Sweeteners: the good, the bad & the worst


Dear Sarah,

I have recently moved to a more raw outlook on life and am on day 16 without sugar. I will add that I am eating dates and have also used some agave syrup to make some raw desserts. Last year whilst I was still eating moderate amounts of sugar, I always substituted with palm sugar.

I am now a little confused though as I am not sure which is best for us. Is it palm sugar or agave or honey?? I must say that I read so many conflicting bits of information and seeing that I have M.E. I know I am best to avoid them all.

But the truth is that I love baking and it is my little pleasure in life, so I am experimenting a great deal with healthier options.

I would really appreciate your input here. Many thanks for your help.

Stiana Hubert


Dear Stiana,

Thank you for getting in touch. These are great questions!

Of the sugar substitutes you mentioned I’d choose dates, followed by palm sugar.

Did you know that if you soak dates in a little water for an hour or so to soften them you can then blend them into a syrup which works well in many recipes requiring a liquid sweetener? Dates are so naturally sweet that a little really goes a long way.

In reality, palm sugar is virtually no different from refined sugar in terms of its effects in the body. It may still have some nutrients, but just like refined sugar it’s around 50% fructose and 50% glucose (more about the significance of this in a moment).

However! It’s important to put this in perspective. A slice of cake or other sweet treat that has say four teaspoons (16g) of palm sugar or date syrup has less sugar than a medium apple. Shocking but true – so go ahead and enjoy a little of what you fancy!

The sweetener I would definitely not recommend is agave syrup (which also euphemistically goes by the name agave “nectar”). The reason for that is its fructose content, which can be as high as 95%.

Until a few years ago, fructose (or “fruit sugar”) was seen as a healthy option. But since then, more and more evidence has come to the fore to suggest that fructose is the element in sugar that is the most damaging to health – and that the body can only handle a very small amount of fructose each day. Exceed this on a consistent basis and it starts to damage health.

As agave syrup is such a concentrated source of fructose, it only takes a really small amount to push us over our safe daily limit. Two to three tablespoons will do that for most of us – scary when you consider that many raw recipes measure out agave by the cup.

Take it from a lifelong sugar addict who took a long time to get wise to this, but who has now done the maths: such recipes can even contain more sugar, and fructose, per serving than a litre of cola.

In recipes that require a liquid sweetener, a much better choice than agave would be rice malt syrup. This is very low in fructose – in fact some brands have a fructose content of zero, or close to zero.

Some readers may at this point be starting to wonder why I haven’t recommended the natural, 100% sugar-free sweetener stevia. The answer is, it has a strong taste many find unpleasant and I personally have never used it in a recipe without it ruining said recipe. But others swear by it, so it could be one for you to look into if you haven’t already.

Finally, I can’t think of any dessert recipe that is not enhanced by adding some organic vanilla powder into the mix. So you could play around with this too, as the natural sweetness of vanilla can really decrease the need for added sugars.

I hope this helps and warmest wishes,

Sarah x


  • Thanks Sarah for answering my question, it certainly is quite alarming when you start comparing healthy sugars with bad sugars, especially when some are the equivalent of the other. Thanks for all your help with this, you have been amazing!! I am sure many people will benefit from your answer as it really paints the picture perfectly! Take care of yourself and thanks again. xoxo

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