An Examination of “Healthier” Sugar Alternatives

Coconut sugar, agave nectar, maple syrup, wildflower honey — how do these sweeteners with “healthy” reputations really stack up?

Spoiler alert: No matter which you choose, it will be almost 100% empty carbs. While the source ingredients and manufacturing processes differ, any sweetener consists mainly of sucrose, glucose and/or fructose. None offer the benefits of, say, an orange, which delivers a mighty dose of nutrients and fiber along with natural sweetness.

That said, there’s a place in every balanced diet for a little added sweetener, and certain types have advantages. For example, you might prefer a natural product to refined white sugar, which results from a long process that removes every bit of trace minerals. After mechanized harvesting of sugarcane stalks and beets, white sugar is washed, milled, extracted, juiced, filtered, purified, vacuumed and.finally, condensed. Alternatives such as maple syrup and honey, on the other hand, are natural, containing at least small amounts of antioxidants, vitamins or minerals.

If you’re trying to eat healthy, less sugar is always better. For those times when you just have to have it, here are some insights that will help you weigh your options, taking the best route to sweet satisfaction.

AGAVE SYRUP

Once well-loved for its natural origins (it’s made from the same plant as tequila), agave has fallen from favor with the health-conscious set: Although it ranks fairly low on the glycemic index compared to other sweeteners, it’s higher in fructose than even high-fructose corn syrup. Popular health gurus such as Dr. Oz and Dr. Andrew Weil who originally recommended it now strongly advise against consuming it. Recent studies suggest that the body converts fructose into fat more rapidly than it does glucose, causing potential negative effects such as weight gain or increased insulin resistance. Reach for honey or maple syrup instead.

COCONUT SUGAR

A natural manufacturing process allows this sweetener, made from the sap of the coconut palm, to retain very small amounts of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, B vitamins and amino acids. However, don’t assume that because it’s made with coconut it’s somehow a health food: It’s exactly like regular sugar, containing about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbs per teaspoon and can be substituted with  a ratio of 1:1 in baking recipes. One real benefit to coconut sugar, however, is that many brands are sustainably produced, which translates to a positive lifestyle choice for the planet. Read the label to make sure.

HONEY

Honey has been used throughout history and across cultures to cure ailments ranging from stomach pain to topical wounds. But when it comes to the glycemic index, honey is very similar to refined sugar. Still, many prefer its unrefined, natural origin, touting its trace amounts of minerals, amino acids and B vitamins. That said, not all honey is the same: Raw honey, for example, contains a larger number of compounds such as flavonoids and other polyphenols, which may function as healthy antioxidants. Many also prefer the more complex texture and flavor of raw honey.

MAPLE SYRUP

With a rich taste, lower glycemic index than white sugar and a low-fructose content, maple syrup has a well-deserved good rep as a sweetener. It contains small amounts of antioxidants, calcium, potassium and iron, and the mineral manganese, which contributes to healthy bone structure. Does this mean it’s healthy to eat syrup? Sadly, no. But there’s a good argument for choosing it over refined white sugar or agave. Dark-colored Grade B syrup has a stronger maple flavor, while light golden Grade A has a more delicate flavor.