Sugar substitute options
There are basically two groups of sugar alternatives: sugar substitutes , such as birch sugar, of natural origin, and sweeteners , which are mostly artificially produced, such as aspartame. They can all taste different and have a different consistency than table sugar.
Sugar substitutes are mostly sugar alcohols that result from chemical processes such as reduction of the chemical structure or conversion by living organisms. In Germany, only certain sugar alcohols may be used in food. Sugar alcohols have a sweetening power similar to sucrose but fewer calories than sucrose. As a result, they have less of an impact on blood sugar levels. Sweeteners have a lower calorie count than table sugar, but vary in their sweetening power (Bickel, 2018). However, some sugar substitutes can have laxative effects if consumed in excess, so consumption in moderation is recommended. There are now a large number of sugar alternatives in German supermarkets. We present some of them:
coconut blossom sugar
Coconut Blossom Sugar is a natural sugar substitute made from the sweet sap that flows from the blossoms of the coconut palm. This juice is then thickened and dried. Compared to the production of refined sugar, coconut blossom sugar is less processed and therefore still contains some natural ingredients. Since coconut blossom sugar also contains a certain amount of fiber, it does not allow the blood sugar level to rise as much.
The taste is somewhat reminiscent of caramel - similar to brown sugar. The consistency of the sugar is very fine, which is why it can be used in a similar way to table sugar for baking, cooking and also for sweetening liquid foods.
Birch Sugar (Xylitol)
Xylitol is another sugar alcohol found in many fruits and vegetables. Xylitol is obtained in a complex process from the remains of birch wood, corn cobs, straw or other wood (Bickel, 2018). The sweetening power is similar to that of table sugar, but xylitol contains about 40% fewer calories. It also has a minor impact on blood sugar levels because the body breaks it down more slowly than table sugar.
In the mouth, xylitol can have a slightly cooling effect. In addition, xylitol is known for its tooth-friendly properties, as it is not metabolized by caries bacteria. It can therefore help to reduce the risk of tooth decay and promote dental health. It is therefore often used in sugar-free chewing gum, dental care products and mouthwashes as an additive with the number E967 (NDR, 2023a).
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in some fruits, such as melons and pears. For use as an additive, it must be identified with the number E968 (Bickel, 2018). Erythritol has a sweetening power and consistency similar to table sugar, but contains only about 6% of the calories of sugar. Erythritol is not metabolized in the body, ie not metabolized, so it has no effect on blood sugar levels. In addition, erythritol does not affect the growth of caries bacteria and is therefore often called tooth-friendly.
Honey is also a natural sweetener produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. The sweetening power of honey is stronger than that of table sugar. Because of its natural enzymes, antioxidants, and antimicrobial compounds, honey is often seen as a healthy alternative to table sugar. But be careful: honey also contains large amounts of fructose and glucose and therefore also carbohydrates. What exactly the types of sugar fructose and glucose are, in which foods they are found and how they are processed in the body, you can find out in another article in our magazine .
Vonig refers to vegan "honey" and stands for some plant-based alternatives that can be used as a substitute for honey. On the one hand, there is rice syrup made from cooked rice, date syrup made from the sweetness of dates, agave syrup or jelly made from dandelion blossoms or other plants. In addition, there are now vegan honey products on the market that are very similar to honey in terms of both taste and consistency. The delicious honey from Vegablum, for example, is guaranteed to be free from animal suffering, palm oil and fruit shipped from far away. The labels are also casein-free and vegan. From classic daisies, dandelions, marigolds or stinging nettles, the honey is also available in unusual varieties such as apple-mint, gingerbread, mulled wine, vanilla, cinnamon and chili.
Alternatively, you can also prepare a vegan honey yourself from dandelion blossoms, sugar (alternative) and lime juice - your own dandelion jelly is ready ☺
Agave syrup is a natural sugar substitute made from the sap of the agave plant. It has gained popularity in recent years for its supposed health benefits, as it also makes blood sugar levels rise less. Overall, agave syrup is sweeter than table sugar and is mostly fructose .
Agave syrup is wonderful for sweetening all kinds of dishes: Agave syrup is a great addition to banana bread if it is not already sweet enough due to the overripe bananas used. A salad dressing gets a delicious sweet note or you use agave syrup in your cocoa or even in coffee if you like it a little sweeter ☺
Aspartame is a type of sweetener that is 200 times sweeter than table sugar and is very low in calories. It occurs as a white, odorless powder and is used to sweeten various foods such as beverages, confectionery, yoghurt or chewing gum. In the EU, aspartame must be labeled on food or identified by the E number (E951) (Butchko, Stargel, Comer et al., 2002).
