The topic of sweeteners is one that people tend to have strong opinions about, but like with gluten, these opinions are often based more on marketing than on fact. But because sweeteners are in everything and have an enormous impact on people’s health, we decided to write this article to clarify what’s good and bad about common sweeteners, including “healthful” ones: white sugar, maple syrup, honey, stevia, agave, and dates.
Here’s a bit of bad news: sweeteners commonly viewed as healthful are processed by the body in the same way as regular table sugar- and can cause the same health problems. To see why, let’s consider the composition of sugar.
The three common sugars in sweeteners are fructose, glucose, and sucrose. On their own, all three of these basic sugars are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. This fast absorption can lead to a host of problems from diabetes to heart disease. However, with the addition of fiber and compounds called polyphenols, the metabolism of sugar is transformed. Fiber dramatically slows the absorption of sugar by the blood and helps to bind and eliminate excess fat from the digestive tract; polyphenols buffer the effects of sugar in the blood. Whole fruit comes packaged with this necessary fiber and polyphenol content- therefore, using whole fruits as sweeteners is best. Now, let’s look a little more closely at each of the sweeteners listed above.
White Sugar: Though you might be 100% off of this, it’s good to include for comparison. You might know white sugar as being 8 times as addictive as cocaine, and terrible for overall health. White sugar is, in fact, 100% sucrose.
Maple Syrup: People are often told that pure maple syrup is good for the body due to its high mineral content. Though it may be higher in minerals than pure sugar, it is rapidly converted into fat in the body and linked to the same diseases. Maple syrup is 1% fructose, 3% glucose, and 96% sucrose- not very different than white sugar! So, use this sweetener sparingly.
Honey: People commonly view honey as an exception to their rules around sugar. However, from a sugar metabolism perspective, it is not much different than other concentrated sweeteners. Honey is about 50% fructose, 45% glucose, 1% sucrose, and 4% other sugars. While it does possess immune-boosting compounds, honey should also be used sparingly.
Stevia: With a mild licorice-like flavor, stevia is a calorie-free extract from the leaves of the stevia plant that is made from steviol glycosides. It is measured to be 200 to 400 times sweeter than regular table sugar, so only needs to be used very sparingly. However, its flavor can be off-putting to some, and highly refined stevia has been linked to adverse health effects, including kidney damage (since it’s a diuretic) and gastrointestinal damage. These effects are minimized by choosing a high-quality, non-alcohol-based extract, like what you can find at in our store.
Coconut Sugar: Of concentrated sweeteners, coconut sugar has the highest amount of fiber in the form on inulin, but this is only a marginal improvement. Coconut sugar is 70-80% sucrose and 3-9% glucose. It contains minerals and some polyphenols, which help to buffer the effects of sugar on the body. This makes it preferable to honey, maple syrup, agave, and regular sugar, but it should still be used in moderation.
Agave: In the late 2000s, agave nectar was touted as a health food, but upon closer inspection, is only marginally better than high-fructose corn syrup. Agave is 82% fructose and 18% glucose. Raw agave nectar has a minimal enzyme and mineral content, which is marginally beneficial. Like other concentrated sweeteners, use agave nectar sparingly.
Dates: Because dates are whole fruits, they are packed with fiber and polyphenols to slow the absorption and help to metabolize sugars. Though they are 80% sugar by weight, their fiber content completely neutralizes negative effects of this sugar consumption. There have been no studies documenting negative side effects of whole dates; in fact, they have been shown to be beneficial to lowering fat levels in the blood. When using dates in baking, they can be soaked in water and then blended to form a paste.
Here’s the takeaway: nature knows what it’s doing, and whole fruits (like dates) are always better for you than refined sweeteners of any kind. If you must use a concentrated sweetener, choose coconut nectar. Stevia may be a good option for some people, provided it is from a reputable source and the does not create any adverse reactions.
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