Natural Sweeteners: Safe or Scary?
What is going on with sugar? We're suddenly being inundated with ads for soft drinks and other products touting that they use "real sugar!" Is sugar not so bad then, at least when compared to the near-ubiquitous food additive high-fructose corn syrup? And what about honey, pure maple syrup, and agave nectar -- are these natural sweeteners ("natural" because they all contain some form of real sugar) a healthier option for you and your kids?
Sugar: Too much sugar can lead to not only tooth decay, but type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depressive symptoms. Cut way back and you'll be putting yourself and your kids on the road to better health. Drink water instead of soft drinks. Eat fruit instead of snack cakes. Buy plain yogurt and add your own fruit and nuts. Little changes like this add up.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup: Is it worse for you than sugar? Some scientists say yes, some say no. But if you avoid HFCS, which appears in a tremendous amount of processed fare since it's so cheap, you'll automatically be avoiding a lot of the junky foods and drinks that contribute to poor health and obesity.
Honey: Since honey contains trace enzymes, minerals, amino acids and B vitamins, it's a better choice than white sugar, which is devoid of nutrients. But you still need to use it in moderation, as it affects blood sugar and insulin at just about the same rate as table sugar (and has as many calories).
Maple Syrup: Unlike supermarket pancake syrups, which are made of corn syrup, chemicals and artificial flavors, pure maple syrup contains things that are actually good for you -- potassium, calcium, magnesium, manganese and phosphorous, among other micronutrients. Use in moderation, however, as it's caloric and has the same effects on the body as honey.
Agave Nectar: Made from the juice of the agave cactus, it does not spike blood sugar levels the way other natural sweeteners do. But the heavy processing needed to make agave nectar, coupled with its high fructose content, has earned it some critics.
Less-processed honey and maple syrup may ultimately be better choices.
Jennifer Schonborn is a holistic nutrition counselor based in New York.