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 (2 and 6 months), 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.
So, bearing all this in mind, here are a selection of sweeteners:
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 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 even been shown to rebuild tooth enamel!! It can also build bone density and help prevent 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 I personally dislike the post-chewing-gum-fresh-minty-mouth taste it gives if it is consumed unbaked, so I avoid using it in icing or anything that will not be consumed cooked and with plenty of flavour to hide the taste. I also try not to use it more than once a week for our family due to the digestive issues it may cause.
Please also note that xylitol can be harmful to dogs, 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 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).
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!
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 primarily glucose, not fructose.
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). 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 treats. Dextrose is popular in particular with gym-goers, as it is used medically to revive and refresh by bringing up blood sugar levels.
Fructose-based sweeteners: “Sugar”, 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.
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 I am craving or 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 honey and maple syrup, dates and dried fruits. Still, this neither balances out nor counteracts the fructose, and it certainly doesn’t stop it being addictive, so I am careful.
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. 🙂