According to the safety assessment of the European Food Safety Authority, aspartame is harmless for human consumption and has therefore been approved for use as a food additive in many countries around the world, including Germany, for 30 years. The permissible daily intake (Acceptable Daily Intake – ADI) is 40 mg per kilogram of body weight. This means that this amount of aspartame can be consumed daily without significant health risk. To exceed this maximum ADI value, a person would have to drink 36 330 ml cans of diet soda every day for a lifetime. This shows that the maximum recommended intake is difficult to achieve (European Food Safety Authority, 2023).
Stevia is a natural sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant in the tropical and subtropical regions of South America. The vegetable raw material is treated and finally to the artificial sweetener stevia. Stevia has been approved as a sweetener in the EU with the designation number E960 since 2011 (Bickel, 2018). It contains no calories and has a much higher sweetening power than table sugar. Depending on the purity, stevia can be up to 200-400 times sweeter than sugar. In large quantities, stevia has a slightly metallic, bitter taste. Due to its small volume, stevia is not so good for baking, but it is wonderful for sweetening other foods such as coffee, cocoa or yoghurt (NDR, 2023a).
What does "sugar free" mean?
We find the label "sugar-free" on many food packages, but this statement is treacherous. This designation does not legally regulate that the product is completely free of sugar, but may contain up to 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams of the food (NDR, 2023b). The label "sugar-free" is often advertised when the product has little or no added sugar. But there are many other types of sugar such as grapes, fructose or milk sugar that have a similar effect on health (Consumer Center Federal Association, 2022). By the way, we explain milk sugar (lactose) and its properties in another magazine article .
The inscription "no added sugar" means that no additional ingredients are added to the product due to their sweetening effect. This applies to all single or double sugars as well as all other possible sweetening ingredients. Since reference to natural sources of sugar can, but does not have to, the inscription "no added sugar" just as little as "sugar-free" means that the product does not contain any sugar (Verwachsenerzentrale Bundesverband, 2022). When buying food, the list of ingredients should therefore always be checked so that ambiguous advertising statements cannot be misleading in the first place. For a more precise breakdown of the various sugar labels on food, we recommend the information from the consumer advice center, which provides very detailed information about the different labels.
Overall, the exact effects of sugar substitutes and especially the long-term effects of their regular consumption in the body have not been scientifically researched to date. The question of whether alternative substances for sweetening food are better than table sugar can therefore only be answered subjectively by considering the various ingredients and effects on the body. Despite good alternatives for household sugar, every sugar substitute also contains glucose and fructose , the two simple sugars that should only be consumed in moderate amounts. Agave syrup, stevia or erythritol are therefore promising natural sweeteners, but should also be used with caution.
It is much better than adding sweeteners to use naturally sweet foods such as fruit and vegetables and add as little additional sweetening as possible. While most sugar substitutes cause little or no rise in blood sugar levels, they can increase cravings for sweets, leading us to eat more sweets. It is therefore advisable to rely on completely unsweetened products, such as our I·DO juices with the sole sweetness from the fresh fruit.
Bickel, S. (2018). All sugar - or what? Biology In Our Time (48.5). pp. 310-317.
Butchko, H.; Stargel, W.; Comer, CP; Mayhew, DA et al. (2002). aspartame. Review of Safety, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology (35.2). pp. 1-93.
European Food Safety Authority (2023). aspartame . Retrieved from: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/de/topics/topic/aspartame
North German Broadcasting (2023a). Sugar substitutes: How healthy are xylitol, stevia, erythritol? Retrieved from: https://www.ndr.de/ratgeber/gesundheit/Zuckerersatz-Wie-gesund-sind-Xylit-Stevia-Erythrit,zuckerersatz108.html
North German Broadcasting (2023b). Sugar: The biggest misconceptions about glucose, honey and Co. Retrieved from: https://www.ndr.de/ratgeber/verbraucher/Die-groessten-Irrtuemer-ueber-Zucker,zucker125.html
Society of Nutrition and Food Science (2020). Sugar & Sugar Substitutes – Myths and Facts . Dialogue event of the Society of Nutrition and Food Science and the Charité Berlin on February 6th, 2020.
Consumer Center Federal Association (08/23/2022). Sugar and sugar substitutes: How to recognize sweeteners in food. Retrieved from: https://www.verbraucherzentrale.de/wissen/lebensmittel/gesund-ernaehren/zucker-und-zuckerersatz-so-erkennen-sie-suessmacher-in-lebensmittel-11552#:~:text=%22Zuckerfrei%22 %3A%20%20%20of%20%20%20g%20sugar%20contains.