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The Pros & Cons of Natural Sweeteners

Six Alternatives to Refined Sugar

Refined sugar is the big evil. It is nothing more than empty calories; it spikes blood sugar, increases inflammation, increases cravings and can lead to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The answer – sweeteners other than sugar.

Most people turn to artificial sweeteners: Saccharin, Cyclamates, Acesulfame potassium, Aspartame, and Sucralose. These words often strike a negative chord with people who embrace the `natural` and `healthy` lifestyle. Luckily there are a host of natural alternatives. Are they all created equal? More importantly, are they better than their artificial competitors?

First we’ll look at the “other sugars”. Not refined like table sugar, but sugar none the less so they still have calories but are significantly healthier than refined sugar.

Agave: Agave is a sweetener extracted from the same cactus plant that we use to make tequila. It is over 90% fructose (a naturally occurring sugar) which means it has a lower glycemic index than sugar (better for blood sugar levels) but using too much can lead to excess production of unhealthy cholesterol.

Agave syrup (the liquid sweetener) looks similar to maple syrup but is lighter in colour. The taste is light and soft. Dark agave nectar is closer in taste to caramel. Calorie wise, agave is higher than table sugar. Agave has 60 calories in each tablespoon versus 40 for sugar. The calorie numbers are a little misleading as agave is 1 ½ times sweeter than sugar so (in theory at least) you can use less and consume the same number of calories. Nutritionally, agave offers more than just sweetening. It has calcium, potassium, and magnesium as well.

Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar (also called coconut palm sugar or coconut crystals) is a sweetener made from the coconut tree buds (not the fruit).  Sap from the buds is boiled over medium heat to evaporate the majority of its water content.  What remains is coconut sugar. Coconut sugar is almost 80% sucrose, with the rest of its sweetening content coming from some glucose and fructose. Coconut sugar and table sugar have the identical calorie count (16 calories per teaspoon). The big advantage most touted by nutritionists is that coconut sugar has a significantly lower glycemic index than sugar.

Coconut sugar ranges in colour from light brown to dark brown similar to brown sugar. And it tastes similar to brown sugar with little to no aftertaste. Coconut sugar has the same sweetening value as table sugar so it can be a direct 1:1 substitute anywhere you would use sugar. Nutritionally coconut sugar is high in vitamin B8 and potassium.

Honey: Honey is probably the best known natural sugar substitute. Its use dates back over 5000 years. Honey is a thick sweet liquid made by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. The taste of honey varies by geographic location as well as the specific flowers the honeybees use. Honey contains the sugar fructose (approximately 35%) and glucose (approximately 30%). It also contains small amounts of maltose and sucrose. Honey has a glycemic index lower than table sugar but higher than agave. Calorically, it is the same as agave. Honey ranges from light gold to dark amber in colour, with the “honey taste” increasing in prominence the darker it gets. Nutritionally honey contains vitamins B2, B6, iron, and manganese.

Maple: Maple sweeteners come in two varieties, liquid syrup and dried syrup (also known as maple sugar and maple crystals). Syrup is simply boiled maple tree sap. Dried syrup is made by evaporation of water from the syrup. Maple syrup comes in numerous grades and has a distinct taste (maple) that deepens with colour. Hip Hip, the best maple syrup on the planet comes from .... Canada, namely Quebec!

Maple syrup is at minimum 65% sucrose, 4-7% glucose and 1-7% fructose. Maple syrup has a glycemic index lower than table sugar and just slightly higher than honey. Calorically maple syrup lies in between agave and table sugar coming in at 52 calories per tablespoon. Nutritionally, maple syrup is a rich source of antioxidants and contains manganese, zinc, calcium and iron.

Low calorie sweeteners

Stevia: Since its approval by Health Canada and the FDA for use in foods a couple of years ago, it has become the darling of low calorie foods. The reason is that it is sweet (pure extract is over 300 times sweeter than sugar) has no calories and is natural (coming from the Stevia plant). The sweet components of stevia are not sugars, they are compounds called stevioside and rebaudioside that our tongues interpret as sweet.

In the 1980’s and 90’s stevia products all had a licorice like aftertaste that was off-putting to some. Advances in the past 10-15 years have enabled the elimination of these flavour tones so that the good products are just sweet. There are literally thousands of different companies selling and using Stevia, all with varying degrees of quality and purity. If you find you don’t like one brand, don’t give up, try another.

Stevia has no calories and a glycemic index of zero so it is great for diabetics. The concentrate is difficult to use in cooking and baking, so I recommend looking for a “One to One” product that can be a direct sugar substitute. Make sure that the replacement contains only 2 ingredients; stevia and inulin (a healthy low glycemic fibre).

Monk fruit: A relative newcomer to our shores is monk fruit (also known as lo han guo). It is extracted from a melon native to Southeast Asia. Its appeal is that it is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar, has no calories and no glycemic index (like stevia). The sweet components are compounds called morosides. Monk fruit is very similar in properties to stevia, only a little less sweet and its taste profile is a little more fruit-like.

Please remember that when it comes to sugar, virtually all forms will take a toll on your health in the long run. Switching from refined white sugar to a natural sweetener alternative will be better for your health but it would be wise for everyone to limit their daily consumption of sugar to decrease their risk for diabetes, heart disease, and to help them lose weight or prevent weight gain.