Updated 19th July 2023

What’s the best natural sugar substitute?

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    Get science-based nutrition advice delivered straight to your inbox.

    Are you trying to eat less sugar? If you are, you might have tried a natural sugar alternative.

    From stevia and robinia honey to coconut sugar and agave, the list of these table sugar replacements seems to be growing day by day.

    But what even are these alternatives? Are they really natural? And do they offer us a healthier way of getting that sweet taste?

    In today’s short episode of ZOE Science & Nutrition, Jonathan and Dr. Sarah Berry ask: What are natural sugar alternatives, and are they healthier than table sugar?

    Mentioned in today’s episode:

    Episode transcripts are available here.

    Is there a nutrition topic you’d like us to explore? Email us at podcast@joinzoe.com and we’ll do our best to cover it.

    ZOE Science & Nutrition

    Join us on a journey of scientific discovery.


    [00:00:00] Jonathan: Hello and welcome to ZOE Shorts, the bite-sized podcast where we discuss one topic around science and nutrition. I'm Jonathan Wolf. Today I'm joined by Dr. Sarah Berry, and today's subject is natural sugar alternatives. 

    [00:00:18] Sarah: That's right, Jonathan. Today we're discussing food such as honey maple syrup, stevia, and agave that people use instead of table sugar. Some believe these natural options are healthier than regular table sugar,  

    [00:00:33] Jonathan: But are these natural alternatives actually better for us than table sugar?  

    [00:00:37] Sarah: Well, as always, the answer is not straightforward, and I think the facts will surprise you, Jonathan. 

    [00:00:42] Jonathan: Amazing. Let's dive in. 

    [00:00:47] Jonathan: So, Sarah, take me inside your house on a Saturday morning. Does your family use any natural sugar alternatives? 

    [00:00:55] Sarah: Yeah, on weekends I might have pancakes with the kids, with honey or maple syrup on them.  

    [00:01:00] Jonathan: Well, it seems actually, Sarah, that you've picked two household favorites because we did some research and it turns out that honey is the most popular spread in the UK, more popular than Jam or Jelly as our colleagues in the states would say. And in the US more than 5 million gallons of maple syrup are produced each year. 

    [00:01:19] Sarah: Other popular natural sugar alternatives as well as honey and maple syrup include pureed fruit like bananas, dates, agave syrup and coconut sugar, which is made from the sap of coconut palm tree and is essentially the same as palm sugar. 

    [00:01:36] Jonathan: And I've heard of Stevia, I feel like more often recently as well. Is that a natural alternative to sugar?

    [00:01:43] Sarah: So technically it is, and this is because Stevia is derived from a very sweet-tasting South American plant. It's actually more than 200 times sweeter than sugar. It's not something that we've historically eaten and it goes through many, many steps to process the final Stevia, extract crude stevia, which is the process product before it is purified, often carries quite a bitter taste and also foul smell until it's bleached or, de colored. It's also worth noting that the Stevia products that you buy in the store often contain other ingredients like the artificial sweetener, erythritol. You may remember, Jonathan, we actually discussed artificial sweeteners in a previous podcast episode.

    [00:02:27] Jonathan: So if we're talking about these like naturally occurring alternatives of sugar you know, some more processed than others, and I guess honey is the least processed because you just dip it out of the hive. Why Sarah are some people switching from table sugar To these alternatives?

    [00:02:44] Sarah: So Jonathan, this is because most people know that eating a lot of sugar isn't great for their health. And there's a perception that natural sugar alternatives like honey are healthier than table sugar because they're less processed and because simply they're considered to be more natural. A question I hear really frequently is, if I use honey or maple syrup or any of these other natural sugar alternatives in my cooking or my baking, does it mean it's healthier?

    [00:03:10] Jonathan: So before we talk about those alternatives, Can we actually maybe start with the beginning of that question, which is, isn't table sugar itself natural? 

