Frequently, when searching for delicious things for our weekly recipe blog, we see ingredients like honey, agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar or dates where we would otherwise expect to see sugar. But, are these alternatives any better than regular sugar?
Most natural sweeteners have calories, unlike many artificial sweeteners. Even stevia, touted as being calorie free, contains about one gram of carbs per serving depending on the brand. While that’s very little, it adds up as you cook and don’t think about it. Others are higher — 21 grams of agave syrup has 60 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates. Compare that to white sugar’s 84 calories and 25 grams of carbs, and it’s significantly better, but not perfect. Maple syrup has 52 calories and 13 grams of carbs. Honey has 64 calories and 17 grams of carbs. Twenty-one grams of coconut sugar has around 78 calories and 22 grams of carbs. Date syrup has 59 calories and 16 grams of carbs. If you are looking for ways to cut carbs without using artificial sweeteners, they can take a knack. Cookies baked with honey or agave syrup may be cake-like in texture. Molasses has a very dark color. You have to watch carefully, if it is used in cooking, to be sure the brown color doesn’t fool you into thinking a dish has finished cooking prematurely.
The carbohydrates of all sweeteners impact your blood sugar and are metabolized. It must be noted that most natural sweeteners are actually sweeter than sugar and so one uses less in cooking and flavoring drinks. Here is a handy conversion list. Some sweeteners do have benefits, containing nutrients and minerals table sugar doesn’t. But these minimal nutritional boosts don’t negate their carb counts.
The term “natural sweetener” can itself be misleading. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a natural sweetener though it has been chemically processed. It can be listed on food packaging as “fructose” without any modifiers. Those foods can be labeled as “natural.” Like with any other food, read the labels — manufacturers can bulk out sweeteners with other sweeteners, meaning honey and maple syrup filled with HFCS.
Moreover, “natural” implies healthy. However, when one is concerned most about carbohydrate and caloric intake, artificial, nonnutritive sweeteners may make more sense for you than any natural sweeteners save for stevia. Decades of research have yet to find any substantial link between artificial sweeteners and health problems. Although, aspartame has been linked to cancer in mice… if the mouse consumes the equivalent of 2,000 cans of diet soda a day. As is so often the case, this comes down to personal preference and your health. Some people cannot stand the flavor of aspartame, others don’t like coconut sugar. So, read the labels, learn the conversions, and find out what works for you!