Agave, honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup are all marketed as healthier alternatives to table sugar and other added sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup and evaporated cane juice. Is there any truth to those claims?
Here are the facts.
Alternative sweeteners, just like conventional sweeteners, add little nutritional value and contain substantial calories. Since some natural sweeteners undergo fewer processing steps than sugar (sucrose), they may retain a trace of amount of micronutrients from the plants they originate from, leading some to claim unsubstantiated associate health benefits from their use. However, their nutrient-to-calorie ratio is still very low, and they contain minimal to no fiber to slow the absorption of their sugars.
Maple syrup and honey elevate blood glucose similarly to sugar, leading to disease-causing effects in the body. Agave ranks lower on the glycemic index, because it is so high in fructose, but are still empty calories and fructose has other serious negative effects. Regardless of the name, all these nutrient-deficient sweeteners are absorbed rapidly into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar and insulin to dangerous levels; or in the case of the higher fructose sweeteners, increasing cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Instead of sugar and other sweeteners, a Nutritarian diet addresses our love for all things sweet by adding moderate amounts of healthy, whole fruits and a bit of dried fruit to smoothies, salad dressings and desserts. Using fruit to satisfy our inherent sweet tooth is a healthy alternative and provides us with other benefits. Berries in particular have many positive attributes. They supply the most nutrients in the least calories of all fruits. They have strong antioxidant properties, containing a high amount of polyphenols, and are rich in phytochemicals, compounds which offer protective health benefits. If eaten with a meal, berries have the ability to inhibit our body’s absorption and digestion of sugar, slowing it down and reducing spikes in glucose and insulin. Berries are considered an anti-diabetic fruit.
The Bottom Line
Added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, impaired cognitive function and cancers. In addition to their deleterious health consequences, these sweeteners have another negative side effect. Eating foods with added sugars habituates us to their excessively sweet tastes, dulling taste buds to the natural sweetness of berries and other fresh fruits, which perpetuates cravings for sweets and can undermine weight loss efforts. You only lose your desire for overly sweetened substances, and bring back more tongue sensitivity when you stay off them for weeks.
We should allow our natural inclination of gravitating toward sweet flavors guide us to fresh fruits. Fresh fruits provide pleasantly sweet flavors and important fiber, in addition to essential nutrients, antioxidants and other phytochemicals that protect us against diseases that added sugar promotes. Unlike processed foods with added sugars, nutrient-rich fresh fruits do not perpetuate sweet cravings and overeating.
Sweeteners, unlike whole fruits, are concentrated sugars without the necessary fiber to regulate the entry of glucose into the bloodstream and fructose to the liver. All caloric sweeteners have effects that promote weight gain and other negative health effects regardless of what type of plant they originate from.
Your Best Bet
I recommend that you condition your taste buds to prefer the more subtle sweetness of fruit. Use fruit to sweeten sorbets. Make fruit-based desserts using my recipes, which contain no added sweeteners. If you are not diabetic, limiting fruit is most likely not necessary. However, it is possible to overeat, especially on dried fruits or dates, and these are limited to small amounts in my recipes. Depending on your calorie needs, three-to-four fruits per day, plus a cup of berries, is a reasonable guideline.