Sweeteners: A Guide

Most of us consume sweeteners every day. Whether that’s in our morning coffee, as a dessert or as ingredients in food products we love. New natural sweeteners, (meaning they come from plant sources versus being synthetically produced) are cropping up on supermarket shelves, but many of us don’t know how to incorporate them or how they affect our health. It’s easy to believe that something “natural” is healthy, but when it comes to sweeteners, too much of even a natural thing can be unhealthy.

Yacon Syrup: Yacon syrup is a liquid sweetener that’s extracted from the South American tuber known as yacon, which tastes something like an apple. A good portion of the carbohydrate in yacon syrup is in the form of inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), which are prebiotics, so they become “food” for probiotics, essentially feeding good bacteria in the gut.

Honey: If you’re not a fan of sweeteners, try going with honey and keeping your “dose” to a minimum as a natural alternative. Honey is much more than a natural sweetener, it’s an all-purpose food that’s also medicinal, with antimicrobial properties. One tablespoon of honey provides 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar.

Agave: Agave comes from the same plant that is used to make tequila. It’s sweeter than sugar and has a lower glycemic index, which means that you can use less of it and the impact on your blood sugar will be more moderate. While it has many benefits, agave also has a downside. About 82 percent of the sugar in agave syrup is in the form of fructose — the same monosaccharide that receives so much negative attention for its presence in the industrial sweetener high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Some experts are concerned that fructose consumption may lead to weight gain or increased risk for heart disease.

Stevia: Stevia is something of a hybrid of natural and artificial sweeteners. It’s natural because it comes from a plant (the yerba dulce shrub native to South America), and it resembles artificial sweeteners in that it is 100 times sweeter than sugar and is entirely “non-nutritive” (meaning it contains no calories, vitamins or nutrients of any kind). Stevia is widely considered a safe, calorie-free alternative to sugar. This is in contrast to other zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, which have been the subject of debate for decades over their potential to cause cancer and other health consequences in laboratory animals. One drawback to stevia is its taste — many people find it extremely bitter.

Coconut Sugar: Coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar is a relatively new addition to supermarket shelves. Similar to maple syrup or sugar production, coconut sugar is made from the evaporated sap of a coconut tree. Coconut sugar has a much lower glycemic index compared with table sugar — 35 versus 68, respectively — which means it causes a less dramatic rise in blood glucose and insulin levels. Manufacturers of coconut sugar recommend using it in a one-to-one ratio as a replacement for table sugar (usually derived from sugarcane) and attest that the harvesting of coconut sugar is much more sustainable than that of cane sugar.

Raw Sugar: Raw sugar is different from refined or white sugar in that its granules are large, coarse and slightly brown in colour, but that’s about where the differences end. Although many consumers believe that raw sugar is “healthier” than refined sugar, the two products are nearly identical. They are both just granules of sucrose made by evaporating the juice of a sugarcane or sugar beet. Refined sugar is simply raw sugar that’s been washed and clarified to remove the residual brown-colored molasses, resulting in the pure-white substance that most of know as table sugar. Although proponents claim that raw sugar contains more minerals than refined sugar, this small positive contribution to the nutritional profile of raw sugar pales in comparison to the negative effects of sugar consumption on body weight, dental health and risk of chronic disease.

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