Sugar Alternatives: Which Is Better: Cane Sugar, Honey, Sweet Syrups, or Stevia?

Sugar Alternatives: Which Is Better: Cane Sugar, Honey, Sweet Syrups, or Stevia?

Many of us can’t resist sugar and its sweet taste. However, we’re also aware that overdoing it with sugar isn’t the best for our health. So, we often find ourselves on the lookout for ways to cut back on sugar while holding onto that beloved sweet flavour. The good news is that we actually have quite a few options to help us achieve just that.

In the article, you’ll learn more about these sugar alternatives:

Why do we actually talk about limiting sugar inake?

Today, sugar lurks in various forms in an endless array of foods. It’s not as easy as it seems to avoid consuming it in excessive amounts, often without even realizing it. It’s not only found in sweets and cakes, but also in various processed foods, baked goods, and last but not least, sugary beverages. Furthermore, it’s highly likely that those who don’t have their diet in check are unknowingly taking in an excess of sugar. So, let’s take a closer look together at what sugar actually is and how its alternatives fare.

What is sugar?

When we hear the word ‘sugar,’ most of us automatically think of white powdered or crystalline sugar, which we commonly use for sweetening. However, in reality, this term covers all monosaccharides and disaccharides (composed of two monosaccharides), also known as simple sugars.

  • Monosaccharides: glucose (grape sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), galactose
  • Disaccharides: lactose (milk sugar), maltose, sucrose (beet or cane sugar)

Most people know sucrose to be the classic white sugar, and it’s generally the one we have in mind when we say that we should limit the amount of sugar in our diet.

What is refined sugar?

This name denotes the traditional white table sugar. For many, it triggers concerns, perhaps because the term ‘refinement’ sounds like a dangerous chemical process. In reality, it simply involves the gradual removal of minerals, vitamins, and other components from a mixture obtained from sugar beets. These components also contribute to the sugar’s brown colour. After this ‘purification’ process, what remains is a pure mixture of simple sugars, typically with a white colour.

Why limit your sugar intake?

What is the effect of sugar on health?

Sugar is often presented as a sort of dangerous substance that is harmful to health under all circumstances. However, this notion is far from the truth. Sugar can easily be a common part of one’s diet without leading to any problems. In fact, it’s even a natural component of some foods, like fruits and dairy products. So, feel free to take a breath of relief and enjoy your portion of fruit today. But be cautious not to have too much of it. Excessive consumption of sugar, indeed, becomes problematic.

  • Excessive consumption of sugar contributes to a higher overall daily energy intake, increasing the risk of overweight and obesity. [4]
  • Obesity then raises the risk of various diseases, such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and more. [2]
  • Excessive sugar intake can also contribute to the formation of dental cavities. [19]

For these reasons, it’s only fitting to aim for a healthier and more body-friendly way to enjoy the sweet taste. There is a wide range of options at our disposal, and today, we will have a closer look at which ones are the most suitable.

How much sugar should you consume daily, and how can you limit it?

To prevent the negative effects of excessive sugar consumption, it’s advisable to adhere to the recommended daily intake. According to the WHO, your daily sugar intake should not exceed 10% of your total daily energy intake. [14]

  • Taking into account an energy intake of 1500 kcal, this translates to approximately 38 g of sugar.
  • Considering a 2000 kcal intake, this roughly equals 50 g of sugar.
  • At 2500 kcal, it’s around 63 g of sugar.
  • At 3000 kcal, it’s approximately 75 g of sugar.

That said, the optimal daily sugar intake varies for each individual. An endurance athlete who engages in long training sessions several times a week needs sugar to provide quick energy to their muscles. Therefore, their optimal intake may be several times higher compared to a sedentary individual who doesn’t engage much in sports. The sedentary individual would do best to adhere to the maximum recommended intake. To put things into perspective, a serving of 50 g of sugar can be found in a 450 ml Coca-Cola, which for some is a regular part of their daily fluid intake.

If you’re interested in learning how to avoid liquid calories and why they can be problematic, read the article: Where Are Liquid Calories Hiding, and How Do These Empty Calories Prevent You From Losing Weight?

How are you doing with your sugar intake? If you’re aware that you might be consuming more than is advisable, in this article, you can read a few tips on how to cut down on it painlessly: 8 Ways to Cut Down on Sugar and Eat Less Sweets

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What can you use to replace sugar?

