Georgie Fear, a registered dietitian who writes Ask Georgie, wrote me a comment for ideas on trends in health and food for my HealthBuzz theme this August:

I think a topic you should consider addressing is normal sugar vs other sweeteners (caloric). There are so many people out there blogging about using agave and honey and dates and boasting that their recipes are “sugar-free” or contain “no refined sugar” as if they have achieved nutritional superiority.

Thanks Georgie for the inspiration!

 

Honey

Agave

Agave is marketed as nutritionally superior to sugar due to its low glycemic index (GI). Glycemic index for a certain food–usually carbohydrate-containing foods–is how quickly a portion of it that contains 50 grams of carbohydrate can raise blood glucose level. The higher the number, the faster starches in the food are digested and absorbed, and the faster they show up in your blood as glucose.

It’s true that agave nectar has a lower GI value than table sugar, and some studies found diets rich in foods with low GI values can prevent diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. However, it’s still equally important to look at other factors in the diet: total carbohydrates, fiber, protein, and fats, exercise habits, eating style, stress level, and so on.

Plus, agave nectar is 90% fructose. If excessive fructose is causing our obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome epidemic, then agave might be worse than high fructose corn syrup (55% fructose) and worse than table sugar. Fructose doesn’t stimulate insulin release and as a result, doesn’t stimulate the release of another hormone that makes us feel full. So when we consume too much fructose, we are likely to eat more! Plus, fructose goes to the liver to be broken down, and there it is converted to fat, which can raise cholesterol and triglycerides. Bad stuff. Read this article from Diabetes Health for more on fructose.

And let’s not forget that agave is still nutrient-free.

Agave nectar is processed. It undergoes heat processing so that fructosans, the complex form of fructose found in it, are broken down into fructose. Now that doesn’t sound so natural from where I stand.

Honey

Honey has a GI right in the middle between table sugar and agave nectar and is 38% fructose. While honey is touted for having vitamins, minerals, and protein, the amounts are insignificant in a regular edible portion. To a get a decent amount of nutrients, you need to eat A LOT of honey, and it’s much easier to get these nutrients from fruits, beans, grains, vegetables, and dairy–without paying the price in calories and sugars.

I can’t skip that honey is highly valued by many religions and considered “holy food” by people who follow them. I personally think that it is, and prefer it often over table sugar only from my personal religious bias and not as a dietitian. Whether you agree or not, it’s totally your own opinion that I respect.

Date Sugar

Date sugar is not really sugar but is dried dates, chopped up into small pieces, then ground. It’s considered a natural and non-processed wholesome food with high fiber, vitamins, and minerals. While it can substitute an equal amount of granulated or brown sugar, it doesn’t dissolve in liquids, doesn’t melt, and can clump, making it impractical for some types of baking. Nutritionally, it might be slightly superior to sugar. Is it sugar-free? Certainly not. It has natural sugars that add total calories and carbohydrates (if you’re counting your carbs).

Bottom Line

The world of sweeteners is not a fun place to hang out. It can get messy and complicated, and there’s no straight answer. My bottom line:

  • –Agave nectar might not be as healthy as its producers and fans claim it to be. It has a low GI but high in fructose. Tough call.
  • –Honey might be slightly healthier than table sugar (due to some nutrients) especially if you like its taste and value it from your religion’s perspective.
  • –Agave and honey (and probably most other “natural” sweeteners) should be limited to the minimum. In no way are they sugar-free or refined-sugar-free! Try date sugar if available, use very ripe fruits in your baking, or use applesauce, pureed peaches, pears, berries, etc.
  • –Cut back on the amount of sweeteners you use in beverages and baked products. There’s nothing wrong with getting used to having a less of a sweet tooth.
  • –Eat fruits to satisfy your sugar cravings. And on the occasions when you want to enjoy a treat, just eat a sensible portion and don’t worry too much about the type of sweetener used.