Sugar and Sweeteners

The idea that people with diabetes need to avoid sugar and use alternatives has been around for a long time and is still one of the most common questions asked by people with diabetes.

Sugar substitutes have been around for many years too and have traditionally taken the form of what we call ‘non-nutritive’ or ‘artificial sweeteners’. Non-nutritive sweeteners (such as Aspartame, Sucralose, Stevia) do not contain carbohydrate and have very few calories.

Non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners are not actually needed to help manage diabetes. People with diabetes can still use regular sugar to sweeten foods, as long as it is used in small amounts and generally eaten as part of a meal. An example of this might be one teaspoon of sugar sprinkled over a hot bowl of plain rolled oats or a thin spread of regular jam on some grainy toast. This is the same advice that would be given to someone who does not have diabetes, as large amounts of added sugar is not good for anyone, regardless of whether or not they have diabetes.

In recent times, there have been a number of other sugar substitutes gaining popularity because they are thought to be ‘healthier’ than regular old table sugar.

Why is this the case?

Many of these sugar substitutes are claiming to be healthier than regular sugar because they claim to have a lower glycaemic index (GI) or contain more nutrients, such as small amounts of calcium, potassium and magnesium.

However, many of these claims are actually irrelevant. For example, the GI of sugar substitutes becomes irrelevant when they are only used in small amounts. A teaspoon of any sweetener is going to have a similar impact on blood glucose levels, it doesn’t matter if it is high GI or low GI.

When it comes to additional nutrients, we can easily meet all of our vitamin and mineral requirements by eating the recommended number of serves from each of the 5 core food groups. The last thing we should rely on for these nutrients is added sweeteners. Sweeteners should be used occasionally only to add a small amount of flavour, not essential vitamins and minerals.

Key points to remember:

  • Most sugar substitutes contain just as many kilojoules and as much carbohydrate as regular sugar. We know that the amount of carbohydrate eaten has the biggest impact on blood glucose levels; therefore, the end result on your blood glucose levels is going to be similar.
  • Sugar substitutes tend to be much more expensive. So you end up paying more for a product that is going to have the same impact as sugar.
  • Choose any form of sweetener that you like or that suits your recipe or meal the best. Just use them in small amounts to reduce the impact on your blood glucose levels and weight.
Written by:

Adele Mackie, Diabetes Australia – Vic Accredited Practising Dietitian


Diabetes Victoria