There are several varieties of sweeteners on the market. While arguably most sweeteners are not extremely healthy for us or good for our teeth, some of them are healthier than others. In fact, some sweeteners even provide vitamins and nutrients. Nonetheless, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the healthiest (though nearly impossible) option would be to avoid all sweeteners and added sugars.
The media has been giving sugar a lot of attention recently, even referring to it as toxic when consumed at the recommended levels (that’s right, at the recommended levels). Studies also have found sugar to be more addictive than cocaine. Sugar can contribute to several health problems, including weight gain as well as negatively affecting cholesterol and raising insulin levels. Processed sugar is said to essentially fuel cancer cells. This makes it important to know how various sweeteners compare.
Difference between Sucrose, Glucose, and Fructose
Before comparing various sweeteners, it is helpful to understand the difference between the different types of sugar.
Sucrose is made of a molecule each of glucose and fructose, bonded together. Our bodies quickly split sucrose into glucose and fructose.
Glucose is made of one sugar molecule and is converted into energy by every cell of our bodies. Our bodies regulate glucose with the secretion of insulin from the pancreas, which ultimately results in the suppression of hunger.
Like glucose, fructose is made of one sugar molecule. However, unlike glucose, liver cells are the only cells able to convert fructose into energy. As a result, overconsumption of fructose puts a lot of stress on the liver. Also unlike glucose, fructose consumption does not result in the suppression of hunger. Rather, the opposite occurs due to an increase of a hormone called grehlin, which causes us to feel hungry. Therefore, consuming high levels of fructose can result in overeating, and ultimately weight gain. In addition, excessive consumption of fructose can cause insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes and obesity. It is clear why high fructose corn syrup has such a bad reputation. It is important to point out that many fruits contain fructose. So why is fruit still a wiser choice than cookies? When the effects of fructose on the body are studied, an excessive amount of fructose is used. On the other hand, the amount of fructose found in fruit is not enough to be toxic.
Collecting maple syrup for consumption originated in North America. Quebec produces approximately 75% of the world’s maple syrup used today. Made from the sap of maple trees, maple syrup contains antioxidants, with 33% of the daily value of manganese in one tablespoon. Manganese has several important functions, such as forming bones and teeth, regulating high blood pressure, and controlling blood glucose levels. Maple syrup also contains 6% of the daily value of zinc in one tablespoon, making it good for your immune system.
There are 52 calories, 13 grams of carbs, and 12 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of maple syrup. Maple syrup contains approximately 56% sucrose, 2% glucose, and 1% fructose.
As its name suggests, date sugar is made from dry dates. Date sugar sustains very little processing. In fact, the only ingredient you need to make your own date sugar is dates!
There are 33 calories, 9 grams of carbs, and 9 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of date sugar. Because dates are a fruit, it is no surprise that they contain fructose.
Native to Paraguay, stevia has long been extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana plant and used as a sweetener. Due to stevia’s potency, a very small amount will do the trick. In fact, stevia can be up to 300 times sweeter than sugar.
Stevia is popular among dieters, given that it is calorie free. Similarly, diabetics may appreciate that stevia has a low glycemic index rating. Stevia is not sugar and is considered by many to be the healthiest sweetener. Critics have raised issues thought to be caused by stevia such as reproductive problems, cancer causing compounds, and compromised metabolism. In addition, stevia has a bitter aftertaste.
Stevia is available as dried leaves, powdered extracts, and liquid concentrates. The color of powdered stevia is indicative of whether it has been processed. Dull green powder has not been processed, whereas white powder has been.
Stevia does not contain any calories, carbs, or sugars. Similarly, stevia does not contain fructose or glucose.
Using nectar from flowers, bees create honey. The sweetness of honey ranges from 25% to 50% sweeter than that of sugar. When shopping for honey, look for darker colors in the raw form. Raw honey is said to have several health benefits, such as being anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal. Honey is raw when it has not been pasteurized or heated above 115 degrees F (46 degrees C). Darker honey provides a higher level of vitamins and minerals than lighter varieties. Due to the involvement of bees, honey is not an option for vegans.
There are 60 calories, 17 grams of carbs, and 16 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of honey. Honey contains approximately 41% fructose, 36% glucose, and 1% sucrose.
For comparison purposes, I have included granulated sugar, which is made from sugar cane and sugar beets. Having originated in India, today the majority of granulated sugar sold in the United States is made in California and Hawaii. Worldwide, the United States ranks third for production of beet sugar. Sugar is filtered through charcoal. The charcoal may be bone char or come from a vegetable or mineral source. Vegans and some vegetarians must take care to select brands that do not use bone char.
There are 48 calories, 13 grams of carbs, and 13 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of granulated sugar. Granulated sugar contains 100% sucrose.
The agave plant is found primarily in Mexico and South Africa. Agave is approximately 1.5 times sweeter than sugar. Much controversy lies behind agave nectar. Advocates tout its low glycemic index while countless critics point to its high fructose content. Agave is processed and available in liquid form.
There are 60 calories, 16 grams of carbs, and 15 grams of sugar in one tablespoon of agave nectar. Agave nectar contains fructose (between approximately 55% and 90%, depending on variety) and glucose.
Stevia and agave nectar are both popular sweetener choices. However, date sugar and maple syrup both deserve a second look, considering they contain important nutrients.
Ideally we would satiate our cravings for sweets with fruit rather than cookies and sugar-loaded beverages. Nonetheless, there are many sweeteners to choose from and it is smart to know about the healthiest choices.