There is a diverse array of options for substituting and replacing sugar, so everyone can choose according to their own preferences. There are two main categories to consider: artificial sweeteners and sugar alternatives, including natural options like honey or syrups, as well as naturally derived sweeteners (polyalcohols, stevia).

  • Artificial sweeteners include sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame K, and others.
  • Sugar alternatives encompass natural options like honey or syrups. However, they also include polyalcohols, which are commonly found in fruits and vegetables. It’s this second group that we’ll focus on today.

What are sugar substitutes, and how can you navigate through them?

Understanding the world of sugar substitutes can sometimes be quite a puzzle. Some of them are essentially sugar in a different guise, while others can have virtually zero caloric value. As a result, we have a category that offers no benefits over regular sugar, whereas with others, we might even observe positive health effects. So, how to make sense of them all?

Sugar alternatives

The market offers quite a few choices to replace traditional white sugar. We’ll pay more attention to those that closely resemble it, such as cane or brown sugar, and others. Additionally, for sweetening, you can also explore alternatives like banana powder, lucuma, and so on.

1. Brown sugar

Brown sugar is practically the same as its relative, white sugar. It also originates from sugar beets, making it a nearly pure mixture of sucrose. The only difference from white sugar is that it doesn’t undergo the refining process and isn’t “whitened.” It contains what’s known as molasses, which imparts the brown colour to it. Molasses also contains certain amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other bioactive substances, leading many of us to often believe that this sugar might have health benefits.

So, is brown sugar really healthier than its white counterpart, as many believe? As you might already suspect, this is quite a false notion, as the content of these substances is negligible. In order for their positive effects to manifest, you would need to consume brown sugar in kilograms, which certainly wouldn’t benefit your health.

Additionally, you can encounter yet another variant of brown sugar. There are products on the market that consist of white sugar, which has been coloured brown. This product creates the illusion of “healthy” sugar solely due to its colour.

So, what’s the final verdict? If you’re looking for a suitable alternative to white sugar, reaching for brown sugar might be really unnecessary. Its only advantage could be a more interesting taste to some people, but we certainly can’t consider it healthier or more nutritious compared to white sugar.

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of brown sugar / 100 g
387 kcal380 kcal 

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2. Cane sugar

Cane sugar is derived from sugarcane. In terms of its composition, it’s quite similar to beet sugar, as it’s predominantly composed of the disaccharide sucrose. Unlike white sugar, it doesn’t go through the refining process, which allows it to retain the compounds responsible for its distinctive flavour and aroma, along with a small amount of vitamins and minerals.

Just like with brown sugar, the same principle applies to cane sugar – if you were looking to derive a notable amount of these nutrients from it, you would have to consume it in substantial quantities. Its sole potential benefit still lies in its unique flavour profile, which could be a better fit for certain pastries or other sweet recipes. Consequently, it’s clear that cane sugar doesn’t present a healthier alternative to white sugar.

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of cane sugar / 100 g
387 kcal380 kcal 
Cane syrup

3. Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar is produced from the sap of coconut palm blossoms through gradual heating and water evaporation. This sugar is also primarily composed of 70-80% of sucrose. Like the aforementioned types of sugar, coconut sugar also avoids the refining process, thus retaining its original content of minerals, vitamins, and other bioactive compounds. Its uniqueness lies in its inulin content, which is a fibre that functions as a prebiotic (food for beneficial gut bacteria). Besides coconut sugar, you can also come across coconut syrup, which, in contrast to sugar, contains more water and consequently has a lower sucrose content. [6]

Coconut sugar is also known for having a lower glycaemic index compared to others. In practice, this would suggest that it causes a slower rise in blood sugar levels (glycaemia). However, this information might be somewhat misleading, as findings from various sources significantly diverge. Therefore, this effect can’t be reliably depended upon.

Coconut sugar cannot be regarded as a source of vitamins and minerals either. It also doesn’t represent a significant source of fibre, given that its inulin content is merely 4.7 g per 100 g. Therefore, achieving a somewhat substantial intake of inulin would necessitate consuming considerable amounts of coconut sugar on a daily basis.

