask yourself, “Do I really need to sweeten my tea?”

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