Are sugar alternatives, like honey, maple syrup, agave, brown rice syrup, coconut sugar and date sugar, healthier than table sugar?
It’s no secret that eating excessive amounts of sugar isn’t great for your health. As a matter of fact, eating a diet rich in added sugar has been linked to obesity and several other negative health outcomes.
It’s no wonder The American Heart Association’s (AHA) recommended daily sugar intake is 36 grams (or 6 teaspoons) for men and 25 grams (or 9 teaspoons) for women. And limiting your added sugar isn’t as easy as you may think– it pops up in everything from cereals to yogurts to pasta sauces.
But some of you may be wondering, “What if I eat another type of sugar, like maple syrup or honey? Those must be better for me, right?” That’s a valid and confusing question. To provide some insight into the sugar debate, let’s take a look at some of the most common types of sugar and what they may (or may not) have to offer.
White Sugar, also known as table sugar or cane sugar, comes from the sugar cane plant. It’s boiled down and crystallized to form the sugar you use in baking. Each teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories and 4 grams of sugar.
Other than sugar/carbs, white sugar does not contain any other nutrients. This type of sugar is added to many products, hence the title “added sugar”, for palatability. White sugar is almost identical to coarse sugar, as well as confectioner’s sugar, although all of them are processed to be slightly different sizes and textures. called “added” because it does not naturally occur in foods.
Coconut sugar is growing rapidly in popularity because many people think it’s “healthier” than table sugar. But let’s look at the facts…
Unlike table sugar, coconut sugar does contain several nutrients, like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. But the amounts of those vitamins, minerals and plant compounds is negligible. You’d have to eat a few cups of coconut sugar each day to reap any of those benefits, and the downsides of doing so far outweigh the upsides.
Coconut sugar has a slightly lower glycemic index than table sugar. As a reminder, the glycemic index is a measurement of how quickly a food will spike your blood sugar.
The University of Sydney pegs coconut sugar as a low-glycemic food, with a glycemic index (GI) of 54, while regular sugar has a GI of 65. The reason for this is a fiber called inulin, which may reduce the rate at which you absorb coconut sugar.
The taste of coconut sugar is similar to brown sugar, and it provides as many calories and carbohydrates as regular sugar–about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon. Coconut sugar is still sugar, and it’s not “healthy” by any means. If you enjoy the taste of coconut sugar, go ahead and use it. But don’t eat it for the supposed health “benefits”.
Agave nectar is a natural sweetener made from the agave cactus plant. It contains 20 calories per teaspoon (just a few more than table sugar), and it’s sweeter than table sugar. The nice thing about agave is that you can use about ⅓ less of it than regular sugar, since it’s sweeter in taste.
Also, agave is thinner than honey or maple syrup, so it dissolves really well into baked goods and drinks. Agave also won’t raise your blood sugar as quickly as white sugar, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good for you. It’s still an added sugar!
Date Sugar looks similar to brown sugar but it’s actually granulated dried dates. Since the entire fruit is used to make date sugar, it is a whole food sweetener that contains dietary fiber and other nutrients.
Dates possess iron, calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins and antioxidants. That said, the amount of nutrients in date sugar is miniscule, so don’t indulge just for the health benefits. Each teaspoon of date sugar has 20 calories and 4 grams of sugar. If you decide to use date sugar in recipes, note that it won’t fully dissolve and leaves behind a slight sugary grit from the fiber.
Brown Rice Syrup
You may notice brown rice syrup as a sweet ingredient in bars, like Clif Bar. Take note that this is most definitely an added sugar. It’s made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starches. This liquid is then boiled down into syrup.
Do not fooled by the name of this sugar. Although it’s made from brown rice, by the time it reaches your digestive tract, it is no different than table sugar. Also, brown rice syrup is less sweet than table sugar, so you may need to use more to satisfy your sweet tooth. Each teaspoon has about 20 calories and 4 grams of sugar.
Maple Syrup is made by concentrating the sap that comes from a maple tree, and it’s often used as an alternative to honey in vegan recipes.
The nice thing about maple syrup is that it contains more than 67 types of antioxidants, also called polyphenols, some of which have shown to reduce inflammation in the body. It also contains a good amount of prebiotics which are necessary for feeding the good bacteria in our gut to keep our gut microbiome happy and healthy!
Lastly, maple syrup has minerals like zinc, potassium, iron and manganese. The high manganese content is also good for muscle function. In 1 teaspoon of maple syrup, you will get 4g of added sugar. So there are some health benefits to eating maple syrup, but it’s still good to include it as part of a well-balanced diet.
When buying syrup, make sure you check the label. Pure maple syrup is just that– the sap of the trees. Whereas “syrup” may have artificial maple flavoring mixed with corn syrup and sugar – definitely not a healthy option.
Honey is one of nature’s wonders – produced by bees from the nectar of flowers and turned into a naturally sweet product. It’s often used in recipes as a substitute for sugar, and it’s even been touted for its potential medicinal properties. One teaspoon of honey has 6 grams of sugar.
Honey has antioxidant and mineral properties that can soothe coughs and burns. Plus, the main sugars found in honey are fructose and glucose. These monosaccharides are easily absorbed into the bloodstream, providing energy for the body.
For athletes, honey can be a great addition to the diet as part of a pre-exercise meal or snack because it gets released into your bloodstream in a steady state providing you with the energy you need to fuel your workout. You can also eat honey during a workout for a source of carbohydrates to avoid muscle fatigue.
Which sugar is best for you?
The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Every single item on this list is an added sugar and should be a limited part of your diet. Some sweeteners, like maple syrup, honey or date sugar, may contain trace minerals, but the amount is not enough to make a huge difference in your overall health.
Choose the one that works best for you and whatever you’re making. And no matter how it’s marketed, you should be cautious about the amount of added sugar you put into your body. Read the labels on processed foods to make sure you’re not getting more added sugar than you need.