Not all sweeteners are created equal, and it can be exhausting to navigate your way safely through them! So I’ve tried to put as many as possible together for you so you can look up, learn and compare with ease.
The jury is still out on a lot of these, there is good and bad stuff on all of them depending on who is telling you about them. So ultimately it is up to you.
Our personal sweeteners of choice are: xylitol, rice syrup, and stevia or erythritol, although we occasionally use others including caster sugar, honey, dried fruits, fruit juice and maple syrup, all in small quantities due to the presence of fructose (we massively cut down on sugar in our diet in the first place thanks to I Quit Sugar’s 8-Week Detox, so for us it is the addictive sugar fructose that is the major problem – to find out more about why, go take a look at our Resources page.).
Having said this, we have chosen to give as little as possible of these to our children, too. My husband and I are used to sugar, and we miss sweet treats, so these are wonderful for us. But while our children are still so young, we want to encourage savoury over sweet as much as possible, and try to keep even natural sweeteners to an absolute minimum.
We do not want them to miss out, and as they grow older we will probably bake more naturally sweet treats with them so that they know that they can still occasionally enjoy sweet things as we do, but their tastebuds will be more used to less sweet flavours and so they will be content with smaller amounts, and most likely find shop-bought or even many homemade sweet things too sweet, as we do.
I also think it is worth noting that recent studies show that artificial (and, by association, all) sweeteners do not decrease the likelihood of obesity when people simply substitute sugar for them, as the more sweetness the body gets, the more it craves, leaving you far more likely to cave in to sugar and processed sweet things due to increased cravings. The goal is always going to be to eat more healthy, fresh, savoury, real food and less sweetened, processed foods. I strongly, strongly recommend using even natural sweeteners as a treat (perhaps once or twice a week), and trying to use less and less of them each time you bake with them. All of my sweetened recipes most likely already taste a bit less sweet than you are used to if you consume quite a bit of sugar, but as a family we nearly always use even less than I state in my recipes as we have got used to less over time.
I also strongly recommend having a “cold turkey” period before using sweeteners, as the break from all sugar and sweeteners (and potentially even a brief break from fruit) tends to reset your tastebuds and cravings to a point where you are able to use sugar and sweeteners in moderation, which is very hard to do if you are constantly craving and currently addicted to sugar and sweetness. However, if a detox like the I Quit Sugar 8-Week Program sounds like too much for you or your family, simply switching to a sweetener with more benefits and less problems than sugar (such as stevia or xylitol) and trying to reduce the amount used each time, may be the best way for you.
So, bearing all this in mind, here are a selection of sweeteners and some information about them:
Erythritol, Xylitol, and other “Sugar Alcohols” (ending in -ol)
Sugar alcohols are white water-soluble solids that, despite their name, are actually not “sugar”. They are naturally occurring in fruits, but are usually processed in order to use as a sweetener. I personally only use two that I have been genuinely convinced are safe and easy to use as a sugar alternative: xylitol and erythritol. Both have been found to be very safe to use, but as with all sugar alcohols, in large doses (we are talking more than 65-90g per day – far more than we should be eating anyway) they can cause digestive issues in some people, so it is recommended you use them in smaller amounts.
Xylitol in particular is a popular sugar substitute, as it is the most similar in texture and taste to table (caster) sugar and can be used in a 1:1 ratio in substitutions. It is also popular due to several health benefits that it boasts: it is included in sugar-free chewing gum for its well-known contribution to dental health, having been shown to reduce dental decay and promote good bacteria in the mouth. It can also build bone density and is being studied as a potential treatment for osteoporosis, as well as helping prevent and treat ear infections in children. There are even some studies done in rats that suggest xylitol may increase collagen production and so help slow down the ageing process!
Xylitol is my sweetener of choice in most baked goods due to the ease with which I can replace the sugar in a recipe, but (although I personally have got used to it) some may dislike the post-chewing-gum-fresh-minty-mouth taste it gives if it is consumed unbaked. I also try not to use it more than once or at most twice a week for our family due to the digestive issues it may cause.
Please also note that xylitol can be fatal to dogs who cannot process it, so if you use this, do not leave it anywhere your pets can access it!
I tend not to use straight erythritol (again, I would like to keep avoiding digestive issues in case it would affect us that way), but I occasionally use Natvia, which combines stevia (see below) and erythritol. I love this blend as it hides the bitter aftertaste of stevia that my husband dislikes, while still boasting the natural, healthy non-blood-sugar-spiking qualities of both stevia and erythritol.
