If you feel the need to tuck into a plate piled high with cake after dinner or reach out for a cookie or two mid-afternoon, we get you. 

Sugar has become such a big part of our lives since the commercialisation of food, but beyond the sweet satisfaction of a meringue or macaron comes a host of health issues.

For starters, sugar is highly addictive; a test with lab rats showed they were more compelled to the sugary substance than cocaine. Beyond being responsible for majority cases of obesity, it’s also been credited with causing chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, and candida. Then there’s diabetes — a metabolic disease with insulin insensitivity — and a list of heart diseases. If this still isn’t enough to inspire you to wean off sugar, we don’t know how else to help.

Unfortunately, weaning off sugar isn’t as easy as it sounds. Because our brains are so wired to expect a steady supply of sugar — much like how drugs keep you attached — the withdrawal symptoms, such as having trouble focusing or anxiety, can be quite debilitating for some. 

But alas, life is short and you deserve the occasional brownie. Instead of going cold turkey and cancelling sugar out of your life completely, swap all manners of refined sugar with alternative sweeteners instead. 

Not all substitutes were created the same, and navigating this confusing world can be frustrating. Here’s a guide to the most commonly found alternative sweeteners, from the good to the downright ugly. 

Your best options:

Honey

(Image credit: Arwin Neil Baichoo/Unsplash)

If you absolutely need a sweetener, raw honey — especially Manuka variants with a UMF rating — are one of your best options when added in moderation. Honey has, after all, long been valued for its medicinal properties, often being used in the treatment of colds, and respiratory infections, as well as to boost weakened immune systems. 

It might have a lower GI value than white sugar, but it still has slightly more calories per teaspoon than sugar and will still spike your blood sugar levels, so use sparingly. Still, it has more nutrients and may even help with seasonal allergies. If you’re substituting sugar for honey, the rule of thumb is half to 2/3 cups of honey for every cup of sugar.

Stevia

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Derived from its namesake plant native to Brazil and Paraguay, stevia is a sweetener that comes in either a powder or liquid form. The good news is that it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels, which makes it one of the better diabetic-friendly options out there. As a natural compound, the zero-calorie, non-nutritive sweetener makes for a sustainable dietary ingredient in the long run. It is, however, 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, so prudence is key when using it. 

Okay in moderation:

Xylitol 

Commonly found in sugar-free gum and candies, this sugar alcohol is another favourite amongst diabetics for having a low glycemic index, so it won’t cause a spike in blood sugar if you’re looking to maintain a steady level throughout the day. Because it doesn’t count as net carbs, it works for those on the keto diet, although it’s also notorious for causing digestive discomfort if consumed in excess. 

Coconut palm sugar

(Image credit: Tasty Superfoods)

Often confused with palm sugar (which comes from a different tree), coconut palm sugar is a natural sugar that’s derived from the sap of the flowering bud of a coconut tree, and has the same look and feel as unprocessed raw sugar. While lower in glycemic index than its processed counterparts, it’s still ultimately high in fructose and will cause impaired blood sugar control.

Molasses

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Also known as black treacle, molasses is a syrup-like byproduct from the refining of sugarcane and beets into table sugar. Because it’s rich in minerals — think manganese, copper, iron, calcium, and magnesium — molasses (especially the blackstrap molasses variant) is a good alternative, although it should still be taken in moderation as its GI index isn’t too far off from refined sugar. 

Avoid:

Agave nectar

(Image credit: Healthline)

Fans of the classic margarita might know agave for being a key component in the production of tequila, but its nectar has also gained quite a reputation as a trendy sugar substitute. Unfortunately, agave nectar (or agave syrup) is but a highly refined sweetener that’s not dissimilar to how high fructose corn syrup is derived from corn starch.

Agave nectar has a lower GI than sugar and doesn’t affect blood sugar levels in the short term, but is known to be responsible for a host of issues including liver inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity in the long run, alongside an increase in cravings throughout the day.

Aspartame

Better known by its other names, NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame is one of the most commonly used artificial sweeteners in the industry, especially in junk food, diet sodas, chewing gum, and candy.

Because its 200 times sweeter than sugar, aspartame translates to massive cost savings to these commercial manufacturers, even though it’s been proven to be a controversial alternative. Some of the most toxic effects reported include contributing to metabolic diseases and a disruption in the balance of bacteria living in the gut. 

Sucralose

(Image credit: iStock)

Yet another common zero-calorie artificial sweetener is sucralose, but you’ll recognise it better by its commercial name Splenda. While “generally recognised as safe” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, sucralose has amassed quite a bad rep for being linked to weight gain, and a higher risk inflammation, alongside a disruption of the body’s normal metabolic process. If you’re a compulsive baker, keep sucralose out of your cookies; it’s been known to produce harmful compounds when exposed to high temperatures. 

Shatricia Nair
Senior Writer
Shatricia Nair is a motoring, watches, and wellness writer who is perpetually knee-deep in the world of V8s, tourbillons, and the latest fitness trends. She is fuelled by peanut butter and three cups of coffee a day.