Sweet & Low In Calories – The Best Sugar Substitutes

Words: Crush

Everyone’s got a weakness, for most people, that weakness is sugar. Thankfully, with the help of sugar substitutes, it’s become easier for notorious sweet tooths to make healthier choices. We explore some of the best sugar substitutes on the market…

Why Choose Sugar Substitutes?

Too much of a good thing can be bad. High intake of sugar has been linked to numerous health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and dental problems, to name a few.

According to a policy analysis on diet and non-communicable disease prevention published in 2022 by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, “South Africans are estimated to consume up to 24 teaspoons of sugar per day – double the daily WHO recommendation.” Thankfully, certain laws have been implemented to help minimise the daily sugar intake of locals, with the introduction of the sugar tax, and sugar substitutes.

What Are The Most Popular Sugar Alternatives?

For health-conscious eaters, one of the major challenges lies in navigating the world of sweeteners. While sugar may be a staple in many diets, its contribution to health concerns has proliferated in recent years. Fortunately, there are a couple of sugar substitutes on the market that offer sweetness without the drawbacks of traditional table sugar.


Stevia, a plant native to South America, has gained popularity as a natural sugar substitute. Extracted from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, stevia contains compounds called steviol glycosides, which impart its intense sweetness, meaning only a small amount is needed to achieve the desired level of sweetness.

Virtually calorie-free, stevia is a great option for those looking to manage their calorie intake. Even better, it does not raise blood sugar levels, making it suitable for individuals with diabetes or those following a low-glycemic diet.

Stevia can have a bitter aftertaste, especially in higher concentrations or when used in certain food products, which may not appeal to all individuals. While stevia is natural, some commercially available products may undergo extensive processing and contain additives or fillers to improve taste or texture. Stevia may not be suitable for all cooking and baking applications due to its intense sweetness and unique flavour profile.

Monk Fruit

Hailing from the mountains of southern China, monk fruit, also known as ‘luo han guo’, has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine.

Like stevia, monk fruit extract is virtually calorie-free, making it an attractive option for individuals looking to reduce their calorie intake. Monk fruit sweeteners do not raise blood sugar levels; this makes monk fruit a great alternative to sugar for controlling blood sugar levels. Furthermore, it is significantly sweeter than table sugar, so very little is needed.

Monk fruit extract contains mogrosides; these glycoside compounds give monk fruit its sweet taste.

Monk fruit extract typically does not have a bitter aftertaste, making it more palatable compared to other sugar substitutes. Monk fruit extract can be more expensive than other sweeteners – this may deter some. While this sugar substitute has become more widely available, it may still be harder to find in certain regions. Though rare, some people may experience adverse reactions to monk fruit or its components, especially those with allergies to Cucurbitaceae fruits.

Raw Honey

Honey has been prized for its natural sweetness and medicinal properties for ages. Unlike refined sugars, which undergo processing, raw honey is unheated, unpasteurised and unfiltered, thus retaining its natural health properties. Raw honey contains small amounts of antioxidants, enzymes and vitamins B and C, as well as minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium. Honey is a natural sweetener composed primarily of sugars (fructose and glucose), so it has a lower glycemic index compared to refined sugars. It thus causes a slower, more gradual increase in blood sugar levels compared to table sugar.

 Raw honey is unheated, unpasteurised and unfiltered, thus retaining its natural health properties.

Raw honey offers a complex flavour profile, ranging from floral and fruity to earthy and robust, depending on the source. While raw honey has a lower glycemic index compared to refined sugars, it still raises blood sugar levels and should be consumed in moderation.

Maple Syrup

Derived from the sap of maple trees, maple syrup is a beloved natural sweetener with a rich flavour profile. Native to North America, maple syrup is cherished for its unique taste and versatility in cooking and baking. Unlike refined sugars, maple syrup contains antioxidants and minerals such as zinc and manganese, adding to its nutritional value. While it’s higher in calories than some other sugar substitutes, its lower glycemic index may make it a preferable option for those managing their blood sugar levels.

Coconut Sugar

Derived from the sap of coconut palm trees, coconut sugar is a natural sweetener with a caramel-like flavour. It contains small amounts of nutrients such as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with antioxidants. Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, meaning it may have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels. However, it should still be consumed in moderation due to its calorie and sugar content.

Coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than table sugar, meaning it may have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels.

Date Sugar & Syrup

Made from dried, ground dates, date sugar is a natural sweetener rich in fibre, vitamins, and minerals. It retains the nutrients found in dates, including potassium, magnesium and antioxidants. Both date sugar and syrup adds a caramel-like sweetness to dishes and baked goods. While date sugar is less processed than refined sugars, it still contains natural sugars and should be used mindfully.


