Are Natural Sweeteners Healthier Than Sugar?

by Sumdima Rai

Sugar, it's delicious, it makes us happy, and it's associated with feel-good memories: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and that much needed 3pm sweet treat break at work. Unfortunately it's not so great for us.  Several research papers have linked the intake of sugar to growing incidences of diseases like Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases.

This has led people to seek out healthier sugars or natural sweeteners, hoping to indulge their sweet tooth, without the harmful health consequences. So, can you enjoy your cake and eat it too? We took a look at some of the most popular natural sweeteners, and some you may not have heard of, and broke down their health benefits.

Here's what we found out...

1. Agave Nectar

We bet you thought agave nectar was a natural product derived from the leaves or sap of the agave plant—but it is not. It is made from the agave root which is converted into nectar through a chemical process. This is bad news because, agave root is high in inulin, which contributes to insulin resistance and poses a danger to your cardiovascular system, thus increasing your risk for metabolic syndrome and heart disease.

The Verdict: If you reach for agave nectar instead of white sugar, you're not really doing your body a favor. 

2. Maple Syrup

Although it contains beneficial nutrients like zinc and magnesium, the amount to consume to reap its health benefits is very high. And since maple syrup is high in sugar, consuming it in high doses defeats the purpose altogether. Always opt for real, natural maple syrup and never the artificial high-fructose corn syrup immitations. 

The Verdict: Save natural maple syrup as a very special treat for your pancakes. You can purchase high-quality natural maple syrup brands cheaply at budget grocery stores like Food For Less.

3. Yacon Syrup

It offers fructooligosaccharides (food for health-promoting bacteria in your colon to feast on), but so do garlic, artichokes, and onions. Besides, dried yacon slices are much more beneficial for your health which provides fructooligosaccharides along with phytonutrients, fiber, and vitamins that are not available in the form of syrup.

The Verdict: Not healthier than sugar. It is a caloric sweetener offering poor nutrition.

4. Raw Sugar

Like refined sugar, raw sugar is extracted from the sugarcane. The primary difference between the two is that refined sugar requires several times of boiling to clean the molasses, while raw sugar is boiled only once. Katherine Zeratsky, a registered dietician with Mayo clinic said that the residual molasses lend raw sugar its texture and flavor other than just sweetness, but it doesn’t provide any significant nutrition. And that refined and raw sugar is “calorifically identical.” In terms of nutrition, although raw sugar contains potassium, calcium and iron, it contains them in trace amounts.

The Verdict: You'll certainly make yourself feel better by using the raw sugar in your coffee, but if your goal is to lose weight, consider eating foods that don't require sugar at all.  

5. Coconut Sugar

Is coconut sugar the miracal sweetener we've been waiting for? Coconut sugar contains impressive amounts of nutrients like zinc and iron as well as antioxidants. However, research reveals that 78 percent of coconut sugar is essentially sucrose - or white table sugar. 

The Verdict: Consider substituting white sugar with coconut sugar in your baked goods recipes, and don't use it regularly.

Rather than depend on these natural sweeteners to replace all the sugar you may currently be eating, the best option is to curb your overall intake of sweeteners in general, it's all about balance. Alice Gibson, a dietician with The Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders says: “Sugar is not evil if consumed in moderate amounts. If people do consume a lot, they need to look at where it’s coming from fruit or soft drinks…it’s looking at your diet as a whole.” 

Avoiding processed and packaged foods with added sugars will go a long way in decreasing your overall sugar intake. Drink water and natural juice instead of soda and other sugary drinks. And enjoy naturally-sweetened foods that are packed with nutrients like fruits such as mango, to satiate your sweet cravings. 

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