The Truth about Sugar Alternatives – What to use instead?

Introduction by: Gracie

Article by: Rhiannon Lambert, Registered Nutritionist

We all know sugar as ‘the devil’, it does nothing but make us fat and unhealthy! The problem is most of us are addicted and lets be honest- it makes things taste good, SO what does one do to avoid it without missing out!? The answer…sugar alternatives!? We’ve all heard about them- maple syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, coconut sugar…the list goes on, BUT the question is are these alternatives ACTUALLY any better for us!?

When we started Squirrel Sisters we did a LOT of market research and found that so many food products that claimed they were healthy were actually FULL of syrups and pastes, the classic sugar alternatives (a cheap way to get the flavour while still being able to maintain the ‘health’ claims). We wanted to steer clear of this trend, which is why our we only use whole, high quality ingredients in our products because we refuse to compromise on quality. We’re glad we did steer clear because evidence is starting to suggest (and in some cases is proven) that some of these alternatives actually aren’t good for you and in some cases are even worse than actual sugar!

Even as Squirrels we get confused because there are so many different claims out there, one minute something cures heart disease the next it causes it- it’s just a minefield of baffling information. SO we decided to get to the bottom of this sugar craze and speak to a professional that could put things straight, someone that could confirm which alternatives are actually better for us, so if we are going to use them, it’s worth our while and not a waste of time or money. That’s when we got in touch with Rhiannon…

Rhiannon Lambert BSc MSc ANutr is a Registered Nutritionist specialising in Weight Management, Eating Disorders and Sports Nutrition. Registered with the Association for Nutrition (AFN), Rhiannon has obtained first class Bachelor (BSc) and Master’s (MSc) degrees in Nutrition & Health as well as a Diploma in Nutritional Interventions for Eating Disorders. Her qualified approach to nutrition and total dedication to her clients’ needs has seen Rhiannon work with some of the world’s most influential people.

Here we go…


Sugar Alternatives – What to use instead?

by Rhiannon Lambert, Registered Nutritionist


The role that refined sugar plays in our health is simple – It’s of zero value to us nutritionally. As a result, added sugar is unquestionably the single worst ingredient in the modern diet. Thankfully, there are countless alternatives many of which are considered healthy. Unfortunately, the problem with many of them is that they are just as bad as regular sugar. In some cases, these so called ‘healthy’ sugars are even worse.



Agave is best recognised as the plant from which tequila is made by fermenting the sugars in it. It has also been seen as a medicinal plant in its native Mexico for centuries but once processed and refined into the Agave Syrup found in the supermarkets, any supposed health benefits are likely to have been lost.

Agave Syrup is largely considered a healthy alternative to sugar because it has a low glycaemic index (GI). Generally, the higher the GI rating of a food, the greater the blood sugar spike – the worse it is for your health. However, the harmful effects of sugar have little relevance to the glycemic index.

Regular sugar is typically 50% fructose but Agave can be as high as 90% fructose. Although fructose won’t raise blood sugar levels in the short-term, it can contribute to insulin resistance causing major increases in long-term blood sugar, increasing risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Eating large amounts of fructose can also have various other harmful effects including raising LDL cholesterol.

Agave syrup should be avoided given it is significantly worse than regular sugar comparing gram for gram.



Brown sugar is produced by taking refined white sugar and mixing in molasses. Given molasses have zero nutrients for the body to benefit from, they are no healthy addition. Molasses are about 50% sugar with an insignificant amount of minerals.

Quite simply, brown sugar is regular sugar diluted with a less concentrated sugar. Therefore, brown sugar cannot be considered healthier than white sugar, even though some marketers would like us to believe so.



Coconut Sugar or Coconut Syrup is derived from the sap of the coconut plant and simply produced by extracting the sugary fluid and allowing the water to evaporate. It naturally contains a small amount of fibre with also having a lower glycaemic index than regular sugar.

