Sweeteners in Spoons

It is becoming increasingly evident that, as is the case with highly processed foods such as red meat, Americans’ current intake of added sugars — that is, sugar added to foods during processing and preparation — is cause for concern. An ever-growing body of research has linked higher amounts of added sugar to increased risks of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult man in the United States takes in about 335 calories from added sugars every day: That’s about 84 grams, or 21 teaspoons. Women take in 239 calories — about 60 grams, or 15 teaspoons.

These figures far exceed what organizations like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), World Health Organization (WHO), and American Heart Association (AHA) recommend when it comes to added sugars.

To recap:

  • The AHA recommends no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men, and 24 grams (6 teaspoons) for women per day.
  • The WHO recommends capping sugar intake at 10 percent of calories for adults. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that equates to 50 grams (12 teaspoons) per day.
  • The FDA is considering a Daily Value (DV) of added sugar that would cap recommended intake at 50 grams (12 teaspoons) per day.

Inevitably, when the topic of sugar comes up, people inquire about the existence of “healthier” sugars, partly out of hope that they can still indulge without the harmful health consequences, and partly because some companies deceptively market their particular sweetener as a better choice.

These sweeteners are often referenced as “healthy alternatives” to sugar. Which ones, if any, make the cut? Read on and find out.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar became the healthy “natural” sweetener du jour a few years ago, largely due to its low glycemic index. The lower a food’s glycemic index, the slower it raises blood sugar. However, basing a food’s healthfulness on the glycemic index is misguided, seeing that ice cream ranks lower than watermelon.

Agave’s darling status was short-lived, however, when its high fructose content was uncovered. It is comprised of approximately 90 percent fructose, compared to table sugar’s 50 percent and high fructose corn syrup’s 55 percent. Also, the agave nectar that was considered a healthier alternative was the unprocessed variety, which is not what is available in stores in the United States.

The health effects of fructose compared to other sugars are still debatable, and can sometimes distract from the overall message that all sweeteners, regardless of fructose content, need to be minimized in the diet. After all, white table sugar’s fructose content is lower than agave’s, but that does not inherently mean white table sugar is a “healthier” sweetener.

Is it healthier than sugar? No. Like sugar, it delivers calories with no nutrition.

Coconut Nectar

Coconut nectar took agave nectar’s place as the new “healthy” sweetener, again due to a low glycemic index (and the coconut boom that started in the early 2010s). Coconut nectar’s minimal processing is also often touted as a plus, although it’s a moot point since sweeteners don’t have many nutrients to lose during processing.

Is it healthier than sugar? No. Like sugar, it delivers calories with no nutrition.

Maple Syrup

Maple syrup has enjoyed a health halo for many years, mainly due to the presence of B vitamins and some minerals, mainly zinc and magnesium. However, the amount of maple syrup one must eat to get substantial amounts of these nutrients is quite high.

Consider, for example, that 1 tablespoon of maple syrup provides 4 mg of magnesium and 42 mg of potassium. You would need to eat 58 teaspoons to match the magnesium in 1 cup of garbanzo beans, and 11 teaspoons to match the potassium in half an avocado. That’s a lot of syrup!

There is absolutely no reason to rely on sweeteners for minerals, considering how many whole food sources offer them in much healthier packages.

Is it healthier than sugar? No. It is a caloric sweetener with minimal nutrition.

Honey

Much like wheatgrass and apple cider vinegar, all sorts of unsubstantiated health claims are made about honey: It boosts the immune system, aids in weight loss, and reduces the risk of hypertension. Sometimes, its calcium and vitamin C content is touted, too. However, with just 1 mg of calcium (.001 percent of a day’s worth) and 0.1 mg of vitamin C (.00 percent of the DV) per tablespoon, it’s far from a sweet deal.

Honey contains as much total sugar and as many calories as white table sugar.

Is it healthier than sugar? No. It is a caloric sweetener with minimal nutrition.

Yacon Syrup

Sometimes referred to as a — groan — “superfood” or “metabolism booster”, yacon syrup is a thick, molasses-like sweetener made from the concentrated sugar of a South American fruit. The syrup offers fructooligosaccharides (prebiotics, or food for the health-promoting bacteria in our colon to feast on), but so do garlic, bananas, artichokes, and onions. Besides, you’ll get much more nutritional bang for your buck by eating dried yacon slices (available at many health food stores), which provide fructooligosaccharides along with phytonutrients, vitamins, and fiber that are missing from the syrup.

Is it healthier than sugar? No. It is a caloric sweetener with minimal nutrition.

Erythritol

This naturally occurring sugar alcohol obtained from corn is just as sweet as table sugar, but contains zero calories and does not cause any of the unpleasant gastrointestinal side effects that come with other sugar alcohols, like maltitol. It is available in powdered or crystallized form and can be substituted in a 1:1 ratio for baking.

Is it healthier than sugar? While erythritol does not deliver empty calories, there isn’t anything inherently healthful or nutritious about it either.

Stevia

Pure stevia — which looks like catnip, not sugar — does not contain any calories. It is available in powdered, crystallized, and liquid forms and has a slightly bitter aftertaste, which can be an acquired taste for many.

Is it healthier than sugar? While stevia does not deliver empty calories, there isn’t anything inherently “healthful” about it either.

The Takeaway

Rather than worry about “healthier sweeteners,” your best approach would be to reduce intake of all added sweeteners — period. Even erythritol and stevia are best consumed sparingly, mainly because whatever foods contain them are typically not nutrient-dense. So consider a stevia-sweetened cookie or an erythritol-sweetened ice cream to be a treat, not an excuse to be gluttonous!