Agave nectar, honey and stevia not necessarily healthy sugar alternatives
Dr. Michael Roizen, Dr. Mehmet Oz
The You Docs
Monday, February 16, 2009
When it comes to satisfying the occasional sweet tooth, we're not big fans of artificial sweeteners. The trouble with these no-calorie additives is that they're essentially invisible to your brain's satiety center, so they never quite "fix" a sweet craving. The result: They usually send you foraging for something else ... and something after that, and something else after that. Enter the newly hyped "natural" sweeteners. Are they any better? Or just more expensive? Here's what you need to know:
Agave nectar or agave syrup
The facts: This sugary syrup is made from the cactuslike South American agave plant. On the flavor front, it tastes similar to honey. While agave has the same number as calories as sugar, it has an unexpected upside: Because it's seriously sweeter than sucrose (aka table sugar) you don't need nearly as much of it, resulting in a big calorie savings. How much? You can use one-quarter to one-eighth the amount of agave nectar to deliver the same sweetening power you'd get from sugar. Agave fans also like it for its low glycemic index (Translation: It doesn't raise your blood sugar as quickly or as much as sugar.). But that hardly makes it diet food. In the end, agave still delivers a spoonful of empty calories, so don't think you can load up on it and expect to squeeze into your favorite jeans.
Our verdict: Try it for the occasional sweet treat, or when you absolutely must use sugar in a recipe.
The facts: The original all-natural sweetener, honey has been prized for its supposed health perks for centuries. And while it has more antioxidant power than, say, refined sugar, it's hardly going to stomp out all those free radicals that age you.
In fact, a January 2009 Journal of the American Dietetic Association study of different sweeteners ranked honey only as intermediate on the antioxidant power scale, falling behind heavyweights such as dark and blackstrap molasses.
But the real shocker is that honey packs 33 percent more calories than sugar. That means a tablespoon will set you back 64 calories compared with 48 calories for a tablespoon of sugar.
Our verdict: A teaspoon of honey in your tea is fine, but calorie-wise and blood sugar-wise, it's a worse bet than sugar.
The facts: With zero calories and 200 times the sweetness of sugar, you'd think that stevia would be the perfect sweetener. Especially since it comes from a plant instead of a lab. Not so fast: Until last year, the FDA wouldn't even allow stevia to be sold as a food ingredient because of concerns about potential reproductive harm and infertility. That meant you had to trek all the way to a health-food store to get it.
A newer body of research (supported by the same companies that lobbied the FDA to lift the stevia ban) concludes the stuff is safe. So today, you can find several stevia-derived sweeteners (including Truvia and PureVia) in your local supermarket parked right next to the sugar.
Pretty soon it will be popping up everywhere: Now that stevia is fair game, food manufacturers are scrambling to add it to all kinds of foods and drinks. While it's still unclear exactly how safe stevia is, proponents point out that it has been used in Japan for more than 30 years to sweeten pickles. That's not the strongest argument since the Japanese don't eat pickles all day long the way we swig diet soda.
And if you think this sweetener is a shortcut to a flatter belly, remember that like other calorie-free sweeteners, the part of your brain that's responsible for satiety doesn't recognize stevia, either. So stevia-sweetened foods may not even make you feel satisfied the way a little bit of sugar does.
Our verdict: The occasional stevia-sweetened drink is OK, but we wouldn't use it to fill your sugar bowl just yet.
When it comes to any sweetener, remember that "all natural" doesn't mean "better." After all, cyanide is natural. The best way to enjoy sugar is still in its truly natural forms: as in fruit and other naturally sweet-tasting foods. You can retrain your taste buds by s-l-o-w-l-y weaning yourself off sugary foods. Then, for those occasional times when you do need some sweetness, don't feel guilty about adding a teaspoon (that's a teaspoon, not a tablespoon) of sugar or agave to an otherwise good-for-you food or drink.