Sugar Substitute: Healthy Sweetener Alternatives For People With Diabetes

Not all that tastes sweet is good sugar. A nutritionist shares some healthy sweetener substitutes that can help rein in sugar spikes and cravings.

05 Sep 2022

Sugar isn’t really bad, rather it is a necessity for your body. Sugar has a reputation of being an unhealthy agent, however, our body needs a small amount of sugar to function effectively. We process carbohydrates from the food we eat and turn them into glucose (sugar). Our cells use the glucose from the bloodstream for fuel and energy. There’s a difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar. Natural sugar is found in fruits that contain fructose, which is healthy along with milk, yoghurt, dates, jaggery, or honey can offer protein, calcium, minerals and antioxidants. Considering the fact that we cannot function without natural sugars, we don’t need to shun sugar completely.


Added sugar is often used in processed foods such as donuts, bread, soda, and condiments like ketchup and barbeque sauce. And too much added sugar can lead to health problems including high blood sugar, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and increased triglycerides, besides dental issues such as cavities, says a 2019 study issued in the International Journal of Environmental Research And Public Health.


The struggle to monitor sweet cravings is real, especially for people with diabetes. They need to take appropriate measures to keep their blood sugar levels in check by reducing intake of ‘sugar-free’ foods found in vegetables (fructose) and dairy foods (lactose) or reducing weight. While the market seems to be saturated with myriads of options for a sugar-free diet, it might not be in the best interest for people with diabetes. According to a 2012 study issued in Physiology and Behaviour, artificial sweeteners can change your brain’s response to sweetness and lessen your ability to feel satisfied when you have sweet-tasting food or drink, putting you at risk of consuming too much of it. This is where sugar substitutes come into the picture.


Related story: 7 Ways To Control High Blood Sugar In The Morning


We spoke to Hyderabad-based nutritionist Dr. Lakshmi Kilaru, Ph.D in food technology and nutrition from University of Georgia, about healthy sweetener alternatives. Dr. Lakshmi points out, “whenever people say that certain plant-based sugar is a good sweetener substitute, what it really means is how quickly the body absorbs sugar. Glycemic index (a guide for measuring blood sugar ) is less than the regular sugar, but still contains sugar in them which increases insulin sensitivity”. When glucose enters your cells and the levels in your bloodstream decrease, it signals your pancreas to stop producing insulin.


Related story: The Diabetes Guide: How To Balance Your Blood Sugar


What are sugar substitutes?

According to the US. Food And Drug Administration (FDA), sugar substitutes taste sweet but have fewer calories than sugar, and some have no calories at all. Foods labelled “sugar-free,” “low carb” or “diet” often contain sugar substitutes.


  • Artificial sweeteners: Artificial sweeteners, also called non-nutritive sweeteners are created from chemicals or from natural substances in a laboratory. These can be up to 700 times sweeter than your regular sugar. These sweeteners don’t contain calories or sugar, but they also don’t have beneficial nutrients like vitamins, fibre, minerals, or antioxidants either. Additives such as aspartame, saccharin and sucralose are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
  • Sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols are created synthetically from sugars themselves and are commonly found in many plants and berries. They’re not as sweet as artificial sweeteners, and they add texture and taste to foods like chewing gum and hard candies. Sugar alcohols are still carbohydrates and can play a role in spiking blood sugar levels. Some common examples of this category are sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, and isomalt.
  • Natural sweeteners: Natural sweeteners are “plant-derived sweeteners,” providing many of the benefits of both artificial and natural sweeteners alike. Novel or natural sweeteners contain calories or sugar in comparison to non-nutritive sweeteners such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, date sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses and blackstrap molasses, sorghum syrup and stevia.


Related story: 5 Ways Sugars Are Hiding in Plain Sight In Your Food


Dr. Lakshmi shares some sweetener alternatives that are ideal for reducing the risk of diabetes and improving health in other ways.


1. Stevia - Stevia rebaudiana, a natural sweetener has generated significant interest in the scientific community due to its effects on glucose homeostasis, blood pressure, and inflammation. Stevia plant is native to South America, is non-nutritive and can be up to 400 times sweeter than table sugar and contain less calories than table sugar which makes it an ideal sweet substitute for people with diabetes when consumed in moderation.


2. Maple syrup (organic) - Maple syrup is a sweet, thick liquid made by cooking the sap of maple trees. It contains minerals, including calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, and manganese in less quantity. Plus, it’s rich in phenolic compounds like lignans and coumarins that may have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Despite having some beneficial nutrients and antioxidants, maple syrup has a slightly lower glycemic index than regular sugar and should be used in moderation.


3. Organic honey - Organic honey contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, as well as an abundance of plant compounds that provide anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. Honey also has a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) than table sugar. These qualities may make it healthier than refined sugar. However, 77 per cent of the honey we see today is adulterated with sugar syrup, as per a 2021 survey conducted by Indian research organisation, Center For Science And Environment.


There are several brands commercially available in the market that claim to sell real honey. Dr. Lakshmi suggests a way to test the authenticity of honey by putting a drop of honey in water. If it mixes well with water, it's not original or organic honey. If honey settles at the bottom and stays undissolved, then it passes its purity test.


4. Jaggery - Jaggery is an excellent alternative to white sugar, when used as a sweetener it can keep your blood sugar levels in check. The major difference between regular sugar and jaggery is of course slight difference in the glycemic index but it also has the advantage of extra minerals like iron and magnesium. “So, it is always safe to consume in moderation,” says Dr. Lakshmi.


5. Dates - Dates, fruits of the date palm tree are sweet, chewy fruits are an excellent alternative to refined sugar. Dates are a good source of nutrients, including fibre, potassium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B6, carotenoid, and polyphenol antioxidants. “Although dates are loaded with calories, they don’t significantly affect blood sugar levels like table sugar does. However, it is better to consume in moderation or 2 dates everyday”, recommends Dr. Lakshmi. Due to their sweet taste, you can use dates in place of sugar in recipes for energy bars, cakes, and cookies.


Related story: Nine Types of dates To Feast On







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