In this case as well, the main advantage lies in its distinctive taste and aroma, which can come in handy in certain recipes. Additionally, it’s characterized by a lower sweetening power, making it useful when you’re aiming to gradually reduce your excessive sweetening habits. [12]

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of coconut sugar / 100 g
Energy value of coconut syrup / 100 g
387 kcal391 kcal312 kcal 

4. Honey

Honey has been renowned for ages as a healthy sweetener, often thought to possess the ability to cure any cold or soothe a sore throat. It’s a common practice to add it to our tea when we’re not feeling well, with the confidence that it might bring some relief. Honey’s composition sets it apart from other sugar alternatives; it contains not only vitamins and minerals, but also phenols, organic acids, carotenoids, enzymes, and other bioactive compounds known for their beneficial effects. [5]

Studies also indicate that honey likely harbours numerous health benefits. It can be helpful in promoting healing, providing relief from symptoms of gastric ulcers, stomach inflammation, and digestive issues. Even using honey for sore throat and cough might not be just an old wives’ tale, as it appears to be capable of coating the throat lining and assisting in eliminating unwanted microorganisms. [5]

However, when you delve into the nutritional composition of honey, you will come to realize that it’s predominantly composed of simple sugars. These sugars account for up to 82% of its content, split almost equally between glucose and fructose. While honey’s energy value is slightly lower than that of white sugar, it might not be the ultimate solution for those looking to seamlessly replace the traditional sugar. That said, it does stand as a healthier alternative to sugar, considering its associated health benefits.

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of honey / 100 g
387 kcal304 kcal 


1. Maple syrup

Maple syrup is produced from the sap of maple trees and is notable for its unique taste and aroma. There are four different grades of this syrup, which vary based on the time of collection and are associated with different colours, flavours, and aromas. The darker and more pronounced in flavour variety is commonly used in baking, whereas the lighter and milder version is utilized as a sweetener or topping. [17]

Most of the syrup consists of simple sugar, mainly in the form of sucrose. It also contains bioactive substances, such as vitamins or phenolic substances. However, the energy content of the products available on the market varies. In some cases, it can even go as low as 30% less than that of white sugar. Such products tend to have lesser sweetening effect though, so it’s important to be careful when using them not to accidentally offset its lower sweetening effect with a larger portion. Note that this is not a rule, as some products are almost the same in terms of calories as regular sugar. It depends on the processing methods used by individual manufacturers. [4,7]

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of maple syrup / 100 g
387 kcal260 – 360 kcal

2. Agave syrup

Agave syrup is obtained from the juice of the succulent called agave, and its production process resembles that of making fructose syrup. Simple sugars make up about 70% of its composition, with approximately 55% of the syrup’s content being fructose. As a result, it’s characterized by a greater sweetening power, and thus a smaller portion is sufficient to achieve a similar sweetening effect as that of regular white sugar. [11]

Due to its high fructose content, this syrup also boasts a lower glycaemic index. Fructose, in fact, only moderately elevates blood sugar levels (glycaemia), which is why agave syrup is sometimes regarded as a suitable sweetener for individuals with diabetes. However, one should approach this potential benefit with caution, as many factors influence the glycaemic index of foods. Thus, adding agave syrup to a meal doesn’t necessarily guarantee a low resulting glycaemic index value. [11]

However, the fructose content itself might be the most challenging aspect of agave syrup. Fructose is metabolized differently in the body compared to glucose, and excessive intake has been associated with fat accumulation in the liver. Fatty liver has been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and insulin resistance. [11]

The syrup itself might not be problematic in terms of fructose content, but it could be one piece of the puzzle contributing to its increased intake. For instance, when combined with foods or beverages sweetened with fructose (many sweetened drinks use high glucose-fructose corn syrup, etc.), you could end up consuming unnecessarily high amounts on a daily basis. This could potentially lead to negative effects.

The energy value of agave syrup is comparable to that of white sugar, so with its high fructose content, it doesn’t necessarily serve as an ideal replacement. Nevertheless, it can still come in handy as an occasional sweetener, perhaps for adding sweetness to your favourite pancakes or waffles.

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of agave syrup / 100 g
387 kcal310 kcal 
Agave syrup

3. Chicory syrup

Chicory syrup is made from the root of the chicory plant and stands out for its content of inulin and oligofructose. It’s precisely inulin that imparts the syrup with its sweet flavour, while also potentially influencing the composition of the gut microbiome in a positive way. This is because inulin acts as a prebiotic, essentially providing nourishment for beneficial bacteria in the gut. [16]

Since the majority of the syrup’s ingredient profile comprises fibre, there’s not as much room for sugar. Sugar only makes up approximately 5% of its composition. As a result, the energy value of chicory syrup is low, around 60% lower than that of white sugar. [16]

This makes it quite a remarkable product with a low sugar content, significantly fewer calories than white sugar, and a high fibre content. Despite that, it’s still sweet, with its sweetening power being roughly half that of regular sugar. In this case, we can say with confidence that it’s a syrup, which is able to effectively replace traditional white sugar.

