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10 not-so-sweet sugar substitutes you need to know

By Marie-Antoinette Issa |


10 not-so-sweet sugar substitutes you need to know

We take any “sugar-free” labelling we come across with a big pinch of salt. 

That’s because there are a lot of different ideas out there as to what “sugar-free” actually means! From date-filled bliss balls to buckwheat pancakes drowned in maple syrup, we’d still give these fructose-filled foods a wide berth. Here’s why.

It’s time to focus on fructose, again.

Catchy name aside, our core focus at I Quit Sugar is to educate people on giving up fructose. That’s because it’s the fructose in sugar (table sugar is 50 per cent fructose) that’s causing the real health damage, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic issues and liver disease.

Is sugar the only high-fructose sweetener?

While the name of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) gives that one away, there are many more high-fructose sweeteners masquerading as healthier sugar substitutes. We recommend avoiding them and opting for a little whole fruit or fructose-free sweetener like rice malt syrup instead.

The worst offenders:

Agave: Ole Ole O-no! This health-food sugar substitute staple is made from the same Mexican succulent as tequila and contains roughly 90 per cent fructose. 90 per cent!  

Birch syrup: Made by collecting sap from birch trees and reducing it to a syrup, birch syrup has a fructose content of more than 50 percent. Another no, then.

Coconut nectar: We love coconut oil, water and cream. But coconut sugar? Not so much. That’s because this sweetener, made by boiling coconut sap until it thickens and solidifies, has a fructose content of  between 38 per cent and 48.5 per cent.

Dates: Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but it may be time to stop sipping on your date-sweetened smoothie. As natural and delicious as they may be, dates contain approximately 30 per cent fructose. Approach other dried fruits with similar levels of caution.

Honey: Organic or otherwise, the fructose content of honey sits at 40 per cent. And, unfortunately for many store-bought varieties, much of the honey’s antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties are lost during the post-hive processing and pasteurising process. A tough one indeed, but with so much fructose, we recommend steering clear.

Jaggery: While it may sound like a cross between an alcoholic beverage and an Olympic sport, this sugar substitute is actually produced by concentrating the freshly squeezed cane juice of palms. It has a similar texture, taste and nutritional value as refined palm sugar – with up to 50 per cent fructose.

Maple syrup: This Canadian classic contains up to 40 per cent fructose, making your attempt sugar-free pancakes kind of redundant when liberally poured on top. 

Organic rapadura sugar: Don’t let the fancy marketing fool you. Rapadura is just another name for sucrose and accordingly, contains 50 per cent fructose.

Tagatose: Limited nutritional information is available about this sweetener manufactured from the lactose in milk. However, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) claims is has a very similar structure to fructose and the absorbed fraction of tagatose is metabolised in the same way fructose. So at the moment, we’re not recommending this one.  

Yacon: When this sweet potato-like root is converted to yacon syrup, its fructose content can rise to 25 per cent. Time to “yacon” by.

Are there any fructose-free alternatives?

Fretting about a fructose-free future? Fear not! While our preference is to reduce the use of sweeteners of any kind, we do use stevia and rice malt syrup for special occasions. And on all other occasions, well, we eat fresh fruit! It comes packaged with nutrients, water and fibre to help the fructose go down (and not overload your liver).

The I Quit Sugar: 8-Week Program is also full of more amazing recipes to help you quit the white stuff for good, so you can really have your sugar-free cake and eat it too. 

We originally published this article in January 2016. We updated it in March 2017.

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