The natural sweetener industry has become a very large market, growing steadily and projected to reach $22.8 billion By 2020. So why the craze? These sugars are present naturally in plants and foods, not man made or artificial in origin, leading consumers to think they are “healthier”. In reality sugar is sugar, and your body processes it in the same manner as any other sugar. However, this doesn’t mean that sugar is necessarily bad, natural sweeteners have their time and place, and some have less effect on blood sugar, while others even have nutrients such as calcium and magnesium.
Natural sugars have been used traditionally for centuries, such as honey, agave and maple syrup, however the processing of these sugars have changed which can affect their therapeutic properties and nutrients contained. Furthermore, tablespoon per tablespoon, their caloric density is also vastly different. Let’s discuss the the most popular natural sugars and what to look for when shopping to get more bang for your buck:
Historically Natural Sugars
Raw Honey – 1 Tbsp- 64 calories
An ancient superfood, once referred to as the nectar of the gods, honey used to be seen as medicine and a nutrient dense source of food. It comes from all over the world, which gives each batch a personal nutrient profile depending on where it’s sourced. Some are rich in minerals, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and phosphorus to name a few, while others are high in antioxidants (flavonoids and polyphenols), and some even have antimicrobial properties. However, not all honeys are of the same quality. Most of the honey you find at the store will be pasteurized, unless labeled “Raw”. Pasteurization can destroy nutrients and enzymes in the honey, which dismisses its nutritional value. Raw honey is untouched, unheated, unpasteurized and comes straight from the hive. Even the FDA has even stated that honey that have been ultra filtered is not really honey, and therefore any medicinal properties should not be expected. Another important point to note is that not all organic honey is raw, but raw versions can be organic.
Agave Nectar- 1 Tbsp- 63 calories
Originating from the Agave plant most well known in Mexico, it has been used for various medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. Like many other sweeteners, the agave that is sold in grocery stores today is more like agave syrup than authentic agave. When originally extracted, agave contained minerals and enzymes, however, when processed into a syrup and exposed to high heat methods of extraction, it can destroy all health promoting properties of the agave plant. It also contains high amounts of fructose, which has been linked to obesity related diseases.
Maple Syrup -1 Tbsp – 52 calories
Not to be confused with pancake syrup. Maple Syrup is made from the xylem sap of sugar maple, red maple, or black maple trees. Like honey, it has been manufactured to have other images, such as pancake syrup. These commercial syrups are nothing more than highly processed corn syrup with added coloring and flavoring. In a study analyzing 80 pure maple syrup samples, it was found that their mineral chemical composition was made of potassium in greatest concentration ranging from 1005 to 2990 mg 1?1, and magnesium and calcium ranged from 10 to 380 mg/l and 266 to 1702 mg 1?1. Not to say this is a health food, but if in dire need for those occasional pancakes, pure maple syrup is a better choice as a whole food option.
Moderate Caloric Natural Sugars
Blackstrap Molasses – 1 tablespoon – 47 calories
The byproduct that results when cane sugar is turned into table sugar. It is essentially the sugar’s sucrose that has been crystallized. It not only has the lowest sugar content of any sugar cane product, but unlike cane sugar, is packed full of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin B6, and selenium. Because of it’s lower calorie content, it has a moderate glycemic load of 55, making it a better choice than refined sugar, especially for those with diabetes, prediabetes and anyone looking for healthier alternatives.
Coconut Sugar -1 tablespoon – 45 calories
A relatively new sweetener introduced over the last decade, as every part of the coconut made it’s way into the American market. Coconut sugar contains
about half the amount of sugar compared to cane sugar, as well as also inulin, a prebiotic, which slows down the absorption of glucose. It is also an excellent source of minerals- magnesium, potassium, zinc and B vitamins. As a bonus, it’s an extremely sustainable product to make as palm trees are already present and waiting to be harvest. If you’re into the low glycemic benefit (35) but want something that resembles and tastes like real sugar, coconut sugar is a win win.
Yacon Syrup – 1 tablespoon – 40 calories
A cousin of the sunflower, yacon syrup is processed similarly to maple syrup, although coming from the root of the yacon plant, a Peruvian tuber. It has been used to support digestion and lower blood sugar in those with diabetes. It’s also high in antioxidants and thanks to its low calorie and prebiotic fiber (oligosacharides-great for the gut!) content, this sweetener has an impressive glycemic index of 1! Use yacon on any dish that you would typically use maple syrup, molasses, or dark agave syrup, that includes treats like pancakes waffles and when making desserts.
Low Calorie Natural Sugars
Luo Han Guo -Monk Fruit Extract – 2 calories per ½ teaspoon
Originates from a sweet fruit that is cultivated in the mountains of southern China. Because the fruit is so sweet, only the smallest amount is needed as it is 250x sweeter than table sugar. It has a pleasant taste and a glycemic load of 0, never disrupting blood sugar levels. It’s great for sweetening teas, coffee, and even used in cooking and baking as it is heat stable. A great alternative to artificial sweeteners as well.
Stevia – 0 calories
The only real natural sweetener on the market with zero calories. Stevia comes from the stevia leaf and is sold primarily as a powder or liquid. This little leaf goes a long way, with it’s sweetness being 300x stronger than sugar, which means you need VERY little. It’s the ideal sweetener as it contains no calories, does not affect blood sugar levels, nor does it contribute to dental cavities, however it can have a slightly bitter astringent aftertaste. Try to use less, not more with this sweetener.
Everyone deserves a little sweetness in their life now and then, however there are better options on the market than just cane sugar. Substituting these traditional sweeteners in place of white sugar can have small benefits, from providing some trace minerals to controlling blood sugar more efficiently. Knowing about these options is a powerful way for you to take control of how your food affects you. And always keep in mind portion control is key no matter how healthy a food is.