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HFG guide to sugar and sweeteners

With so many different sweeteners available, it can be difficult to know which one is best for your needs. Nutritionist Tracy Morris has the answers.

Nutritive sweeteners are defined as those that contain energy, and have an impact on blood sugar levels.

Brown or dark brown sugar

What is it? Brown sugar is table sugar coated in sugar syrups that are similar to molasses. This gives it a distinctive colour and aroma, and a moister consistency.

Nutritional properties: Contains nearly the same energy as table sugar, with slightly more nutrients (calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium), but the amounts are insignificant per serve.

Best use: Baking or adding sweetness to savoury dishes such as stir-fries and sauces.

Take note: Don’t let the colour fool you – brown sugar is no more ‘natural’ than white or raw sugar.

Low-GI sugar (eg. Chelsea LoGi Cane)

What is it? A less refined form of table sugar that has a lower glycaemic index (GI 50), so it is digested more slowly than most nutritive sweeteners.

Nutritional properties: The same kilojoules as table sugar but contains small amounts of some nutrients usually removed during processing (antioxidants, calcium, magnesium and potassium).

Best use: Replacing table sugar for people with diabetes.

Take note: Just because it has a lower GI rating does not mean you can eat more of it!


What is it? A liquid sweetener produced naturally by honeybees from flower nectar.

Nutritional properties: Honey has a low to medium GI rating (between 35-58, depending on the type of honey) and has 92kJ per teaspoon. It contains trace amounts of protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Best use: As a truly natural, affordable sweetener. Honey is also used as a natural remedy to soothe sore throats.

Take note: Honey should not be given to infants due to the risk of contracting botulism.


What is it? The dark liquid by-product left over from processing sugar cane into table sugar.

Nutritional properties: Molasses has slightly fewer kilojoules than sugar (71kJ per teaspoon), and of all the sugar products, molasses is the richest in minerals calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium.

Best use: Adding a distinctive colour and flavour to baked treats.

Take note: Blackstrap molasses has a bitter taste and it is more often used as a nutritional supplement than a sweetener due to its high antioxidant levels.

Treacle and golden syrup

What is it? Golden-red (golden syrup) or dark brown-black (treacle) liquid sugar made from sugar cane syrup.

Nutritional properties: Sweeter than sugar, these sweeteners are less nutritionally dense than molasses and have small amounts of minerals (calcium, iron and potassium) and 90kJ per teaspoon.

Best use: The strong, sweet taste of these liquid sugars works well in baking and confectionery recipes.

Take note: Treacle is slightly more bitter than golden syrup.

Maple syrup

What is it? An amber-coloured liquid sweetener made from the sap of maple trees.

Nutritional properties: Maple syrup is low GI and it has fewer kilojoules (73kJ per teaspoon) and more minerals than honey but in insignificant amounts per serve.

Best use: Drizzling over pancakes or swirling into porridge.

Take note: Don’t be fooled by ‘maple-flavoured’ syrups which are often higher GI, higher in kilojoules and lower in nutrients than pure maple syrup. Check labels to make sure the product is 100 per cent pure maple.

Table sugar (white or raw)

What is it? A form of carbohydrate (sucrose) made from sugar cane. Raw sugar has a light honey taste and it is slightly less processed than white sugar.

Nutritional properties: One teaspoon has 70kJ.

Best use: Baking, or to add sweetness to a daily cuppa.

Take note: There is no significant nutritional difference between white and raw sugar – both provide a quick energy hit with virtually no vitamins or minerals.


What is it? The naturally-occurring sugar in fruit and honey.

Nutritional properties: Fructose is the sweetest sweetener and it has the lowest GI of all naturally occurring sugars. In fruit, it is loaded with vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. It has 64kJ per teaspoon.

Best use: For a truly natural sugar fix, go for fresh fruit.