Similar to Agave Syrup, Coconut Sugar is very high in fructose with 75-80% of it is sucrose (which is half fructose) totalling 35-45% fructose. With a smaller amount of fructose than typical white sugar, and the tiny amounts of fibre and nutrients, it could be argued that Coconut Sugar is less unhealthy than regular sugar comparing gram for gram. Nonetheless, less unhealthy does not make it healthy.



Honey is of course a real food that can still be obtained in its natural form. A typical batch of honey is 82% sugar by weight half of which is fructose, trace amounts of vitamins, minerals and various antioxidants. These antioxidants found more so in darker honeys than lighter ones are associated with improved health and lower risk of disease,

With the wide ranging types of honey available, it’s glucose and fructose content vary greatly and its glycaemic index can range from low to high.

Studies comparing honey and white sugar have noted that honey had slightly less harmful effects on metabolism.

As a natural food, honey is most definitely less unhealthy than regular sugar and a superior choice over most other sugar alternatives. Importantly, it’s high fructose content does not allow it to be considered healthy and should not be consumed regularly.



Maple syrup is made by evaporating the sugary sap from maple trees which leaves a thick syrup. Maple syrup is different from refined sugar as it benefits from a number of minerals and antioxidants. 100 grams of maple syrup contains the following % of your recommended daily allowance (RDA); Calcium (6%), Potassium (6%), Iron (7%), Zinc (28%), Manganese (165%).

Given Maple Syrup contains often in excess of 70% sucrose, it’s mineral contents are effectively irrelevant. Comparing it against regular sugar gram for gram, an identical amount of maple syrup will cut the total sugar content by a third.



Brown Rice Syrup is a sweetener derived from brown rice. It is produced by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starches resulting in thick sugary syrup, which doesn’t resemble brown rice at all.

Despite brown rice being highly nutritious, Brown Rice Syrup contains no nutrients with the exception of trace elements of calcium and potassium. Brown rice syrup actually contains three types of sugars; Maltotriose (52%), Maltose (45%) and glucose (3%) but regardless of these sugar molecule types, once Brown Rice Syrup digested is broken down and digested, it is 100% glucose, the very sugar that raises blood sugar levels.

Brown Rice Syrup has an extremely high glycaemic index of 98, which is much higher than regular sugar (GI of approx. 70) and higher than almost any other sweetener available. Consuming Brown Rice Syrup is very likely to lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar so should be avoided altogether.



Stevia is a green, leafy plant known for its strong, sweet flavour. Generally, Stevia is found as an extract in either powder or liquid form with whole stevia leaves rarely available. Stevia has two major compounds called Stevioside and Rebaudioside A, both of which are significantly sweeter than regular sugar. Some suggest 1 teaspoon of Stevia extract powder can have a similar sweetening power as a whole cup of sugar.

Studies have shown that taking stevioside (one of the sweet compounds in stevia) as a supplement can reduce blood pressure. Stevioside appears to improve function of the hormone insulin, helping to lower blood sugar levels. This may be useful for people with type 2 diabetes. Stevia has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer effects. Although, it should be noted that these studies require further investigation given many of the results are only found in animal trials.

Stevia is the only sweetener that has health benefits not impacted by its sugary ingredients.100% natural with zero calories, Stevia is considered the healthiest of all sweeteners available.



Xylitol is a substance categorized as a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols have the ability to stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue.

Although Xylitol is found naturally in small amounts in many fruit and vegetables, it is largely processed from the Birch tree as a refined sweetener not benefiting from any vitamins and minerals. Xylitol contains no fructose and has insignificant effects on blood sugar and insulin. Therefore, none of the harmful effects of sugar apply to Xylitol.

It is a common ingredient in sugar free chewing gums, mints and oral care products. Numerous studies suggest that Xylitol, either by replacing sugar or adding it can reduce cavities and tooth decay by as much as 85%. Xylitol has been seen to increase the production of collagen, which may help to counteract the effects of ageing on the skin, in addition to being protective against osteoporosis, leading to increased bone volume mineral content.

Xylitol is an excellent alternative to regular sugar. It doesn’t spike blood sugar or insulin, starves plaque-producing mouth bacteria and feeds the friendly microbes in the intestine.



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