Our fondness for all things sweet is ingrained in us. References to our desire for foods like honey date back thousands of years. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless you happen to indulge a little too often. There’s also the dilemma that some people face regarding whether to use a “nonnutritive” (noncaloric) sweetener, such as aspartame or sucralose, or something more “natural” (including real sugar). People debate and struggle with this choice all the time, and while we don’t really have an answer, the good news is that it’s led to more research on sweeteners of all types and their effects on health, appetite, and weight.
More to choose from
Recently, other types of sweeteners have grown in popularity. There’s a push toward foods and food products that are less refined, that contain fewer chemicals or artificial ingredients, and that may even have less impact on blood glucose (for those who have diabetes). Here are a few that you may have read or heard about and perhaps wondered if you should try. That decision is up to you, of course, but at least you’ll have a few facts under your belt to help you out.
If you enjoy a good margarita, you might be interested to know that agave nectar is derived from the agave plant, including the blue agave from which tequila is made. Agave nectar is available in light, amber, dark, and raw varieties and is used in place of honey or sugar in recipes. You’ll also see agave nectar in a variety of food products such as granola, energy bars, chocolate, and some beverages.
What’s the hype? Well, agave nectar is made up primarily of fructose and glucose. Fructose has a lower glycemic index (anywhere from about 10 to 23, which is low) and glycemic load than sucrose (table sugar). So why wouldn’t someone want to use a sweetener that is less likely than sugar to cause spikes in blood glucose? The flip side of agave nectar is twofold:
For one thing, agave nectar contains 60 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon. Sugar contains 46 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon. (However, because agave is very sweet, you may end up using less.) Also, agave has a high fructose content — on average, about 84%. In some respects, this is good, because fructose doesn’t require insulin to be metabolized. But there’s a controversy raging on about the health effects of fructose (particularly refined fructose) — specifically, its possible link to insulin resistance and high triglycerides — two culprits that are linked with raising the risk of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver problems.
The link between agave and possible health issues hasn’t been proven yet, but it can be a cause for concern, meaning that you may want to use this sweetener with some caution. Try not to fall into the trap of thinking that, because this sweetener is “natural” and has a low glycemic index, you have license to pour it all over your foods (and I’m not saying that you would!). Also, remember that agave still contains a considerable amount of calories and carbohydrate (low glycemic index or not), so you need to count this in your eating plan or carb allotment.
Coconut palm sugar
Coconut palm sugar (or coconut sugar) is a natural sweetener made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. It’s light brown in color and comes in block, granule, and liquid form. Its flavor is similar to that of brown sugar, and it dissolves and cooks like regular sugar. Not surprisingly, coconut palm sugar has gained recognition thanks to Dr. Oz. The claim to fame is that coconut palm sugar has a low glycemic index (35), likely, in part, because it contains inulin, a type of fiber that can slow glucose absorption.
But again, a low glycemic index doesn’t mean that this product is a “free” food. It may or may not lead to spikes in blood glucose, but that’s something you need to find out for yourself. Coconut palm sugar has 45 calories and 12 grams of carbohydrate per tablespoon, and it also contains very small amounts of potassium, magnesium, iron, zinc, and antioxidants.
Not much is known about coconut palm sugar since it’s relatively new to the market. This sweetener is rather pricey, weighing in at between $8 and $10 per pound for the organic variety. You might see this in Asian markets, but beware that it may be blended with regular sugar or malt sugar.
More on “off the beaten path” sweeteners next week!