    [00:03:19] Sarah: Well, it depends what you term natural. Yes. It's made from sugar cane, which is a plant, and once the cane is harvested, it's crushed to extract its juice and the sugar cane juice is boiled until the water evaporates. Leaving behind these sugar crystals.  

    [00:03:35] Jonathan: Could you just explain a bit how exactly Natural sugar alternatives are different from from table sugar and ex. Explain a bit what's going on there.

    [00:03:44] Sarah: Yeah, so let's first look at what table sugar is. So table sugar is sucroses, and this is a disaccharide, which means it's made up of two sugars bound together. Hence where the word die saccharide comes from, di meaning two and saccharide, meaning sugar. The two sugars that are bound together in sucrose are glucose and fructose. 

    [00:04:06] Jonathan: So are our natural alternatives to sugar are also made up of glucose and fructose stuck together to make sucrose?  

    [00:04:13] Sarah: Yeah, so typically most natural alternatives to sugar are made up of fructose and glucose. Sometimes the ratios of the fructose to glucose in these natural sugars might be different. So for example, in robina honey, it contains more fructose than glucose, and there's also other more complex sugars found in honey, but actually in quite low concentrations. 

    [00:04:38] Jonathan: So to make sure I've got this right, Sarah, you're saying the basic contents of sugar and these natural sugar alternatives are essentially almost the same. They've got glucose and fructose inside them but in fact, I think that they can taste quite different to us. What's, what's going on there? 

    [00:04:57] Sarah: Yeah so many of the natural sugar alternatives sometimes taste sweeter, but they're also slightly different from table sugar in that they often contain. Extra micronutrients. So for example, honey contains some vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols. Although it's important to say these are quite small amounts.

    [00:05:17] Jonathan: So Sarah, could you just explain very simply, like what happens when I eat a spoonful of sugar or dissolved in my coffee? What happens to my body and how does that affect my health?

    [00:05:27] Sarah: So firstly, what happens is you have sweet taste receptors in your mouth. That say, ‘Jonathan, this tastes super yummy’. I want more. And then secondly, what happens is the sugar enters your intestine and it enters your bloodstream and it's broken into fructose and into glucose. Now the fructose is transported directly to your liver, where it's either converted into glucose or if it's a very high amount, might be converted into fat. So the glucose is transported in your blood. And we often refer to this as blood sugar. So when we talk about blood sugar, we often mean the glucose that's circulating in your blood. Now what happens is,  when you consume sugar you have this quite rapid peak in circulating blood sugar or circulating blood glucose that peaks at around 15 minutes after consuming the sugar and returns to baseline around two hours. Where this becomes a problem is we know that if it's excessive, In terms of the size of the peak, then you can actually have unfavorable downstream effects so it can initiate inflammation, for example.

    Now this is a normal physiological response to consuming sugar, but it's when it's excessive and repeated over a long period of time that we believe it has an unfavorable effect on health. But what we've also found that's really interesting from our work, Jonathan, is that some people have dips after they have too much sugar. And so what happens is they have a dip in the circulating level. Of blood glucose, blood sugar, and this is unfavorable because people that have these dips tend to feel really hungry quite quickly. They tend to feel less alert and they actually consume a lot more energy at their next meal. So nearly about 300 calories more over a day compared to if they don't experience dips. 

    [00:07:29] Jonathan: You eat one thing, right? There's sucrose and very rapidly your body is breaking it down into those component parts. The glucose and the fructose as you, as you said. Is that similar as we go and think about honey, for example. So people are asking like, is honey better than me? It certainly seems more natural in the sense that there wasn't any of that processing. Our ancestors have probably been eating it for millions of years. Is honey therefore gonna be better for my health?  

    [00:07:58] Sarah: So honey contains fructose and it contains glucose. Just like table sugar does. So it's metabolized in just the same way. So it causes just the same metabolic effects in our body. 

    [00:08:12] Jonathan: And so if honey is gonna have a pretty similar effect to table sugar. So it sounds like you're not saying it's a dramatically better alternative with very different health outcomes. What about the Stevia that you were talking about earlier? 

