The truth about alternative sweeteners from agave syrup to stevia

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The truth about alternative sweeteners from agave syrup to stevia

Kitchen

The truth about alternative sweeteners from agave syrup to stevia

We all know sugar is no good for the human body, but as a collective species, we just can’t get enough of it. Sugar consumption contributes to diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity, just to name a few of the ills associated with the stuff. Heck, it may even be considered a toxin. Health concerns regarding sugar combined with our straight up addiction for it has led to a rise in alternative sweeteners.

But how do they compare to the bleached out, crystalline classic? Is there any truth that some sugar alternatives are healthier for you than others? Here’s what you need to know about some of the preeminent sweeteners of our age.

White sugar

The iconic classic is quite literally what all other sweeteners are compared to. And it’s absolutely everywhere, even within foods you would hardly suspect. Ketchup? Granola? Bread? All full of white sugar. But what is it? Generally, sugar is derived from either the sugar cane or sugar beet plant. Table sugar, more often called white sugar, is made up of equal parts of the simpler sugar molecules fructose (more on that later) and glucose. White sugar, for all of its ubiquitousness, doesn’t possess much in the way of redeeming qualities. It is nutritionally devoid, and draws its color from a food bleaching process that sometimes involves activated carbon or an ion-exchange resin. Finally, you’re likely consuming too much of it.

Brown sugar

Surprise, surprise! Brown sugar isn’t necessarily a healthier, less processed alternative, like its color might suggest. On the contrary, most brown sugar is simply refined white sugar that has been coated after the fact in a thin sheen of molasses to imbue the granules with color and flavor, though some manufacturers do indeed produce brown sugars that simply retain their natural molasses component.

Turbinado sugar

More commonly known by the brand name of a top manufacturer, Sugar in the Raw, turbinado sugar has risen to prominence in cafes, diners and atop kitchen counters over the past decade thanks to its perception as a healthier alternative to white sugar – which is true, but not anywhere near to the extent that consumers believe it to be.

Because it is made from the so-called first pressing of sugar cane, and not subjected to the bleaching process that makes refined sugar white, turbinado does indeed maintain its possession of a few nutrients like iron and calcium. But in a teaspoon serving, you’re getting under a milligram of nutrients – hardly enough to make a dent in your daily intake. Finally, many people might be surprised to learn that turbinado is calorically identical to white sugar.

Honey

One of the natural world’s simple wonders, honey is the regurgitated flower nectar of a colony of bees – a communal floral vomit pit. But with that said, honey is one of the more redeeming sweeteners available. Though the nutrient content is small, honey contains vitamin C and magnesium, as well as antioxidants and molecules that aid the human body in local allergen resistance. But a teaspoon of honey actually contains 21 calories compared to white sugar’s 16. And what’s more, honey consumption can lead to gas and abdominal cramping.

Agave syrup

One of the more recent additions to the sweetener hivemind, agave is a form of sugar derived from the same plant that tequila is made from. It looks like a thin sort of honey, but tastes quite sweeter. Agave is a confusing one when it comes to its perceived wellness value. On the one hand, agave is composed of 84% fructose (white sugar is a 50/50 fructose/sucrose split). This means agave has a lower glycemic index, and can be a useful food in a diabetic’s tool belt. But here’s the rub: fructose can only be digested in the liver, and sparingly at that. Any unprocessed fructose that doesn’t make it through the liver is converted within the body to fat. And like honey, agave has 5 more calories than white sugar per teaspoon.

Maple syrup

What’s not to love about the boiled sap of the maple tree? Well, besides the literal description there. maple syrup is unique among sweeteners for its delicate, unmistakable taste. Where other sweeteners taste largely like iterations of one another, maple possesses a certain elegant something extra. And as far as sugars go, maple is relatively rich in nutrients. Zinc, calcium, riboflavin, and magnesium are all there in the amber liquid, along with some scattershot antioxidants. But much like turbinado, there’s no way you could consume enough maple syrup in a day to ever get a meaningful amount of those nutrients.

Stevia

Along with agave, stevia has risen to cafe milk station prominence in recent years thanks to its perceived wellness halo. And like agave, the truth about stevia’s health benefits are largely misunderstood and somewhat questionable. Stevia contains zero calories, and naturally at that. The sweetener made from the extracted leaves of the stevia plant is 300 times sweeter than white sugar, even as it has zero impact on your body’s blood-sugar levels. But consumer-ready stevia often contains sugar alcohols, a type of non-digestible carbohydrate that can wreak havoc upon your digestive system, causing cramping, bloating and gas as it moves through your body.

Coconut sugar

Along with turbinado and maple, coconut sugar rounds out the trifecta of sweeteners with minimal nutrients that have been effectively marketed to appear dramatically more bountiful. Granulated crystals formed by harvesting the sap of the coconut tree contain potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium, but in such tiny amounts that you would have to consume a ¼ of a cup of sugar to experience any sort of impact. Coconut sugar contains less fructose than most of the options on this list, making it easier on your liver. But on the flip side, that means that it is higher in blood sugar-spiking sucrose.

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