Shopping at any natural foods store these days, one might notice the selections of peanut butters, meats, cheeses...pretty much the selection of all foods have multiplied! This includes the selection of natural sweeteners. Most of us know, what table sugar and brown sugar are, but what is with all these syrups and liquids with exotic sounding names? Each of them claim to be tastier or healthier or more environmentally friendly than good old table sugar, but are they? Here is a rundown of a few of the more popular natural sweeteners at the moment to help you decide.
Agave nectar (sometimes called agave syrup) is most often produced from the Blue Agaves that thrive in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. Agaves are large, spiked plants that resemble cactus or yuccas in both form and habitat, but they are actually succulents similar to the familiar Aloe Vera. When the agave has grown to 7-10 years old, the leaves of the plant are cut off, revealing the core of the plant (called the "pina"). When harvested, the pina resembles a giant pineapple and can weigh in at 50 to 150 pounds. To make the agave nectar, sap is extracted from the pina, filtered, and heated at a low temperature, which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars. Lighter and darker varieties of agave nectar are made from the same plants. Because of the low temperatures used in processing many varieties (under 118°F) raw foods enthusiasts generally regard agave nectar as a raw food.
Pros: Neutral taste, smooth consistency. Vegans who are opposed to honey appreciate the fact that it's plant-derived yet does not exploit bees. It has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content. Agave is also a slow-growing, indigenous, low-irrigation crop that is not known to be doused with pesticides. Right now there is an excess of agave, so scaling up production to meet our cravings is not an issue, should nectar-demand soar. Even if that happens, agave is unlikely to become a biodiversity-wrecking mono-crop because it takes so long to grow.
Cons: Agave nectar is not low-calorie. It has about the same calories as sugar, but it's sweeter, so you need less. The fructose content of agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup, which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. High fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose while agave nectar syrup contains 90%. Another fact about agave nectar, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, is that some species contain anordin and dinordin, steroids with contraceptive effects that could lead to miscarriage.
Stevia is a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay for hundreds of years. The leaves of this small, green Stevia rebaudiana plant have a delicious and refreshing taste that can be 30 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia Rebaudiana is an herb in the Chrysanthemum family which grows wild as a small shrub in parts of Paraguay and Brazil. The glycosides in its leaves, including up to 10% Stevioside, account for its incredible sweetness, making it unique among the nearly 300 species of Stevia plants.
Pros: No calories and it does not raise blood sugar. Stevia can be combined with other sweeteners and won't harm your teeth. The FDA recently approved two additional stevia sweeteners, so you can expect to see more stevia-sweetened foods and beverages on supermarket shelves soon.
Cons: May have an aftertaste that some describe as licorice-like. A common complaint is that stevia may be too bitter, especially when used in too high of a concentration. At the moment it is expensive compared to sugar. Doubts about its safety linger, largely because it is assumed that Americans will love it and consume vast quantities of it. How large-scale demand will affect the small-crop, low-spray growing style of Stevia remains to be seen.
Sucanat is basically a brand name for whole cane sugar. It is made by mechanically extracting sugarcane juice, which is then heated and cooled until tiny brown crystals form. This is in thanks to the molasses content. It has been said to taste like dry brown sugar.
Pros: It's not as highly processed as white sugar. It can be used as a one-for-one replacement for refined sugar. Unlike agave and stevia, sugar is not new, so its problems are well-known. Has the highest nutritional value of all the sugars. It contains less sucrose than table sugar.
Cons: Although less refined, it's still sugar, with all of its inherent problems (it offers only empty calories, it's problematic for people with certain health problems such as diabetics, it causes dental mayhem, is generally irresistible to children, etc).
There are other natural sweeteners, such as brown rice syrup, honey and turbinado sugar, but they are more or less similar in the fact that either they are natural, derived from something natural, or are more complex than their processed versions. The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Too much sugar-whether it's marketed as natural or not-can harm your health. Even sweeteners touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed here, don't really add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to your diet. But as with everything, in moderation, there's nothing wrong with the sweetness that a little sugar adds to life. So if you're going to eat it, eat the good stuff...just not too much of it.