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Sugar Substitutes for Diabetics

The Best Sugar Substitutes for People with Diabetes

Has sugar gone from being a frequent guest at your house to one that rarely seems to cross the threshold? Perhaps sugar has been relegated to the “foods to avoid” list in your home. If sugar is something you have been told to avoid at all costs it’s very likely you have been diagnosed with diabetes!

Why is it a good idea for people with diabetes to avoid sugar?

When the bloodstream is subjected to high levels of glucose (sugar) on a regular basis it is detrimental to the blood vessels in the body.  According to the Mayo Clinic high levels of sugar in the blood form a coating on our red blood cells leading to rigidity and a decrease in our body’s ability to circulate blood as efficiently. This lack of proper circulation leads to a build-up of cholesterol in the blood vessels affecting the most susceptible organs in the body, e.g., the eyes, heart, and kidneys, as well as the extremities. Over time this damage accumulates and leads to a multitude of health complications, even death.

Even when armed with this information many diabetics still crave sugar and have a really hard time giving it up. Are you struggling with the same thing? Don’t be too hard on yourself. Researchers have discovered sugar affects the brain in the same way certain drugs do, i.e., creating an addictive response.

But keep in mind, because of your diabetes, addictive properties or not, sugar is out. Are there any alternatives for sugar that will satisfy your sweet tooth?

How to Satisfy that Sweet Tooth

There are a number of artificial sweeteners on the market, which are approved by The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and deemed safe for diabetics; however, each one comes with its own set of concerns and side effects and future health issues.

Stevia on the other hand is a great find for the diabetic diet. In terms of the glycemic index stevia doesn’t affect the blood sugar at all and therefore has a GI of 0. Stevia is up to 10-15 times sweeter than sugar and comes in many forms including liquid and powder.

Stevia is not particularly good for baking but can sweeten:

  • Sauces
  • Puddings
  • Smoothies
  • Hot cereals
  • Fruit desserts
  • Hot beverages
  • Cold beverages

In a research study published this year in the Journal of Diabetes and its Complications, stevia, which comes from the stevia rebaudiana plant, was found to provide therapeutic properties in terms of “alleviating liver and kidney damage” in research animals induced with diabetes.

Other choices for satisfying that sweet tooth involve sweeteners made from whole grains and which fall at the lower end (55 or less) of the glycemic index (GI), a tool used to explain the effect a food which contains carbohydrates has on blood sugar levels. Due to the remaining complex carbohydrates left in these whole grain sweeteners they have a lower GI, leading to a smaller rise in blood sugar than regular sugar does.

Whole Grain Sweetener

Barley malt syrup is derived from whole grains and in addition to preserving some of the grain’s complex carbohydrates; some of the barley’s original nutrients and fiber are preserved too. Barley malt syrup is minimally processed and can be used just like white and brown sugar.

The syrup is dark brown in color, of a thick consistency, and sticky. It has a taste similar to molasses but provides only about half of the sweetness as pure table sugar. Fairly low in calories (50 calories per 1 T), barley malt syrup is easily digestible and has a GI of 42.

Barley malt syrup provides a lot of versatility in its uses and sweetens:

  • Cereal
  • Pancakes
  • Barbeque
  • Spice cakes
  • Dark breads
  • Baked beans
  • Winter squash
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sweet and sour sauces

When using barley malt syrup in place of white or brown sugar, decrease any liquids by approximately ¼ cup and use an extra ⅓ cup of barley malt syrup for every cup of sugar called for in the recipe.

If you want your baked goods to be a little lighter it is a good idea to add a ¼ teaspoon of baking soda for every 8 ounces of barley malt you use.

What You Must Know

While the GI is a good guide it is not always indicative of how a food may affect an individual diabetic’s blood sugar levels. Determine a sweeteners GI and use it sparingly until you see how it affects you and your health.

The bottom line: any sweetener must be used in moderation, as there is debate within the medical community over which ones are actually safe for diabetics.

A Hollywood Legend and Safer Sugar Substitutes

There is no one in the history of Hollywood who fought harder against the use of sugar and its effects on one’s health then movie legend Gloria Swanson. Ms. Swanson’s heyday was in the 1920s but her crusade against sugar lives on in William Duffy’s (her sixth husband), bestseller Sugar Blues. The advice of the book? Don’t eat sugar. Period!

Opponents of synthetic sugars, Swanson and Duffy were proponents of using real foods (fruits) as sweeteners. They were ahead of their time and while not geared towards diabetics specifically they had the right idea.

Fruit comes with fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants, all essential for good health and successful management of a diabetic lifestyle.

Many fruits can be used to sweeten other foods. Some of these include:

  • Bananas – slightly under ripe to ripe have the lowest GI.
  • Applesauce – unsweetened variety has a low to medium GI.
  • Dates – are actually on the lower end of the GI. There are a variety of dates available and most of them have a GI of less than 55 (some with a significantly lower GI).

How to Use Fruit as a Sugar Substitute


Bananas are a tasty substitute for sugar and easy to use too. Simply replace one cup of sugar with one cup of bananas. Here’s how you do it:

Add mashed banana (1 cup) to your blender along with just a few tablespoons of water. Puree until smooth. If you’re looking for a little more sweetness freeze and then thaw your bananas before using.  Or use them frozen in your smoothie.

Dates (unpitted) can also be used as a one to one replacement for sugar. Add 1 cup of dates to your blender with ½ to 1 cup of hot water and puree until the consistency is similar to a thick paste. Hint: soaking dates in water for up to 30 minutes before using increases their usability. Heat the water used to soak your dates and use in your blender to puree.

Date sugar

Date sugar is the result of grinding down and dehydrating dates and can be used cup for cup just like sugar. The GI for date sugar is not available and should be used modestly until you determine how it affects your blood sugar. This type of sugar is from a whole food and contains only 11 calories per teaspoon!


Applesauce is another great real food substitution for sugar. Replace sugar with equal amounts of applesauce being sure to reduce liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup for every cup of applesauce used.

These foods and sweeteners can usually be found at the grocery store you frequent or if not, are available at your local health food store.

Breaking the Habit

Breaking the sugar habit is the best option when you have diabetes. Taking a break from sugar for 1-3 weeks can really reset your taste buds and give you a new appreciation for natural ways to sweeten your foods. You will also be cutting calories and adding significant sources of nutrient-dense foods at the same time.









Barnard, Neal D., Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes without Drugs. New York, NY: Rodale, 2007. Print.

Pirello, Christina. Cooking the Whole Foods Way: Your Complete, Everyday Guide to Healthy, Delicious Eating with 500 Recipes, Menus, Techniques, Meal Planning, Buying Tips, Wit & Wisdom. New York: HP, 1997. Print.




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