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of chicory syrup / 100 g
387 kcal160 kcal 

4. Other types of syrups

In addition to the aforementioned syrups, we can also explore several others crafted from special ingredients. These include, for example:

  • date syrup: This syrup is made from dates and is commonly used in Asian cuisine. In terms of its glucose and fructose content, it’s similar to agave syrup.
  • corn syrup: Produced from corn starch, this syrup contains a mixture of glucose, maltose, and oligosaccharides (which consist of 3 – 10 molecules of monosaccharides).
  • barley malt syrup: Crafted from sprouted barley, this syrup is characterized by its high maltose content (a disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules).
  • wheat syrup: Made from wheat starch, this syrup not only adds sweetness, but also aids in thickening dishes.
  • rice syrup: This syrup originates from brown rice and is primarily composed of maltose.
  • blueberry syrup
  • cranberry syrup


The term polyalcohols (also known as sugar alcohols) might evoke thoughts of harmful chemicals that shouldn’t really have a place in a healthy diet. However, that’s far from the truth, as these are substances naturally found in fruits and vegetables and are commonly used as safe sweeteners.

Nevertheless, one drawback is that they can trigger digestive discomfort in some more sensitive individuals. This can manifest as symptoms such as bloating or diarrhoea. Polyalcohols are not completely absorbed in the digestive tract, so a portion of them makes their way to the large intestine, where they interact with gut bacteria. However, tolerance varies among every individual, and it’s always a good idea to see how your digestion responds to them.

1. Xylitol

Xylitol, also known as birch sugar, naturally occurs in fruits and mushrooms. As the name suggests, it’s derived from birchwood. This sugar alcohol resembles granulated sugar at first glance, but it contains around 40% fewer calories than sugar. An added advantage is that it offers comparable sweetening power to sugar, so using the same amount results in approximately half the energy intake. [1,9]

Another advantage of xylitol is its minimal glycaemic index. Compared to glucose with a GI of 100, xylitol has a value of 7. It practically doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, or does so only minimally, making it a suitable sweetener for people with diabetes. Additionally, it’s known for its positive impact on teeth and likely reduces the risk of tooth decay. This is why it’s commonly found in sugar-free chewing gums. [1,9]

Xylitol doesn’t really have an acceptable daily intake (ADI) that would set an upper allowable limit, but consensus suggests it’s at around 40 – 50 g. Beyond this quantity, digestive issues are more likely to occur. However, you don’t need to worry; it’s quite challenging to exceed such an amount in your everyday diet. [20]

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of xylitol / 100 g
387 kcal240 kcal 

2. Erythritol

Erythritol is naturally present in certain types of fruits like grapes, peaches, and melons. However, it’s also manufactured through the fermentation of glucose. Similar to xylitol, it resembles granulated sugar in appearance. Unlike xylitol, though, erythritol boasts zero caloric value, as it doesn’t metabolize in the body and is excreted unchanged in the urine. Consequently, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels and is a suitable product for individuals with diabetes. Its sweetening power is around 60 – 80% of that of sugar. An advantage is that it lacks a distinct taste, allowing it to be combined with other sweeteners for increased sweetness. For example, it’s commonly used in combination with stevia. [8]

There isn’t a set ADI value for erythritol either, but well-tolerated doses are noted to be up to 0.66 g per kg of body weight for men and 0.8 g per kg for women. [3]

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of erythritol / 100 g
387 kcal0 kcal 


Stevia is a plant known for its sweetening effects attributed to the contained compounds called steviol glycosides. These glycosides are processed and transformed into a sweetener that is available in forms like powder, tablets, or even drops. The benefits of stevia lie in its zero caloric value, yet its sweetening power is around 200 to 300 times greater compared to regular sugar. [18]

Stévia je tak vhodnou alternatívou cukru, ktorá navyše nezvyšuje glykémiu a nie je typická žiadnymi negatívnymi účinkami na trávenie. Jej jedinou nevýhodou je špecifická chuť, ktorá nemusí vyhovovať každému. Tá sa dá ale jednoducho zakryť kombináciou s inými sladidlami, ako je napríklad už spomínaný erytritol. [10]

