A Nutritionist’s Guide to Sweeteners by Lindy Cook

By February 25, 2016Nutrition

Without doubt sugar is one of the hottest nutritional topics of the moment.

Foods have trends too and what is healthy one day can be out of favour the next.

One thing we know now is that eating too much sugar is NOT good for you.

So here is my guide to the sweeteners available out there to help you make the best choice possible.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a healthy, completely natural unrefined natural substitute for refined sugars and artificial sweeteners.  Made from the Agave plant (yes, that is where tequila comes from) it has been used in native societies of Mexico for centuries as a sweetener and healing ointment. Agave is thought to have anti-bacterial properties that can heal wounds and fight off infections.

  • Agave ranks lower than many other sweeteners on the glyceamic index, so it doesn’t cause extreme spikes in your blood sugar like common table sugar.
  • It is a natural sweetener that comes in a liquid form similar to honey and can be used as an alternative to traditional white and brown sugar
  • The calories in a serving of traditional white sugar and agave nectar are the same so you still need to be mindful of your intake. However, because it is about 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar, you tend to use less.
  • Be aware that agave contains the highest levels of fructose of any commercial sweetener. Fructose suppresses the release of our three major satiety hormones (insulin, leptin and cholecystokinin) and instead of being used by the body like other forms of energy it goes straight to the liver where it can be converted into fat. This explains why our ever increasing consumption of fructose in foods is one of the key factors contributing to our obesity epidemic.
  • Agave can range from 90% to a lesser 55% fructose. Choose 100% organic, with minimal processing to ensure a lower fructose content.

Coconut Sugar

  • Coconut Sugar is a great tasting cane sugar alternative produced from coconut palm blossoms. It has a rich toffee-like flavour.
  • Naturally low on the Glycemic Index (GI), which has benefits for weight control and improving glucose levels in people with diabetes. Its GI rating is 35 compared to most commercial Honeys GI 55 and Cane Sugars GI 68
  • It also has a nutritional content far richer than all other commercially available sweeteners.
  • Coconut Sugar has a high mineral content. It is a rich source of potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron. In addition to this it contains Vitamin B1, B2, B3 and B6. When compared to brown sugar, Coconut Sugar has twice the iron, four times the magnesium and over 10 times the amount of zinc.
  • It has fewer calories than honey or agave nectar.
  • It is the most sustainable of all the sugars. Coconut palms produce an average of 50-75% more sugar per acre than sugar cane and use less than 1/5th of the nutrients for that production.
  • The not so positive news is coconut sugar also contains around 40% fructose meaning the energy from it is poorly utilized and it tends to wind up being stored as fat, particularly when eaten in excess.


Stevia has been widely used as a natural sweetener in South America for centuries and in Japan since 1970. It is completely natural and non-toxic, deriving from the sunflower family native to subtropical South and Central America

  • Stevia has zero calories!
  • It is high in chromium and has no effect on blood sugar levels making it the perfect option for people trying to lose weight and diabetics. One study showed stevia reduced blood sugar levels by 18% in type 2 diabetic patients.
  • Stevia aids weight loss in two ways; by increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing sugar intake and therefore calorie consumption.
  • Other health benefits include anti-hypertensive qualities – stevia may lower blood pressure.
  • It has to be said the only real down side to stevia is its taste – you really need to get used to the excessive sweetness. I have friends who have grown to love their cup of tea of coffee sweetened with stevia and many recipes from fabulous Nutritionist use it as the sweetener so there is absolutely no doubting its popularity or health benefits. All I can say is for me, I am not such a fan it’s just too sweet.


Honey is about as natural as any sweetener gets.  A good quality honey may also have a few added benefits and extra medicinal benefits that other sweeteners don’t. Manuka honey from New Zealand and Ulmo honey from Chile both have incredible antiseptic, immune stimulating and healing properties.  Make sure you always opt for raw honey to ensure all of the valuable nutrients and enzymes are retained.

  • Honey has a high GI of 50, like table sugar, so needs to be used sparingly
  • It is also 40% fructose which means, once again, the energy produced from its consumption is not utilized by the body, resulting in the production of fat, via the liver, that tends to ‘stick’.
  • Because honey is up to 50% sweeter than sugar  so your sweet tooth will be more readily satisfied with smaller amounts.
  • A good quality, raw honey increases free-radical fighting, antioxidant content of your diet.

Brown Rice Malt Syrup

Brown Rice Malt Syrup is a fabulous substitute for sugar and one of my favourites. As the name suggests, it is a whole food derived from brown rice. Even better it is completely fructose free (hooray!) and has a low glycaemic level, so it doesn’t send you off into the crazy blood sugar highs and lows that sugar can.

  • The sugar profile in this syrup is 50% soluble carbohydrates, 45% maltose and 3% glucose. The glucose is immediately absorbed and metabolized, maltose takes from an hour to an hour and a half, and soluble carbohydrates take 2-3 hours to be metabolized and energy released. This results in constant supply of energy spread over a long time rather than a sudden rush (1)
  •  I use Pure Harvest Brown Rice Syrup. It is 100% organic and has no issues with arsenic content (there has been some concern over this with other products). The taste is not as sweet as other sweeteners and that is one of its added benefits. This ‘reduced’ sweetness gives your body (and your taste buds) a chance to adapt and not need those sugar hits for instant energy pick-me-ups
  • Use it in cooking and baking. You won’t need too much (experiment, start with ¼ of a cup) to give those biscuits and muffins that sweet edge for taste and flavour.
  1. From www.triedtastedserved.com

Hot Cross Muffins


All the delicious fruit and spice flavour of a hot cross bun but in a cute as a button muffin.


  • 150 g almond meal 
  • 100 g Pureharvest Organic Buckwheat Flour or other flour if non-gluten free 
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda 
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg 
  • 1 tsp cinnamon 
  • 1/2 tsp mixed spice 
  • 150 g butter 
  • 1/2 cup Pureharvest Rice Malt Syrup 
  • 2 apples grated 
  • 2 eggs 
  • 1 1/2 cups mixed dried fruit 
  • zest and juice of 1 orange 

Cross decoration


  • Preheat oven to 180°C and line a muffin tin with 12 patty pans. 
  • Combine flour, almond meal, baking soda and spices in a bowl and set aside. 
  • Melt the butter and Rice Malt Syrup in a saucepan over a low heat until the butter is just melted. Remove from heat and set aside. 
  • In a separate bowl, lightly beat the eggs, then add the dried fruit and grated apple. Add the flour mixture and stir until well combined. (Hint: the mixture is quite runny so don’t be worried)
  • Spoon into the patty pans and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • Meanwhile prepare the cross mixture. Mix the flour and water together to form a dough. Break small amounts of the dough off and roll between your hands to form a thin sausage like shape (5mm strips of about 8cm long). You will need 24 strips in total, 2 for each muffin. After the muffins have baked for 20 minutes, remove them from the oven and decorate with the cross strips. 
  • Place back in the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown and a inserted skewer comes out clean.

Hot cross muffin recipe: http://www.pureharvest.com.au/recipes/hot-cross-muffins/

Leave a Reply