Which sugar / sweetener is the healthiest?

I regularly get asked about honey, agave and stevia in the context of which is healthier for you. So here’s my take on the situation…

Lots of different plants provide natural sources of sugar/sweeteners (fruit, sugar cane, maple trees, agave cacti, coconut palms, corn, sugar beets, stevia leaves and flowers via the hard work of bees) and we’ve created artificial sweeteners too in our labs – all of which make food taste good and can help make it last longer. 

The distinction between natural and man-made doesn’t necessarily correlate with healthy and unhealthy though. These different sugars/sweeteners are made up of different combinations of simple carbs (primarily fructose, glucose and sucrose), which our bodies process differently. They also have different glycemic loads (so how quickly our bodies process them) and the “natural” sugars mentioned above are often heavily processed before we buy them.

I’ve noted some points below that may interest you, but the key thing to keep in mind when looking at this is the quantity of sugar that you’re consuming – both knowingly and unknowingly. If added/free sugar makes up more than 5% of your overall diet, regardless of the source, that’s not ideal for your health. And the sweeter the food, the more likely you are to eat more than you need/want to. 

Random sugar / sweetener facts:

  • It’s much harder to take in large quantities of sugar when it’s in the form of whole, unprocessed sugars (so fruit). You’ll simply stop because you’re full / satiated / can’t face any more! 
  • If you’re focused on calories, it’s worth noting that stevia is a zero calorie sweetener. Also that agave is more calorific than sugar, but because it’s sweeter you’ll likely use less of it and therefore take on less calories overall.
  • Stevia is thought to be c. 150 times sweeter than sugar, with zero calories (as mentioned above), but pure stevia extract has a bitter aftertaste and so many of the stevia based products on our selves have been mixed with other sugars/sweeteners to improve the taste. Be sure of what you’re buying!
  • There were initial concerns over the safety of stevia-based sweeteners and whilst they seem to have disappeared entirely with the products now approved by food/government authorities around the world, we’re not entirely clear on the long-term effects of sweeteners.
  • The extraction and processing methods used on “natural” sugars can completely change the properties of the plant. And whilst some sugars are quoted as being good sources of antioxidants, there are much better foods to source them from! 
  • Unprocessed sugars like honey and agave tend to be better for the environment 
  • Maple syrup & agave are mostly fructose (which means the sugar is processed in the liver and anything the liver can’t handle is turned into fat). And too much fructose combined with fibre will have you running to the loo. 

So, as always, beware of the hype and try to stick to whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible.

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