With so many different sweeteners available, it’s difficult to know which one is best for your needs. Dietitian Tracy Morris has the answers.
Category 1: Nutritive
There are two main types of sweeteners – nutritive, and non-nutritive. Nutritive sweeteners are defined as those that contain energy, and have an impact on blood sugar levels. They’re generally considered to be more ‘natural’ than non-nutritive sweeteners.
Table sugar (white or raw)
What is it? A form of carbohydrate (sucrose) made from sugar cane. Raw sugar is slightly less processed than white sugar, with a light honey taste.
Nutritional properties: One teaspoon has 68kJ.
Best use: Baking, or to add sweetness to your daily cuppa.
Take note: There’s no significant nutritional difference between white and raw sugar – both provide a quick energy hit, with virtually no vitamins or minerals.
Brown or dark brown sugar
What is it? Brown sugar is table sugar, coated in sugar syrups that are similar to molasses. This gives it a distinctive colour and aroma, and a moister consistency.
Nutritional properties: Contains nearly the same energy as table sugar, with slightly more nutrients (calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium) – but not in significant amounts per serving.
Best use: Baking or adding sweetness to savoury dishes, such as stir-fries and sauces.
Take note: Don’t let the colour fool you – brown sugar is no more ‘natural’ than white or raw sugar.
Demerara, turbinado or natural brown sugar
What is it? A slightly less refined supermarket sleuth sweeteners version of table sugar, with larger crystals and a richer flavour, but lighter in colour than brown sugar.
Nutritional properties: Equivalent in energy and nutritional value to table sugar.
Best use: Described as the ideal sugar for coffee.
Take note: Because of the larger crystals, demerara sugar dissolves more slowly than refined sugars.
Low GI sugar (eg. CSR LoGiCane)
What is it? A less refined form of table sugar that has a lower glycemic index (GI 50), so it’s digested more slowly than most nutritive sweeteners.
Nutritional properties: The same kilojoules as table sugar, but contains small amounts of some nutrients usually removed during processing (antioxidants, calcium, magnesium and potassium).
Best use: Replacing table sugar for people with diabetes.
Take note: Just because it has a lower GI rating does not mean you can eat more of it!
Sugar and artificial sweetener blends (eg. CSR Smart sugar)
What is it? A blend of cane sugar with stevia, a non-nutritive (but ‘natural’) sweetener
Nutritional properties: Provides the same amount of kilojoules per teaspoon as table sugar, but it’s twice as sweet.
Best use: Helping people cut down on their sugar intake, without the ‘artificial’ taste.
Take note: If you’re using a sugar blend to replace table sugar, remember to cut your regular serving size in half so you can cut down on kilojoules, too.
What is it? A liquid sweetener produced naturally by honey bees from flower nectar.
Nutritional properties: Honey has a low to medium GI rating (between 35–58, depending on the type of honey) and contains 92kJ per teaspoon. It contains trace amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Best use: As a truly natural, affordable sweetener. It’s also used as a natural remedy to soothe sore throats.
Take note: Honey should not be given to infants, due to the risk of contracting botulism.
What is it? The dark liquid byproduct left over from processing sugar cane into table sugar.
Nutritional properties: Contains slightly less kilojoules than sugar (62kJ per teaspoon) and, of all the sugar products, is the richest in minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.
Best use: Adding a distinctive colour and flavour to baked treats.
Take note: Blackstrap molasses has a bitter taste, and is more often used as a nutritional supplement than a sweetener, due to its high antioxidant levels.
What is it? An amber-coloured liquid sweetener made from the sap of maple trees.
Nutritional properties: Maple syrup is low-GI, and contains less kilojoules (67kJ per teaspoon) and more minerals than honey. In particular, maple syrup provides more zinc than other sweeteners.
Best use: Drizzling over pancakes or swirling into porridge.
Take note: Don’t be fooled by ‘maple-flavoured’ syrups, which are often higher-GI, higher in kilojoules and lower in nutrients than pure maple syrup. Check labels to make sure the product is 100% pure maple.
Golden syrup or treacle
What is it? Golden-red (golden syrup) or dark brown-black (treacle) liquid sugar made from sugar cane syrup.
Nutritional properties: Sweeter than sugar, it’s less nutritionally dense than molasses and contains small amounts of minerals (calcium, iron and potassium) and 85kJ per teaspoon.
Best use: Its strong, sweet taste works well in baking and confectionery recipes.
Take note: Treacle has a slightly more bitter flavour compared to golden syrup.
What is it? The naturally occurring sugar in fruit and honey.
