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Sugar - what you need to know about sugar alternatives

Sugar is in the news a lot, it’s often vilified and viewed as the enemy in the world of health and nutrition. There have been many books published, and blog posts written, by celebrities who have all claimed to give up sugar.

However, coupled with its popularity, there is also a great deal of confusion and misinformation here about what sugar is. So, let’s dive in.

Sugar - the basics:

Sugars are small carbohydrate molecules and describe what is known as ‘mono and disaccharides, meaning one (mono) or two (di). They are widely distributed among foods, and can be found in milk, honey, maple syrup and as well as in many fruits and vegetables.

In food, sugars are known as:

Monosaccharides - glucose, fructose and galactose

Disaccharides - sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugars), and maltose

There are a few other ways we can differentiate between sugars. The sugars found within fruit and vegetables are contained inside the cell structure of the food. They also contain a range of other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and fibre. Making them a really great addition to our diets.

Whereas, ‘free sugars’ is a term used to describe sugars which are added to food and drinks, by a manufacturer, cook or consumer and those present in honey, syrups and juices (1).

In the UK, it’s recommended that we keep our free sugar intake at less than 5% of our daily energy (1). Which equates to about 30g of free sugars a day in adults (2)

Refined sugar-free & Natural sugars

One of the biggest trends in the world of sugar is the phrase ‘refined sugar-free’. This is a wellness word which has popped up over the last few years. You’ll see this in recipes that refer to ‘healthy swaps’ of your favourite dishes. Common examples of this include; date syrup, honey, coconut sugar and maple syrup. Often these are advertised as natural and more nutritious as table sugar. However, research from the campaign group ‘action on sugar’ has indicated that consumers are being misled through claims on the packaging which suggest these alternatives are healthier than table sugar (3).

Let’s look at some of these in more depth:


Honey contains a mixture of fructose and glucose. It can vary considerably in its composition due to season, environmental conditions and processing techniques. There are hundreds of different types of honey, and it can be used on its own, or as an ingredient.

Interest in its use has focused on its potential health benefits from the additional compounds it contains such as antioxidants. However, much of the evidence which has explored these properties is from animals and unfortunately, the evidence of any clinical benefit is limited in humans (4).

Additionally, due to the very low levels of vitamins and minerals present in honey, to receive any health benefits from its consumption would require eating large quantities of it. So much so, that it would far exceed our daily recommended intake.

Agave Syrup / Agave nectar:

With a similar consistency to honey, agave syrup has become popular as a replacement for sugar. It has a high level of single-sugar fructose, compared to table sugar which contains both glucose and fructose bound together to form sucrose. Due to its lower glucose content, agave syrup has a lower glycaemic index (GI) than table sugar. However, it’s important to note that GI isn’t the only way to consider the health impacts of sugar. There is some evidence for example, which links excess fructose consumption to metabolic health conditions (5).

Coconut sugar:

Coconut sugar is used a lot in wellness recipes and looks a lot like brown sugar, with a caramel flavour. As with some of the sugars already mentioned, it contains a smattering of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Similarly, to those discussed above, the amount of coconut sugar you’d need to eat to get any benefit from these vitamins and minerals would far exceed our daily sugar recommendation.


Although there are a few minerals, vitamins and other properties that can be found in sugar alternatives. The bottom line here is, to get any benefit from these we would need to eat an excess of that sugar itself, negating any benefit.

Additionally, all unrefined sugars listed above are still considered ‘free sugars, and when it comes to our bodies, will be treated in the same way as other sugars.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that there are many properties in sugar which make it hard to replace with an alternative in cooking. For example, the bulking properties, taste, structure, texture and browning properties of sugar make it difficult to replace.

It seems that although there is a health halo surrounding many of these sugar alternatives, it’s not an evidence-based one. When it comes to our bodies, sugar is sugar.

Nutritionist, Hebe Richardson


(1) Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition. Carbohydrates and Health London, London: The Stationary Office; 2015.

(2) NHS. Sugar: the facts [Internet]. NHS choices. NHS; 2020 [cited 2022 Nov 23]. Available from:

(3) Consumers are misled about honey and so-called healthier syrups, despite them being officially categorised the same way as table sugar [Internet]. Action on sugar. 2019 [cited 2022 Nov 23]. Available from:,-Table%20Sugar%20or&text=Despite%20the%20fact%20that%20the,healthier%20alternatives%20to%20table%20sugar

(4) Carter DA, Blair SE, Cokcetin NN, Bouzo D, Brooks P, Schothauer R, et al. Therapeutic manuka honey: No longer so alternative. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2016;7.

(5) Stanhope KL, Schwarz J-M, Havel PJ. Adverse metabolic effects of dietary fructose: results from the recent epidemiological, clinical, and mechanistic studies. Current Opinion in Lipidology. 2013;24(3):198–206.

(Photo: Alexander Gray)


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