Energy value of white sugar / 100 g
Energy value of stevia / 100 g
387 kcal0 kcal 

Energy and simple carbohydrate content in sugar substitutes

Sugar alternativesEnergy value (kcal)Water (g)Simple carbohydrates (g)Sucrose (g)Glucose (g)Fructose (g)
White sugar3870.0299.899.800
Brown sugar3801.349794.61.41.1
Cane sugar3990.0399.299.200
Coconut sugar3911.2 – 2.49482 – 910.5 – 2.30.7 – 2.3
Maple syrup260 – 36010 – 3060 – 9058.31.60.5
Agave syrup31022.968012.455.6
Chicory syrup1605
Coconut syrup31278
Xylitol 24000000
Erythritol 000000

What are the best and healthiest alternatives to regular sugar?

There is a variety of options to choose from when it comes to sweetening your favourite desserts and beverages. Ultimately, the choice depends on your preferences, goals, and current dietary considerations. Your selection will likely also be influenced by whether you need to sweeten a drink, pancakes, or your favourite cake.

It’s important to realize that none of the aforementioned options, including the regular white sugar, are evil substances that will immediately land you in a hospital bed. When used in moderation and within the recommended daily maximum intake of sugar, each of these alternatives can find its place in your diet (excluding specific health issues such as allergies, of course).

Which sweeteners are suitable?

  • For general sweetening: You can practically use all of them when adhering to the recommended daily maximum intake.
  • For weight loss: xylitol, erythritol, stevia, chicory syrup.
  • When suffering from diabetes: xylitol, erythritol, stevia, chicory syrup.

What are the main takeaways?

Excessive sugar intake can have negative effects on our health, prompting many of us to seek alternatives in our daily diets. Fortunately, there are several options available. From natural sugar alternatives, we can consider honey, syrups, choices like coconut or cane sugar, stevia, or polyalcohols. In appropriate amounts, most of these alternatives are generally acceptable. However, when aiming to reduce sugar consumption significantly, it’s advisable to focus on those options that have low or zero calories and simple carbohydrates. The choice of sugar alternatives is always individual, and it should always reflect the context of our overall dietary habits.

Has this article caught your interest and provided you with some new insights? Then don’t keep it just to yourself, go ahead and share it with your friends and family.


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[2] MALIK, V.S. et al. Intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain: a systematic review. –

[3] MAZI, T.A. - STANHOPE, K.L. Erythritol: An In-Depth Discussion of Its Potential to Be a Beneficial Dietary Component. –

[4] MOORE, J.B. - FIELDING, B.A. Sugar and metabolic health: is there still a debate? –

[5] PASUPULETI, V.R. et al. Honey, Propolis, and Royal Jelly: A Comprehensive Review of Their Biological Actions and Health Benefits. –

[6] PURNOMO, H. Volatile Components of Coconut Fresh Sap, Sap Syrup and Coconut Sugar. –

[7] RAMADAN, M.F. et al. Chemistry, processing, and functionality of maple food products: An updated comprehensive review. –

[8] REGNAT, K. et al. Erythritol as sweetener—wherefrom and whereto? –

[9] SALLI, K. et al. Xylitol’s Health Benefits beyond Dental Health: A Comprehensive Review. –

[10] SAMUEL, P. et al. Stevia Leaf to Stevia Sweetener: Exploring Its Science, Benefits, and Future Potential. –

[11] SARAIVA, A. et al. Agave Syrup: Chemical Analysis and Nutritional Profile, Applications in the Food Industry and Health Impacts. –

[12] SARAIVA, A. et al. Coconut Sugar: Chemical Analysis and Nutritional Profile; Health Impacts; Safety and Quality Control; Food Industry Applications. –

[13] TANG, Z.-X. et al. Date fruit: chemical composition, nutritional and medicinal values, products. –

[14] WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children –

[15] WRAGE, J. et al. Coconut sugar (Cocos nucifera L.): Production process, chemical characterization, and sensory properties. –

[16] ZACHAROVÁ, M. et al. Chicory syrup as a substitution of sugar in fine pastry. –

[17] Grades –

[18] Scientific Opinion on the safety of steviol glycosides for the proposed uses as a food additive | EFSA. –

[19] Sugars and dental caries. –

[20] Xylitol Uses, Benefits & Dosage - Herbal Database. –

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