Naturopath Teresa Mitchell-Paterson shares her take on the six best sugar alternatives.

Australians are sugar addicted, consuming an average of 108 kilograms annually – and it’s a true addiction, for sugar exerts a heroin-like effect. Sugar’s effect on neuropeptide Y can cause bingeing, while its GI of 64 may lead to insulin resistance, pancreatic problems and inflammation. Moreover, sugar raises LDL cholesterol and reduces HDL, so increasing heart disease risk; other sugar-linked problems include weight gain, Alzheimer’s disease and some cancers. Less processed sugars have fewer negative health impacts, and possibly some positive benefits.

1. Coconut nectar and sugar

Coconut nectar is tapped from the blossoms’ sap with hollow bamboo pipes, then evaporated to form syrup, or nectar. Coconut sugar is crystallised nectar. Both have a much lower GI – 35 – but similar sweetness to cane sugar, plus they’re rich in amino acids, minerals (potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron), and B-group vitamins. Coconut nectar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium and over 10 times the zinc of brown sugar. Sugar from coconuts is the world’s most sustainable sweetener, says to the US Food & Agriculture Organisation, using less than one-fifth of the soil’s nutrients and water compared to sugar cane, and producing up to 75 percent more sugar per hectare.

2. Rapadura

This is the pure juice pressed from sugar cane, evaporated over low heat. All the nutrients are retained as it’s not bleached or refined. High in iron, rapadura provides potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus and up to 1200IU vitamin A per 100g.

3. Stevia

This plant-derived phytochemical (from Stevia rebaudiana) contains zero kilojoules, carbohydrates and GI, doesn’t interfere with insulin, controls blood sugar, cholesterol and possibly blood pressure, while offering the same satiety as sugar. Available as tablets, powder and liquid, stevia has a long shelf life, is heat-tolerant and doesn’t ferment. It contains antioxidant compounds – triterpenes, flavonoids, tannins, glycoside compounds, and kaempferol, which the American Journal of Epidemiology suggests may reduce pancreatic cancer risk. Another, chlorgenic acid, reduces enzymatic conversion of
glycogen to glucose. Stevia is very sweet, with one teaspoon equating to one cup of sugar. I find you need about a tablespoon in a cake.

4. Brown rice syrup

Brown rice flour is cooked with dried barley malt, which contains enzymes that break the starch down into a sugary liquid which is strained and cooked to form syrup with a pleasant butterscotch flavour, about half as sweet as white sugar, and a GI of 25-35. Its 50 percent complex-carbohydrate content breaks down slowly, causing less dramatic blood glucose spikes. Small amounts of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron and potassium are present. As it contains mostly glucose and no fructose, it’s suitable for the FODMAP diet.

5. Maple syrup

The sap of the maple tree, maple syrup has the same GI as sugar. It contains zinc, iron, manganese and potassium, vitamins B6 and C. While its fructose content is lower than agave, it isn’t optimal for the FODMAP diet.

6. Agave syrup

Produced from the agave plant, this – contrary to popular belief – is not a whole food, but actually highly refined because it’s extracted, filtered, heated, and hydrolysed. Moreover, agave’s fructose content (90 percent) is significantly higher than that of the contentious high fructose corn syrup (55 percent), so is definitely unsuitable for the FODMAP diet. High fructose intake is linked to abdominal weight gain, increased triglycerides, heart disease, and possibly insulin resistance. However, it has a low GI of 30, and contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium.

Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, ND, BHSc, MHSc, is a member of the Australian Traditional Medicine Society.