Sweet Deal, or No Deal?
Having a sweet tooth can be a struggle for many. Who doesn't love something sweet now and then, particularly at the end of a meal? But sugar-laden products are full of empty calories, making them hard to justify from a nutritional standpoint.
Many people have turned to artificial sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda to sweeten their coffee or tea. There has also been an increase of "sugar free" and "diet" foods showing up on our grocery shelves. But these synthetic products don't seem to help with slimming. Although we are consuming more "sugar free," processed foods, we are collectively getting fatter and obesity rates continue to soar. It's also becoming increasingly clear that natural, whole foods are better for our bodies than man-made and over-processed foods.
There are alternative "natural" sweeteners out there and many have come to the forefront of public interest lately. Are they healthier than regular granulated sugar?
Natural sweeteners can provide more nutritional value than white sugar. But they still contain calories, so use them in moderation.
What about those antioxidants? According to researchers at Virginia Tech University, who examined antioxidant content of several natural sweeteners in a 2008 study, molasses had the highest amounts of antioxidants, while refined sugar and agave nectar contained minimal amounts. Here's how they ranked sweeteners in terms of antioxidant content, from highest to lowest:
1. Molasses (blackstrap or dark)
2. Barley malt syrup
3. Brown rice syrup
5. Agave nectar
6. Refined table sugar
More specifically, here's a chart from my book, "Positively Ageless," showing the antioxidant content of leading sweeteners according to their ORAC (oxygen radical absorbency capacity) score.
Sweetener - ORAC per Tbsp.
Blackstrap molasses - 5,366
Sorghum syrup - 1,206
Brown rice syrup - 857
Tupelo honey - 512
Agave nectar - 320
So, if your goal is to increase your intake of antioxidants, do so with fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds - not added sweeteners!
Coconut sugar is one alternative that's showing up more frequently on grocery shelves. Also known as palm sugar, coconut sugar is made from the sap of coconut palms. It is also sold as "arenga sugar." The taste resembles that of brown sugar, but it is not as sweet. It has a low melting point and a high burn temperature, which makes it a suitable sweetener for confectioners. But is it "healthier" than other sweeteners? Based on research done by the Food and Nutrition Research Institute in the Philippines, coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than cane sugar (35 vs. 50) and it contains more zinc, iron, vitamin C and potassium than other sweeteners. But if you're looking to increase your intake of these nutrients, stick with fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which provide them in much higher amounts! Most of the "palm sugar" commonly sold in Asian markets is not pure coconut palm sugar - it can be blended with other fillers, such as white cane sugar - not so good.
A note about stevia, which is gaining popularity. Stevia is a plant product that has been around for centuries and is now being marketed as a pure and truly healthier sweetener (PureVia and Truvia are name brands) with zero calories. Stevia-based sweeteners contain Rebiana (known as Reb A), which is the sweetest part of the stevia leaf, and are generally used to sweeten candy and sodas.
Although the FDA has considered Stevia safe, there hasn't been long-term research on its effects. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has raised concerns that Stevia may cause DNA damage.
The Mayo Clinic suggests that until more research is done, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should avoid using the sweetener. Also those taking diabetes or blood pressure medications should use stevia with caution.
The deal with sugar and alternative sweeteners - use in moderation and stick to natural products when you can.
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