    [00:08:26] Sarah: Stevia is really much more like an artificial sweetener. So as I said earlier though, a lot of Stevia products also contain erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol. And there was a recent study in Nature medicine that found links between erythritol and higher risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and heart attack. But this study did have really lots of limitations. So we need to study this a lot more before we draw any conclusions about the health effects of erythritol. We do know from what research has been published around artificial sweetness that they seem to unfavorably impact our overall blood sugar control, and they seem to unfavorably impact our gut microbiome. But I do think it's an area that we need more research before we can say it's safe to swap sugar for sweeteners or we shouldn't consume sweeteners at all. 

    [00:09:17] Jonathan: And so what about agave syrup? That's something else that I feel I see all the time in sort of healthy recipes where that's been used as an alternative to table sugar within the recipe. 

    [00:09:32] Sarah: Yeah, and again, I think that's because people say it's natural. They say it's a good source of minerals, vitamins, and polyphenols compared to some other natural sugar alternatives or compared to table sugar. But the type of agave syrup that. Most of us are now likely to buy in the store is typically really quite highly refined and so this is more likely to have less of these healthy polyphenols than the unrefined agave syrup or even maybe than maple syrup.  

    [00:10:02] Jonathan: And what about the effect of agave on our blood sugar levels?  

    [00:10:06] Sarah: Well, the body processes agave slightly differently to table sugar, and this is because agave is made up mostly of fructose. Like I mentioned earlier, fructose is metabolized slightly differently to glucose, so it doesn't directly raise blood sugar levels. But also on the flip side, if we consume it in excess, the liver can start making fat in the form of triglycerides from the fructose, but this would have to actually be in quite large amounts of fructose intake that I don't think many of us would typically consume. 

    [00:10:44] Jonathan: I feel like the writing is sort of on the wall here for this whole area. Am I right? 

    [00:10:49] Sarah: We're kind of splitting hairs if we go through each of these natural sweeteners. Yes, one might have a tiny amount more of this polyphenol or a tiny amount more of this vitamin or this mineral, but at the end of the day, they're really, really similar in terms of the sugars that they contain, the fructose and the glucose, and how we metabolize them. It's quite clear the majority of us are consuming too much sugar. The majority of the sugar that we consume is not added at the table or added during home cooking. It's hidden in our foods, and it's this sugar that's hidden in our foods that I think we should be worrying about far more than whether we're adding a teaspoon of sugar to something at the table versus a teaspoon of honey versus a teaspoon of maple syrup. There are some people that are so fearful of sugar because of this sugar scaremongering that's kind of gone on for the last 10 to 15 years that they avoid fruit. They're like, "Oh my God, it's full of fructose, it's gonna cause this to my liver. It's also got, you know, some glucose, it's gonna cause this."

    Actually sugar that's packaged within the original food that it came from behaves very, very differently. And it's really important to remember this. We know that people that consume higher levels of fruits, which obviously delivers more sugar in their diet, actually have improved health outcomes, improved risk of cardiovascular disease, et cetera. This is because the magical properties of whole foods. So for example, if we take an orange or we take orange juice, they could have similar amounts of sugar, but the whole orange also has lots of fiber. It also therefore slows down the rate at which we absorb the sugar, so it slows down the rate at which our stomach empties. It causes a slower increase in blood sugar that is sustained for longer, and you don't seem to get this kind of rebound effect that you have, like with the dips that we talked about earlier. 

    [00:12:58] Jonathan: Amazing. Thank you, Sarah. Well, if you found this episode interesting and perhaps you'd like to understand more about how your body responds to sugar, maybe get your own blood sugar sensor and see it in real time. 

    You might want to try ZOE's personalized nutrition program to improve your health. You can get 10% off by going to joinzoe.com/podcast. I'm Jonathan Wolf. 

    [00:13:30] Sarah: And I'm Sarah Berry. 

    [00:13:31] Jonathan: Join us next week for another ZOE Podcast.

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