Sugar-free or No Added Sugar? Which Sugar Substitutes are Healthiest?

  • Posted by Alicia Drewnicki
  • On June 18, 2018

It’s a well-known fact that too much sugar isn’t good for you – but are sugar substitutes any better? We asked nutritionist Caroline Farrell for her lowdown on sugar substitutes, here’s what she said:


Sugar is a sweet crystalline substance obtained from various plants, but predominantly sugar cane and sugar beet. It consists essentially of sucrose, and is used as a sweetener in food and drinks. The average intake of “free sugars” (those added to foods or drinks) should be no more than 5% of our total energy intake. This equates to about six teaspoons a day. Unfortunately, we are all eating too much sugar, with the average daily consumption being between 12% and 15% of our total energy intake. This excess of sugar can contribute to tooth decay. It is also associated with obesity, which in turn can increase our risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 



There are over 50 different terms for sugar, so it can be hard to spot on the ingredient list.

Names to look out for include:
·         dextrose
·         fructose
·         glucose
·         maltose
·         sucrose
·         monosaccharide
·         disaccharide
·         honey
·         molasses
·         syrups (for example, treacle, corn and maple syrups)
·         fruit juice concentrates


If you are keen to avoid sugar, there are a few alternatives which may have health benefits.

Stevia: Stevia is extracted from the stevia plant from South America. Stevia is sweet and virtually calorie free. It may have health benefits such as lowering blood pressure and blood sugar.

Xylitol: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which is lower in calories than sugar. It may health reduce cavities.

Yacon syrup: Yacon is derived from plants in South America.  There is some evidence it may support weight loss and digestion.


There is some evidence that despite the fact artificial sweeteners are calorie free or low calorie, they may contribute to weight gain. This is because they can increase our appetite signals causing us to eat more. They may also alter our taste buds leading to a preference for sweet foods. In addition, they may disrupt our healthy gut bacteria which are critical for our overall health.

The most common artificial sweeteners are aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame and acesulfame potassium.



1) I can’t live without chocolate. What’s the ‘healthiest’ chocolate I can buy?  Look for dark chocolate with a minimum of 70% cocoa. This tends to be lower in sugar.

2) Should I avoid sugar altogether? Sugars which are naturally present in foods such as milk, fruit and vegetables contain nutritional benefits such as fibre, vitamins and minerals. However, added sugars have no nutritional value and are not necessary for good health. Therefore, they should be consumed in moderation.

3) Is it worse for me if I eat sugar on an empty stomach? Sugar on an empty stomach has more of an effect on your blood sugar levels. It’s best consumed with a meal which contains fibre or protein.  These slow down the absorption of the sugar.



Free Sugars: Free sugars are those added to a product.

No Sugar Added: No sugar has been added to the product as an ingredient. However, it does not mean that there is no sugar naturally occurring in it.

Sugar-Free: Product has less than 0.5g sugar per 100g/100ml.

Low Sugar: Product has less than 5g per 100g (solids) OR <2.5g per 100ml (liquids).

High Fructose Corn Syrup: High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn starch.

Artificial Sweetener: Artificial sweeteners are substances that are used in place of sweeteners with sugar (sucrose) or sugar alcohols. The most common ones are aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, neotame, and acesulfame potassium.

Natural Sweetener: Natural sweeteners occur naturally in plant foods such as agave cacti, maple trees, sugar cane, coconut palms and sugar beets.

Nutritive Sweetener: Nutritive sweeteners provide the body with calories, while nonnutritive sweeteners are very low in calories or contain no calories at all.

Sugar Alcohol / Polyols: These are like hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules which have a chemical structure similar to sugar and therefore have a sweet taste. Some are found naturally in fruit and vegetables, but most are produced industrially.

Aspartame: An artificial sweetener. The ingredients of aspartame are aspartic acid and phenylalanine. Both are naturally occurring amino acids. Aspartic acid is produced by your body, and phenylalanine is an essential amino acid that you get from food.

Saccharin: One of the oldest artificial sweeteners on the market. It is made in a laboratory through the oxidation of the chemicals o-toluenesulfonamide or phthalic anhydride.

So there you have it, sugar substitutes decoded. If you are going to opt for an alternative, stick to natural rather than artificial sweeteners. If in doubt – have a look at our glossary above.

If you have any other questions – feel free to email

If you enjoyed this, you might like – Nutrition 101: Food Labels Decoded

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