If you haven’t heard of stevia recently, you must be living in a cave somewhere very remote! Stevia is everywhere at the moment due to the amount of media coverage it has had as the “new totally healthy, totally wonderful calorie-free sugar-free completely natural” sweetener of the modern age.
But the truth is, stevia has been used for centuries to sweeten things. Similar to the origins of cocoa and chocolate, stevia is a herb found in South America that was used by indigenous people to sweeten drinks and food, and even to chew for a simple “sweet hit”.
If it weren’t for the famous bitter aftertaste and faff it creates in trying to alter recipes, I would use this 100% of the time, because it seems to be virtually impossible to find anything bad about this plant. Some people even grow their own stevia plants to use the leaf itself (although you can buy it as liquid extract, pure stevia liquid, granular stevia or white ground stevia “bulked out” with things like erythritol or not-so-good fructose – always check labels).
Honestly, if you can stand the aftertaste (some people don’t even notice it, or they do but don’t mind it), I would say stick to this as much as possible, as it is without doubt the best choice of sweetener out there! Granulated is easier to use and sub in recipes than liquid or leaf, as you generally keep the texture and just need to make sure you use a lot less and keep an eye on the texture of, say, a batter, before baking.
Rice Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, Rice Malt Syrup
These are all the same thing, and we choose to use this as our primary liquid sweetener in our house. It is classed as a free sugar (along with honey, maple syrup and other syrups like date syrup and fruit juices) by the WHO in their new guidelines, so we use it sparingly, but the reason we choose it over the others most of the time is that it is 100% fructose free (it converts to glucose, which our bodies need for survival – we have no need at all for fructose – when consumed).
We decided to give up sugar after reading I Quit Sugar and Fat Chance, both of which emphasise the fact that it is fructose that is the addictive sugar that causes nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and metabolic syndrome (diabetes, heart disease, cancer), among other things. That doesn’t mean we eat as much of this as we like, but it is better metabolised by the body so we use it before other honey, syrups and fruit juices.
Dextrose is basically pure glucose, and is popular with some as a sweetener, although I personally have yet to try it! Similarly to rice syrup, it is still sugar and should be used in moderation (as all sweeteners should be!), but since both are glucose rather than fructose based, they make good alternatives for occasional treats. Dextrose is popular in particular with gym-goers, as it is used medically to revive and refresh by bringing up blood sugar levels. The one issue I have heard from those who have tried dextrose is that it can take a few goes using it to really taste the sweetness, as initially it can be quite bland. So if you want to use this, make sure you give it a few tries.
Fructose-based sweeteners: “Sugar”, Coconut Sugar, Coconut Nectar, Date Syrup, Maple Syrup, Honey, Dates, Fruit Juice, Dried Fruits…
You can find out more about our food philosophy and why we sometimes do use these sugars here. Suffice it to say that these packs/bottles are in our cupboards for a loooong time because they are used very little, so we tend to get the more expensive, best quality stuff we can and let it last a LONG time!
When I gave up sugar, I stood by the fact that I would not accept second-rate substitutes to the sweet things I used to love, and so I work hard to create sweet treats that taste as good (or even better) than their sugar-laden originals. Most of the time, I am eventually able to come up with something I love made with the fructose-free sweeteners listed above. But occasionally, as with my sugar free ice cream, it takes me longer than I had hoped. In instances like these, or times when only sugar truly adds the taste or texture I think fits best, then I use these sugars in moderation.
In addition to this, as with some of the sweeteners I have already mentioned, there is a little (note, little) goodness in the form of fibre, vitamins and nutrients in things like raw organic honey, pure grade A maple syrup, coconut sugar or nectar, dates and dried fruits. Still, this neither balances out nor counteracts the fructose, you can get all of the nutrients and fibre you get from them in healthier food sources, and it certainly doesn’t stop it being addictive, so I am careful. But if I am going to use sugar for an occasional treat, I try using these marginally better options first before table sugar.
I keep a minimum in the house so that we are not tempted often, and I truly believe we can only keep them in the house now because we went through the detox period that means we do not constantly crave them or give in to them.
I also believe that homemade foods where you control the amount of sugar that goes in are always always better than the shop-bought versions that often have added sugar in to help keep them shelf-stable, so I keep these things for some sauces, icings and baked goods for using tiny amounts at a time, or for special occasions.
And sometimes, just sometimes, they come out at the weekend. 🙂