The Science Behind Sugar Substitutes

When alternatives to unhealthy or fattening ingredients becoming foodie fodder, it seems like everyone gets on board. In some cases that’s a good thing. Other times, it takes a bit more research to understand where these new fangled ingredients stem from. Like sugar alternatives, many of which have become the new craze. But, are they healthier than real sugar? Here, we delve into the science behind sugar substitutes.

The Glycemic Index

To understand sugar and how our bodies process sugar, it’s important first to understand the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a tool used by assigning carbohydrates a number. The number represents how fast or slow the foods increase our blood glucose levels after consuming that particular food.

Coconut Sugar

Coconut sugar is an excellent and popular alternative for sugar in baking. But is it healthier than sugar? While It has the same number of calories as sugar, coconut sugar is much lower on the glycemic index. This is because it is only 3% to 9% fructose compared to sugar, which is 50% fructose. Too much fructose can affect your liver and increase your chances of developing type 2 diabetes.

Stevia or Truvia

Stevia or Truvia are cultivated from the Stevia rebaudiana leaf from in South and Central America. What’s key about these ingredients is neither will spike your blood sugar. Plus Truvia is an excellent choice for baking.

Agave and Honey

Agave is delicious when swirled into teas and coffees but more challenging to use in baking. The debate continues whether it affects blood sugar and some people shy away since it has more calories than sugar. Honey has the same number of calories as table sugar plus some fructose. It may rank high on the glycemic index—as much as table sugar—but honey has some vitamins and minerals. And, the darker honey, the more vitamins it contains. So the benefits do exist.

Monk Fruit

From China, monk fruit is a relatively new and favored sugar alternative. The sweetener is derived from removing the seeds from the monk fruit’s skin. Why so popular? There are no calories to this sweetener and it rates 0 on the glycemic index.

So next time you’re at the market, looking for an alternative to sugar, check out some of the above choices. Still, like sugar, it’s best to use in moderation. Read food labels to see just what you’re ingesting. As healthy eaters, having alternatives to sugar and high fructose corn syrup, which wreaks havoc on our bodies, is key. But knowing how to incorporate them into an otherwise healthy diet is also important. And knowing the science behind these sugar substitutes will hopefully provide the knowledge to make healthy food decisions.


Shellee Dyne is a certified nutritionist and wellness expert. Learn more about Shellee and her practice at or follow her on Instagram, @dyneamicnutrition.

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