Molasses, a byproduct of the sugar refining process, is extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet juice. It contains vitamins and minerals, including iron, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Molasses have a robust flavour profile, ranging from sweet to bitter, depending on the variety. While it can be used as a sugar substitute in cooking and baking, it’s important to note that molasses is still high in sugar and should be consumed sparingly.

Sugar Alcohols

Many sugar alcohols offer sweetness without the caloric load or impact on blood sugar levels associated with traditional sugars. They can be great alternatives for those looking to manage their calorie intake, control their blood sugar levels, or reduce their risk of dental cavities. Additionally, sugar alcohols like erythritol are generally well-tolerated and less likely to cause digestive discomfort compared to other sugar substitutes.


Often hailed as the ‘king of sugar alcohols,’ erythritol is a remarkable sweetener that occurs naturally in certain fruits like grapes and pears. Unlike its counterparts, it’s almost entirely absorbed in the small intestine and excreted unchanged in the urine, which means it’s less likely to cause digestive upset compared to other sugar alcohols. With a sweetness similar to sugar but with only about 6% of the calories, erythritol is a favourite among health-conscious people. Its cooling effect when dissolved in water adds an interesting twist to beverages, making it a versatile option for those seeking sweetness without compromise.

With a sweetness similar to sugar but with only about 6% of the calories, erythritol is a favourite among health-conscious people.


Derived from the fibrous parts of plants like birch trees and corn husks, xylitol is not only a sweetener but also a dental superhero. Renowned for its ability to inhibit the growth of cavity-causing bacteria, xylitol is a staple in sugar-free gums, mints and dental products. Despite its sweet taste, xylitol has a minimal effect on blood sugar levels; studies have determined that it’s a suitable choice for individuals with diabetes. However, it’s worth noting that excessive consumption may lead to digestive discomfort, so moderation is key when indulging in this tooth-friendly treat.


Found naturally in fruits like apples, pears, and stone fruits, sorbitol has been used for centuries as a sweetener and humectant. Its unique ability to attract and retain moisture makes it a valuable ingredient in various food and cosmetic products. While sorbitol provides sweetness with fewer calories than sugar, it’s known to have a laxative effect when consumed in large amounts, but remains a popular sugar substitute.

Sorbitol has been used for centuries as a sweetener and humectant.


Named after the manna ash tree from which it was first isolated, mannitol is a versatile sugar alcohol used in a wide range of applications. With about half the sweetness of sugar and fewer calories, mannitol finds its way into sugar-free confections, pharmaceuticals, and dietary supplements. Its unique crystalline structure and cooling sensation make it a popular ingredient in breath mints and throat lozenges. However, like other natural sugar alcohols, excessive intake may lead to gastrointestinal discomfort for some individuals.


Derived from beet sugar, isomalt is a sugar alcohol prized for its versatility in confectionery applications. With a sweetness similar to sugar and fewer calories, isomalt is often used to create ‘sugar-free’ candies, chocolates and baked goods. Its unique properties and resistance to moisture absorption make it ideal for producing clear hard candies and decorative sugar work. Isomalt’s heat stability also makes it suitable for sugar-free baking and caramelising.


Derived from lactose, the natural sugar found in milk, lactitol is a sugar alcohol commonly used as a sweetener in dairy products and sugar-free confections. With about half the sweetness of sugar and fewer calories, lactitol provides sweetness while imparting a creamy texture to products like ice cream and yoghurt. Its mild flavour profile and low glycemic index make it a suitable option for individuals with diabetes or those looking to reduce their sugar intake. However, like other sugar alcohols, excessive consumption may cause digestive discomfort, particularly in individuals with lactose intolerance.

What About Aspartame?

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener widely used in the food and beverage industry as a low-calorie sugar substitute. Chemically, it is composed of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine, linked together with a methyl ester bond. These components are found naturally in many protein-containing foods.

It’s about 200 times sweeter than sucrose (table sugar), allowing for its use in small quantities to achieve the desired sweetness in products. However, its safety and health effects have been widely disputed. Regulatory agencies like the FDA have deemed aspartame safe for human consumption within established acceptable daily intake limits.

Aspartame is an artificial sweetener widely used in the food and beverage industry as a low-calorie sugar substitute.

While some studies have raised concerns about its links to cancer and potential health risks, particularly for individuals with phenylketonuria, a rare genetic disorder, many of these research claims are based on animal studies. Even so, more recent studies have concluded that high levels of aspartame consumption could lead to chronic systemic inflammation and gut bacterial dysfunction.

Want more? Here’s Everything You Need To Know About Sugar

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