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Sugar, the alternative and everything in between

honey-sugarThe media often label sugar as 'evil' and 'toxic' and suggest that alternative sweeteners are just as dangerous. This adds confusion to an already complex subject and makes people question what sugars and sweeteners (if any) we should add to our food and in cooking. So let's go back and take a look at sugar, some of its alternatives, and some new sweet kids on the block.

Table sugar

Table sugar comes in different colours, textures and flavours but nutritionally they are pretty much the same. Whether white, brown or raw, table sugar has a medium Glycemic Index (GI), about 4 g of carbohydrate per teaspoon and few vitamins and minerals. When it comes to digestion and metabolism, your body cannot tell the difference.

Low GI sugar is often touted as 'diabetes friendly'. By putting the nutrient dense waste from the milling process of sugar cane back into the end product, the GI is lowered. However, with the same amount of carbohydrate as regular sugar, there will be no difference to the impact on blood glucose levels when using in the small amounts recommended.

The bottom line

It is not about what table sugar is better for people with diabetes. It's about how it fits in with the overall quality of your diet and how it contributes to the amount of carbohydrate that you are eating.

A sprinkle here or there in the presence of a diet based on whole, minimally processed foods is not a problem for your health. The issue is when highly processed, nutritionally poor foods and drinks containing added sugar frequent in your diet.

The Alternatives

This next information covers the commonly questioned non-nutritive sweeteners, stevia and aspartame. Both of these are classed as 'artificial' or 'intense' sweeteners and have no effect on blood glucose levels.


Stevia (or stevia extract) is a plant-based sweetener derived from the stevia plant, from Paraguay. It is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and approved for use in Australia as an alternative to table sugar and used in a variety of foods and beverages, including the product CSR Smart SugarTM.


Aspartame (EqualTM, HermesetasTM, SugarlessTM and NutrasweetTM) is a chemically derived sweetener composed of two amino-acids, which are commonly found in protein containing foods such as meat and eggs. It is commonly used as a table sugar replacement and in products such as diet soft drinks and diet yoghurts. There has been much speculation around the use of aspartame over the years, but it has been approved for use in Australia. More recently, the European Food Safety Authority gave aspartame the go ahead and proved that it has no impact on blood glucose and insulin levels in people with and without diabetes.

Although proven safe, the impact of artificial sweeteners on weight is less clear. There is suggestion that artificial sweeteners interfere with the body's natural response to energy balance and promote food intake, contributing to obesity – this theory still warrants further research but should be considered by people consuming large amounts of artificial sweeteners.

The bottom line

Artificial sweeteners are not a necessity in the diet. If going for a diet soft drink means better diabetes management in that situation – do it. BUT not all day, every day. Don't put diet drinks in the same category as water. If you have troubles drinking water, look for more natural ways of infusing flavours to make it more palatable to you. Have water with a squeeze of lemon or lime or infuse chopped up fruit in a jug of water.

Sweet syrups

Discussing all sweet syrups available is beyond the scope of this article but here is some information about the most popular.

Agave syrup

Agave syrup is a sweet syrup originating from Mexico and South America. Although often labeled as 'natural' and 'healthy', it is highly processed, refining it of any nutrition. It is often labeled as 'diabetes friendly', due to its low GI – but this doesn't mean it should be used in large quantities or worth the expensive price tag. The low GI is due to the high quantity of fructose found in agave – this can pose a problem for people with irritable bowel syndrome.

Brown rice malt syrup

Brown rice malt syrup is derived from brown rice flour or brown rice. This thick, fructose free sweetener is similar to agave syrup when it comes to nutritional value. It unsurprisingly has a very high GI of 98.


Honey contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals and with the many types available, its GI varies between 48 and 60.

The bottom line

Per teaspoon, all syrups have pretty much the same amount of carbohydrate as table sugar, varying GI's, with nothing extraordinary about their overall nutritional profile. Whatever your preference is, treat syrups like table sugar. Always consider how they fit into the quality of your diet, how much you use and how this contributes to the overall carbohydrate content of what you are eating.

Hot Tips

  • All table sugars and syrups have similar carbohydrate contents and are ok to use in small amounts in the presence of a healthy, wholesome diet.
  • Sugar free cakes and biscuits are still not healthy choices.
  • Enjoy more whole, minimally processed foods everyday.
  • Enjoy regular meals balanced with good quality protein and a small portion of low GI carbohydrate to satisfy energy levels and prevent sugar cravings.
  • Choose nourishing, filling snacks such as Greek yoghurt with some berries, roasted nuts with a piece of cheese or vegetable sticks with a small scrape of 100% nut butter.
  • Foods containing natural sugars like fruit, milk and yoghurt are nourishing and provide many nutrients beyond their 'sugar' content.

Read the original article

Click here to read the original article. Published in Diabetes SA Living Magazine – March 2015, page 10; Author: Kerryn Boogaard, Accredited Practising Dietitian & Credentialled Diabetes Educator.

Additional resources