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Are Natural Sweeteners Actually Healthier Than Sugar?

Sweeteners in Spoons

It’s increasingly evident that 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 heart disease.

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According to a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 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 American Heart Association (AHA), World Health Organization (WHO), and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommend when it comes to added sugars:

  • The AHA recommends no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men and 25 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 of added sugar that would cap recommended intake at 50 grams (12 teaspoons) per day.

When the topic of sugar comes up, people often inquire about the existence of “healthier” sugars. This is 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.

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These sweeteners are often referred to 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.

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Agave’s darling status was short-lived, however, when consumers became aware of its high fructose content. It’s 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 isn’t 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 doesn’t 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. Coconut nectar contains minerals and inulin, a prebiotic that feeds your gut bacteria.

Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. While no sweetener can be called healthy, coconut nectar beats regular sugar if you need to sweeten a meal.

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Maple syrup

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

Consider, for example, that 1 tablespoon of maple syrup provides 4 milligrams of magnesium and 42 milligrams 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’s absolutely no reason to rely on sweeteners for minerals, considering how many whole food sources offer them in much healthier packages.

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Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. Thanks to its small amount of minerals and lower processing, maple syrup is a better choice than table sugar. It’s still a caloric sweetener though that can raise blood sugar.

Honey

Much like many food marketing campaigns, all sorts of health claims are made about honey, some supported by evidence, some not: It boosts the immune system, aids in weight loss, and reduces the risk of hypertension. Sometimes, its calcium and vitamin C are touted, too. However, with just 1 milligram of calcium and 0.1 milligram of vitamin C per tablespoon, it’s far from a sweet deal.

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

Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. Honey is antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal, and it can offer some seasonal allergy and other health benefits. However, it’s still a caloric sweetener that can raise blood sugar.

Yacon syrup

Sometimes referred to as a “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 your 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. These provide fructooligosaccharides along with phytonutrients, vitamins, and fiber that are missing from the syrup.

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Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. Yacon syrup provides prebiotics while helping you sweeten your foods, but it can still raise blood sugar.

Erythritol

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

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Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. Erythritol can help you sweeten your foods with minimal side effects and contains less than half the calories of regular sugar.

Stevia

Pure stevia — which looks like catnip, not sugar — doesn’t contain any calories. It’s available in powdered, crystallized, and liquid forms and has a slightly bitter aftertaste, which can be an acquired taste for many. Research thus far supports stevia as one of the best sugar substitutes available.

You can purchase a stevia plant from local gardening centers and use the fresh leaves, whole or ground, to sweeten foods.

Is it healthier than sugar? Yes. Stevia can help you sweeten your foods with minimal side effects and contains zero calories. If you use the whole leaves, you’ll also receive a little fiber and antioxidants.

The takeaway

Rather than worry about which sweeteners are healthier than sugar, your best approach would be to reduce intake of all added sweeteners. 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 an occasional treat.

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