Take note: A small amount of fructose (like that in fruit) isn’t going to do you any harm, but if you overload your body with too much at once (often found in processed foods containing ‘fructose’, ‘high fructose corn syrup’ or ‘agave nectar’), your liver starts converting the fructose to fat in the form of triglycerides – putting you at risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Top nutritive sweetener picks

  • Best for baking: White or brown sugar
  • Most natural: Raw honey
  • Most nutritious: Blackstrap molasses
  • Best for spreading: Honey

Non-nutritive sweeteners are intensely sweet, meaning only a very small amount is needed – so they are virtually kilojoule-free and have no impact on blood sugar levels. With the exception of stevia, most non-nutritive sweeteners are chemically produced.

Aspartame (eg. Equal, NutraSweet)

What is it? An artificial sweetener made by joining two amino acids – aspartic acid and phenylalanine.

Nutritional properties: Provides about the same amount of energy as table sugar, but because it is 160-220 times sweeter than sugar, only a tiny amount is needed, making the energy negligible.

Best use: Aspartame loses its sweetness at high temperatures so it’s not suitable for cooking. It is commonly used in cold food products such as diet soft drinks, cordial and yoghurt.

Take note: People with Phenylketonuria (PKU) – an inherited disorder that increases the levels of amino acid phenylalanine (a building block of proteins in the blood ) – are advised not to consume aspartame as it contains phenylalanine.

Acesulphame potassium or Ace-K (eg. Equal Spoon for Spoon, Sweet One®, Sunnett)

What is it? A synthetically produced potassium salt.

Nutritional properties: Ace-K is 200 times sweeter than sugar and does not provide any kilojoules as it is not broken down by the body.

Best use: Baking, because it is stable at high temperatures.

Take note: In high concentrations it has a slightly bitter aftertaste so it is often blended with other sweeteners to produce a more sugar-like taste.

Sugar alcohols or polyols (eg. sorbitol, xylitol)

What is it? These occur naturally in certain fruits or can be produced artificially from glucose.

Nutritional properties: Provides half the kilojoules of table sugar  but only a small amount is absorbed into the bloodstream.

Best use: Often used to replace sugar in chewing gum, polyols are not broken down by mouth bacteria so they don’t promote tooth decay.

Take note: If eaten in large quantities, they can have a laxative effect and cause diarrhoea, bloating and gas.

Stevia or steviol glycosides (eg. Equal Stevia, NuNaturals Nu Stevia™, Natvia)

What is it? A natural, non-nutritive sweetener extracted from the leaves of the stevia herb.

Nutritional properties: Stevia is 250-300 times sweeter than table sugar, with no impact on blood sugar levels. It has 11kJ per gram.

Best use: People who prefer a natural sweetener over a synthetic one but don’t want the kilojoules.

Take note: Some stevia extracts have a distinct aftertaste similar to liquorice.

Saccharin (eg. Sweet’N Low®, Necta Sweets, Sweet Twin)

What is it? A synthetically produced sweetener made by combining a number of chemicals.

Nutritional properties: Saccharin is 200-700 times sweeter than table sugar and provides no energy.

Best use: Enhances the strength of other sweeteners.

Take note: Not recommended for pregnant women or children under two years.

Cyclamate (eg. Sucaryl, SugarTwin®)

What is it? The sodium or calcium salt of cyclamic acid.

Nutritional properties: Cyclamate is 30 times sweeter than sugar and not digested by most people so it provides no kilojoules.

Best use: Cyclamate masks the bitter aftertaste of other non-nutritive sweeteners so it is often used in combination with other non-nutritive sweeteners.

Take note: Not recommended for pregnant women or children under two years.

Sucralose (eg. Splenda®, Sugar Free Natura)

What is it? Sugar that is chemically processed to replace hydrogen and oxygen molecules with chlorine molecules.

Nutritional properties: Six hundred times sweeter than table sugar, with most of it passing through the body unchanged, providing no energy.

Best use: Since it is the most heat-stable non-nutritive sweetener, sucralose can easily be used to replace sugar (cup for cup) in cooking and baking.

Take note: Sucralose tastes very similar to sugar and has no bitter aftertaste, which is common with other non-nutritive sweeteners.

Top non-nutritive sweetener picks

  • Best for baking: Sucralose or stevia
  • Most natural: Stevia
  • Best for your teeth: Sugar alcohols

For more on this see our further guide to Artificial and natural sweeteners   and  Shopping: Spotlight on artificial sweeteners.