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Best and Worst Natural Sweetener

The real deal on honey, agave nectar, and others

Published: January 15, 2015 06:00 AM

Natural sweeteners are having their moment. As excess sugar consumption is linked to more health problems, including obesity and heart disease, products with labels touting the fact that they’re sweetened with some other kind of naturally derived “sugar” are becoming more common. Honey, agave nectar, or evaporated cane juice sound healthier--but are they really? Not necessarily.  

Honey

Honey is sweeter than table sugar, so less of it is needed to sweeten foods. It contains some proteins that may improve immune function, and it has high levels of several antioxidants.

Consumer Reports' take: The main components of honey are in fact sugars (mostly fructose and glucose), so using too much of it may lead to the same health problems as consuming too much sugar. “A bit of honey is fine, and may even offer some advantages,” says David Katz, M.D., director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. “But keeping total sweetener intake low is the winning formula for health.”

Americans eat nearly four times as much sugar as they should. Find out where sugar hides in your diet.

Agave nectar

Made from syrup extracted from the agave plant, agave nectar is high in fructose and thus touted as a low-glycemic alternative to table sugar (and honey)—meaning that it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike as much as other sweeteners. But concentrated sources of  fructose might cause other problems, such as increased levels of blood tri­glycerides, which might negatively affect heart health.

Consumer Reports' take: “Nectar sounds wonderful, like it’s from the gods, but don’t be fooled by the name,” says Cathy Kapica, Ph.D., R.D., a food scientist and chief executive officer of the Awegrin Institute in Chicago. Agave isn’t any better for you than other sugars.

Fruit-juice concentrate

It’s made by heating juice to remove water, treating the juice with enzymes, then stripping all color and natural flavor from it. That process can remove some of the valuable nutrients found in whole fruit. Fruit-juice concentrate is sometimes used in baked goods, jams and jellies, and frozen confections.

Consumer Reports' take: Fruit-juice concentrates can be high in fructose, so the best advice is to consume food and drinks with them in moderation.

Evaporated cane juice

Kapica describes evaporated cane juice as “basically table sugar.” The only difference is that table sugar is stripped of all traces of molasses during the refining process and evaporated cane juice might still retain some specks of molasses that give it a darker color. 

Consumer Reports' take: Kapica says that because the name sounds more natural, people feel better about using it. “Nutritionally, it’s the same as white sugar,” she adds.

—Karyn Repinski

Stevia is short on calories, but we found it long on aftertaste.

What about no-cal natural sweeteners like stevia?

 


According to a study published last year in JAMA Internal Medicine, 71.4 percent of adults in the U.S. consume 10 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugars. Hoping to cut those numbers, some have turned to no-calorie naturally derived sweeteners such as stevia and monk fruit.


Stevia, extracted from an herb native to Central and South America, is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. But in taste tests conducted in 2010, our experts found it to be slightly bitter, leaving an aftertaste, which consumers have noted as well.


Monk fruit-based sweeteners come from a melon native to Asia. We found that one of them, Nectresse, imparted a chemical taste to lemonade and coffee. (It has recently been discontinued.) Other brands still on the market include Monk Fruit in the Raw and a liquid from Skinny Girl, neither of which we have taste-tested.


Certain stevia and monk-fruit extracts used in sweeteners have been designated as “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the Food and Drug Administration. If you like the taste, substituting either for sugar can help cut a few calories.


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the February 2015 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.



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