Rice malt syrup, honey, coconut sugar: are these sugar replacements really better for you?

Nothing makes a scientist laugh more than seeing low sugar diets packed with dried fruit, rice malt syrup, dextrose and coconut sugar. While it is often claimed that these are ‘better’ sugars, one would argue that when you take a closer look at the chemistry, these are still all sugars – sugars that will contribute to weight gain, hormonal imbalance and cravings if over-consumed.

So if you think you are aboard the anti-sugar band wagon but your recipes are still full of rice malt syrup and coconut sugar, it may pay to take a closer look at actually what is sugar and what is not.

Simple sugars 

Found naturally in foods and consist of simple sugars that give 16kJ per gram. On the whole, simple sugars offer ‘empty’ kJ, meaning that they offer little other nutritionally than extra energy and for this reason should still be consumed in small amounts.


Often chosen as a natural alternative to white sugar thanks to its antibacterial properties, honey still contains 5g of total sugars and 80kJ per teaspoon.

Listen: Sarah Wilson, founder of the ‘I Quit Sugar’ movement, isn’t off-sugar entirely. Listen to her talk about her lifestyle and weaknesses, on Can’t Live Without. Post continues after audio.

Rice Malt Syrup

Often considered ‘much’ better than sugar, the harsh truth is that rice malt syrup is a refined sugar that is produced by cooking rice flour or starch with enzymes and with a GI of 98 (white bread = 100), its supremacy as an alternative to table sugar is highly questionable. The sugar mix of rice malt syrup is 3% glucose, 45% maltose and maltotriose 52% so while it may be fructose free, it does not mean concentrated calorie free.

"Honey still contains 5g of total sugars and 80kJ per teaspoon." Image via iStock.


Popular as it appears to have a more moderate effect on blood glucose levels than refined sugar; agave is sourced from the Agave plant which is found in Mexico. Agave has slightly less total sugar and kJ per serve than regular sugar but is roughly 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar; you can use less of it. It is also high in fructose which can cause gut distress for those who are sensitive.


Raw sugar

Often thought of as a better option nutritionally than white sugar, raw sugar is less refined than white sugar which may be of personal preference but still contains the same number of kJ per serve than white or brown sugar.

Natural sweeteners

Generally sourced from plants and taste as sweet as, or sweeter than sugar minus the kJ. Whilst the kilojoules in many of these sweeteners may be negligible, there is some evidence to show that consuming exceptionally sweet foods may actually program the brain to seek out sweeter food.

For this reason, while natural sweeteners may appear to be a good option, it does not mean that they should be used in unlimited quantities.

Raw sugar "still contains the same number of kJ per serve than white or brown sugar". Image via iStock.


Sourced from a South African plant and is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar and is now used frequently in yoghurts, cordials and soft drinks. Often referred to as the best natural sweetener available it can also be used effectively in baking to reduce the sugar content of a recipe.


Combines Stevia with erithrytol (a sugar alcohol) to offer another plant based sweetener that seeks to eliminate the sometimes bitter aftertaste experienced with Stevia. Ideally any sweetener should be used in small amounts due to its intensely sweet flavour and Nativa in particular is best used in tea and coffee. (Post continues after gallery).

Sugar alcohols

Commonly listed as mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol on ingredient lists, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates naturally found in some fruits and vegetables which are only partially broken down in the digestive track and as such offer up to 40% fewer calorie than sugar.

While sugar alcohols are a natural sweetener that can be used in baking and to sweeten drinks, for individuals sensitive to the FODMAPS in food, or who report symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, sugar alcohols can cause bloating, diarrhoea and gas.

This article was originally published on Shape Me. Read the article here. You can also read more about Susie on her website, Shape Me, her Facebook page, Twitter and Instagram