More people are shying away from products that contain synthetic ingredients including artificial sweeteners. Instead, they’re reaching for natural sweeteners like rice syrup, agave syrup, honey, and the newest non-calorie sweetener to enter the market Stevia – but are so-called natural sweeteners really better for you?
Agave Syrup: High Fructose Corn Syrup in Disguise?
One “natural” sweetener that’s growing in popularity is agave syrup. You can purchase this thick syrupy sweetener in bottles at health food and natural food stores. Unfortunately, agave syrup may not be so natural after all. Some brands of agave syrup contain are as much as 80% fructose, which is more than the amount in high fructose corn syrup, the controversial sweetener made from corn that’s in many processed foods.
Some research suggests that high fructose corn syrup increases the risk of health problems like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver, and agave syrup that’s high in fructose may have similar health risks. Plus, agave syrup is a refined product, not like the natural fructose in fruit. Fruit also contains fructose, but the effects of the fructose in fruits like apples and pears are moderated by the natural fiber in the fruit. Fruits also contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that give them nutritional value. You can’t say the same for high fructose corn syrup. You won’t save calories using agave syrup either. This sweet sugar alternative has roughly 60 calories per tablespoon compared to sugar’s 40 calories per tablespoon. The only benefit is it’s sweeter, and you need less of it.
What about Other Natural Sweeteners?
Natural sweeteners like rice syrup, maple syrup, and honey are less refined than sugar, although the honey you find in bottles at the supermarket has been heat-treated. This destroys much of its health benefits. These sweeteners may have trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, but they’re not calorie-free, and they still affect blood sugar levels similarly to sugar. Some types of honey like red clover honey and orange blossom honey have a lower glycemic index than other types of honey. This makes them a better option if you don’t want to give up honey. Recently, warnings were issued about brown rice syrup after it was found to be a hidden source of arsenic.
Stevia is a sweetener that’s calorie-free. Although it’s marketed as a natural sweetener, some forms of Stevia available at supermarkets and health food stores are processed and contain fillers. In its natural state, the Stevia leaf has a slightly bitter aftertaste. That’s why manufacturers go to great lengths to disguise the bitterness with processing, fillers and sometimes by adding sugar alcohol like erythritol. Still, if you’re trying to limit calories, Stevia is probably a safer alternative than artificial sweeteners, especially if you buy a less processed form like green leaf Stevia.
What’s the Best Option?
If possible, lighten up on all sweeteners. Otherwise, use fruit. When you enjoy a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, skip the agave syrup or honey, and add pureed berries to add a hint of sweetness. If that’s not enough, use green leaf Stevia to add sweetness without calories. Gradually taper back the amount of sweetener you add to foods. Over time your taste buds will adjust to less sweet tasting food, and you won’t need as much sweetener.
The Bottom Line?
Don’t assume because they sell a sweetener at a health food store that it’s good for you. Read the labels. You’ll find that some “healthy sweeteners” are processed and are no lower in calories than sugar.
WebMD “The Truth about Agave”
Dartmouth Now “Organic Food Sweetener May Be a Hidden Source of Dietary Arsenic”