If Sugar is The ‘New Tobacco’… What Are The Alternatives?

If Sugar is The ‘New Tobacco’… What Are The Alternatives?

  • Refined sugar, sucrose, is made up of two molecules, glucose and fructose
  • Fructose excess converts to fatty acids and causes unhealthy reactions
  • Here we examine an array of healthier natural sugar substitutes

Given this week’s headlines describing it as the ‘new tobacco’, you might be forgiven for thinking sugar is toxic – but in fact we simply need to moderate our intake.

‘Refined table sugar, sucrose, is made up of two molecules – glucose and fructose,’ says nutritionist Laura Thomas. ‘Glucose is absorbed and used by all organs, while fructose is metabolised only by the liver. Our bodies can deal with only small amounts – an excess converts to fatty acids and causes biochemical reactions detrimental to our health.’

Here we examine an array of natural sugar substitutes that can contain fewer calories, and act in different ways when broken down during digestion.


You might be forgiven for thinking sugar is toxic – but in fact we simply need to moderate our intake

You might be forgiven for thinking sugar is toxic – but in fact we simply need to moderate our intake


WHAT IS IT? A herb used for centuries in its native South America. Derived from the plant’s leaves and available in liquid or powder form, it is now used in snacks and some soft drinks.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Stevia is about 300 times sweeter than table sugar and has virtually no calories,’ says Thomas. ‘It contains no fructose and gets its sweetness from two other types of sugar molecules called stevioside and rebaudioside.’

USE FOR A good fructose-free substitute in tea.

TRY SweetLeaf Stevia Natural Sweetener, £11.99 for 115g, healthy supplies.co.uk.


Coconut Palm Sugar

WHAT IS IT? Granules distilled from the coconut tree. Sap from  the palm flower buds is heated  until the liquid evaporates, leaving behind the sugar.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Coconut sugar takes longer to be broken down so will not cause such a spike in your insulin levels,’ says Thomas. ‘Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are normal but over time raised insulin can lead to insulin resistance. This product is high in calories at 375 per 100g, and it also contains 35 per cent fructose.’

USE FOR A brown sugar substitute, especially  in baking.

TRY Organic Coconut Palm Sugar, £4.49, healthysupplies.co.uk.




Date sugar

Date sugar

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar

Date Sugar

WHAT IS IT? Derived from dehydrated dates, it comes as a powder, paste or syrup.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘This has all the nutritional benefits of dates with fibre, vitamins and minerals,’ says Thomas. ‘It is relatively close to the natural form of whole unprocessed dates and the fibre helps slow the blood sugar response. Dates are high in calories though, so watch your intake.’

USE FOR A crumbled topping on desserts or added to porridge. It’s also brilliant  in sticky toffee pudding.

TRY Date Sugar, £8.60 for 454g, vitaminsuk.com.



WHAT IS IT? Honey is produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. Available either set or runny.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Honey contains vitamins, minerals and antibacterial properties,’ explains Thomas. ‘But while higher in nutrients than normal sugar, it’s still high in calories – 330 calories per 100g, against 400 in sugar. It’s also moderately high in fructose at 35-40 per cent.’

USE FOR A substitute for sugar in bakes such as brownies and as a porridge topping.

TRY Tiptree Scottish Heather Honey, £5.49 for 340g, redmoped.co.uk.


Brown Rice Syrup

WHAT IS IT? This comes from boiling brown rice with enzymes to break down the starch. The resulting substance is then cooked to produce a sweet syrup.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Brown rice syrup contains complex carbohydrates, maltose and a small amount of glucose, which means it is released more slowly into the bloodstream, making it healthier than sugar,’ says Thomas. ‘It’s low in fructose at around 3-4 per cent.’

USE FOR Homemade granolas.

TRY Crazy Jack Organic Brown Rice Syrup,  £2.29 for 330g, auravita.com.


Tiptree honey

Tiptree honey

Brown rice syrup

Brown rice syrup

Agave syrup

Agave syrup

Agave Syrup

WHAT IS IT? A sweet, honey-like liquid that comes from the heart of the agave plant, grown in Mexico.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Agave has been hailed as a godsend because of its low impact on blood sugar levels and as it has nearly 25 per cent less calories than sugar at 310 per 100g,’ says Thomas. ‘However, depending on how it’s manufactured, it can be up to 90 per cent fructose.’

USE FOR Although often found in ‘healthy’ products and brands, agave syrup can be very refined so less processed sweeteners may be preferable. You only need a little bit.

Meridian Maple Syrup

Meridian Maple Syru

Meridian molasses

Meridian molasses

TRY The Groovy Food Company’s Premium Agave Nectar, £3.35, 250ml, holland andbarrett.com.


Maple Syrup

WHAT IS IT? Syrup produced  from the starch-rich sap of  maple trees.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘Maple  syrup has a higher impact on  blood sugar than other substitutes,’ reveals Thomas. ‘It is about half fructose. It also contains calcium, manganese and iron. Although nutrition varies between different grades, two tablespoons can provide 22 per cent of your RDA of manganese, an essential nutrient  for bones.’

USE FOR A sauce for pancakes and other desserts. Adds a unique flavour to dishes.

TRY Meridian Organic Maple Syrup, 330g, £6.49, healthysupplies.co.uk.



WHAT IS IT? A thick by-product of turning sugar cane into white sugar, resulting from the repeated boiling of the plant’s extracted juice.

IS IT GOOD FOR ME? ‘This has one of the best nutritional profiles as a 28g serving contains at least 10 per cent of your recommended daily intake of iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium and zinc,’ explains Thomas. ‘It also has fewer calories than refined sugar.’

USE FOR Pancakes, cakes or biscuits when you want a deep, distinctive flavour.

TRY Meridian Natural Molasses Pure Cane.  £2.89 for 740g, hollandandbarrett.com.


Rosie Boycott

Rosie Boycott

It tastes sublime – but it’s as addictive as drugs

By Rosie Boycott

I’ve just made a cup of coffee and I added half a spoonful of sugar. Not that good, but better than a year ago when I would have added almost two.

I’ve been working on cutting down my sugar intake for more than 12 months and it’s tough. It’s not just that I like sweet stuff.  It’s that sugar is everywhere: in sauces, pizzas, low-fat yogurts and ‘healthy’ smoothies, as I warned readers last June.

But this week has brought even more news to add to my resolve: sugar is not just making us fat,  it’s also directly linked to some cancers and to dementia. Current guidelines from the World Health Organisation state that sugar should only account for ten per cent of our diets. Now scientists are saying it should be half that figure.

But sugar and sweet things are delicious. Mother’s milk is sweet. We’re reared to want it, so much so that sweetness acts on our palate in similar ways to addictive drugs act on our bodies. Manufacturers know this better than we do, spending fortunes marketing junk food with the right mix of sweet flavours to ensure we keep eating even when we’re not hungry. How would they  make fat profits if we only bought exactly what we needed to eat every day?

I would love to see the sugar content of foods mandatorily decreased, to a point where staying within the guidelines became the easy way to shop and eat. Two hundred years ago, we ate almost 4 lb (1.8kg) of sugar a year – that figure has since doubled.

Flashback: The Mail On Sunday last year

David Gillespie, the Australian author of the bestselling book Sweet Poison,  would like to ban sugar altogether. If you can’t manage that, then try to avoid products where the sugar is one of the top  two ingredients, such as Sugar Puffs which contain more than 1oz (30g) in a single serving.

Just as I look at Mad Men and marvel at the incredible amount everyone smokes, so I think that in 20 years we will look back and wonder how we could have been so dumb as to consume so much of this calorie-heavy substance which is triggering a global health crisi

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