Not all sugar substitutes are created equal. What’s the best choice for you? 

By Rebecca Juetten

When Diet Coke was launched in 1982, it was welcomed as a way for calorie-conscious dieters to ‘have their cola and drink it too’, with the added bonus of it being deemed “safe” for people with Diabetes. But recently, diet pop lovers may have noticed their inboxes being inundated with messages from health-conscious relatives forwarding the latest, “Beware! Aspartame is carcinogenic and evil!” articles, because scrutiny of non-caloric sweeteners has sharply increased.

That’s not the only red flag. As Registered Holistic Nutritionist Katie Reitsma points out, “Research has shown that artificial sweeteners can negatively affect the gut microbiome and can even promote hunger. In fact, it has been proven that regular use of sucralose can, ironically, cause insulin resistance and lead to Type 2 Diabetes.” This has been a disappointment because my husband is diabietic, and while gluten-free versions of foods he likes seem to be everywhere these days, it’s not nearly as easy to find a good variety of ready-made sugar-free products at the grocery store, and even when I do, most are made with either aspartame or sucralose.

Luckily, natural sweeteners are having a moment. While honey, maple syrup and molasses have been around for ages, options like coconut sugar, agave nectar (a syrup), liquid or powder forms of Stevia, and even monk fruit are finally no longer relegated to boutique organic grocery shops and can now be found in major grocery chains. Your most “vegan-gelical” friend might be excited about this partly because not all chemical sweeteners are vegan, as many are tested on animals (Here’s looking at you, Splenda and Equal.) Reitsma also advises, “If you are diabetic, definitely consult a Diabetes-specific nutritionist before choosing your sweet treats. That said, everyone gains health benefits from avoiding spikes in their blood sugar, so really, checking the Glycemic Index rating (GI) of any sweetener is good for every body.”

When to Use What 

Keep in mind that depending on what you are trying to do, not all sweeteners perform the same way. Some are best in cold drinks but are terrible in hot, and vice versa. Some are great for baking, while others make for undesirable results. I tried baking peanut butter cookies with stevia (GI rating of 0) once; they turned out like foam hockey pucks and tasted even worse! Stevia tastes just fine in cold drinks like lemonade, iced tea, or Zevia brand pop, yet most people find it tastes horrible in hot drinks. For my hot coffee or tea, agave nectar in moderation is great. It has one of the lower GI ratings (30) but it is high in fructose, hence the “in moderation”.

For baking and hot drinks, hands-down the best performer is xylitol (pron. “ZIGH-lih-tol”), a sugar alcohol popularised during WW2 rationing. It’s made from birch trees and has one of the lowest GI ratings (7). Xylitol looks and behaves like traditional sugar (which has a very high GI rating of 65) as a 1 to 1 substitute, so you don’t have to calculate proportions for baking (find recipe below). Just make sure you do not feed it to dogs! One brand to look for is called Xyla. While you can find stevia and agave stocked alongside regular sugar these days, oddly xylitol is still relegated to the “natural food” aisle. 

One final word to the wise: articles say things like “Option X is 3 times sweeter than sugar”, but really, it’s quite subjective. Let your own tongue be the judge!

Chocolate brownie squares on cutting board.

Sugar-Free, Flourless Black Bean Chocolate Brownies (with Xyla)

This recipe is quite flexible, so you can experiment with the level of chocolateness, sweetness, or moisture to achieve your own version of brownie perfection, but here are the basics.


  • 1 large can of black beans, rinsed
  • (about 540ml)
  • (at least) 1 cup raw cocoa powder
  • 2 eggs
  • (at least) 1 cup Xyla
  • or other brand of xylitol 
  • 3 tbsp coconut oil or avocado oil
  • (or a touch more if you want to add moisture)
  • A little oil or butter/margarine to grease your 8 or 9 inch square baking pan, or use parchment 


  • Preheat oven to bake at 350°F.
  • Blend all ingredients in a food processor or blender. A few tablespoons of warm water or unsweetened chocolate almond milk will help if it’s a bit dry, but don’t let the mixture get very liquidy. 
  • Line your square pan with parchment paper, or spray it with some oil, or grease it with a little butter/margarine. Then spread the brownie mixture evenly within your pan. 
  • Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, checking toward the end that the middle is fairly solid. It’s OK to add more time if necessary. 

These brownies are a delicious, high protein breakfast or snack if eaten on their own, but are best when served warmed up and topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for dessert! (Chapman’s No Sugar Added is great if you are diabetic).