Nutritional properties: It’s the sweetest, and has the lowest GI, of all naturally occurring sugars. In fruit, it is loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. It contains 64kJ per teaspoon.
Best use: For a truly natural sugar fix, go for fresh fruit.
Take note: A small amount of fructose (like that in fruit) isn’t going to do you any harm, but if you constantly overload your body with too much at once (often found in processed foods containing ‘fructose’, ‘high fructose corn syrup’ or ‘agave nectar’), your liver starts converting the fructose to fat in the form of triglycerides; putting you at risk of heart disease and diabetes.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
What is it? An artificially produced, and concentrated, sweetener often made from corn. It’s the most commonly used sweetener in American food and beverage products.
Nutritional properties: It’s high in energy (67kJ per teaspoon) but low in nutritional value.
Best use: Cheaply and easily sweetening food products.
Take note: A high intake of HFCS appears to be worse for you than regular table sugar, and has been shown to contribute to a build up of abdominal fat, which is linked to heart disease and diabetes. The good news is HFCS is rarely used in Australian foods and drinks. Check the food labels of imported foods to avoid it.
Agave nectar or syrup
What is it? A liquid sweetener similar in consistency to honey. Derived from the Mexican ‘agave’ plant through intense processing.
Nutritional properties: Due to its high fructose content, agave nectar has a very low GI (between 10–20, depending on the brand) and has 92kJ per teaspoon, but is no higher in antioxidants.
Best use: Great for vegans looking for a substitute for honey.
Take note: Perceived as a healthier, more natural alternative to table sugar, agave nectar is actually a refined and processed sweetener – and because of its high fructose content, shouldn’t be eaten in excess.
Top nutritive sweetener picks
Best for baking – White sugar
Best for coffee – Demerara
Most natural – Raw honey
Most nutritious – Blackstrap molasses
Lowest GI – Agave nectar
Lowest energy – Molasses
Best for spreading – Maple syrup
Best for pregnancy – all are safe (in reasonable amounts)
Category 2: Non-nutritive
Non-nutritive sweeteners are intensely sweet, meaning only a very small amount is needed – so they’re virtually kilojoule-free and have no impact on blood sugar levels. With the exception of Stevia, most non-nutritive sweetners are chemically produced.
What is it? A synthetically produced sweetener, made by combining a number of chemicals.
Nutritional properties: Saccharin is 200–700 times sweeter than table sugar and provides no energy.
Best use: Enhances the strength of other sweeteners.
Take note: For years, saccharin had to carry a warning label on US food products stating that it caused cancer in lab animals. But in 2000, scientists proved the results only applied to rats, not to humans.
Sugar alcohols or polyols (eg. sorbitol, xylitol)
What is it? These occur naturally in certain fruits or can be produced artificially from glucose.
Nutritional properties: Provides half the kilojoules of table sugar but only a small amount is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Best use: Often used to replace sugar in chewing gum, polyols are not broken down by mouth bacteria, so they don’t promote tooth decay.
Take note: If eaten in large quantities, they can have a laxative effect and cause diarrhoea, bloating and gas.
Stevia or steviol glycosides (eg. Pure Via, Natvia, Hermesetas SteviaSweet)
What is it? A natural, non-nutritive sweetener extracted from the leaves of the stevia herb.
Nutritional properties: Stevia is 250–300 times sweeter than table sugar, with no impact on blood sugar levels, and 11kJ per gram.
Best use: People who prefer a natural sweetener over a synthetic one, but don’t want the kilojoules.
Take note: Some stevia extracts have a distinct after-taste, similar to liquorice.
Cyclamate (eg. Sucaryl)
What is it? The sodium or calcium salt of cyclamic acid.
Nutritional properties: It’s 30 times sweeter than sugar and not digested by most people, so it provides no kilojoules.
Best use: It masks the bitter after-taste of other non-nutritive sweeteners, so it’s often used in combination with other non-nutritive sweeteners.
Take note: Although authorities consider cyclamate to be safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women, some may choose to avoid it, as it crosses the placenta, and may be found in breast milk. This is also true for saccharin.
Sucralose (eg. Splenda)
What is it? Sugar that is chemically processed to replace hydrogen and oxygen molecules with chlorine molecules.
Nutritional properties: Six hundred times sweeter than table sugar, with most of it passing through the body unchanged, providing no energy.
Best use: Since it is the most heat-stable non-nutritive sweetener, sucralose can easily be used to replace sugar (cup for cup) in cooking and baking.
Take note: It tastes very similar to sugar and has no bitter after-taste, which is common with other non-nutritive sweeteners.