Now that natural sweetener options are widely available, we’re no longer limited to a scoop of refined table sugar or packet of artificial Splenda to sweeten our morning latte. Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and stevia are free of artificial ingredients, full of nutrients, and taking center stage.
But while it’s great to have so many choices, the selection process can get a bit overwhelming. Which natural sweetener should you reach for in the baking aisle or at the coffee bar? We sat down with Briana Menendez, a San Francisco-based holistic health coach and founder of Urban Wellness, to break down the basics of popular natural sweeteners.
Why are natural sweeteners better?
The short answer is: the less processed, the better. “Some natural sweeteners, like honey, are in their true form,” says Menendez. “Many have more nutrients intact and are less processed, so they have a less dramatic influence on blood sugar compared to table sugar.” In other words, natural sweeteners give us more nutritional bang for our buck than white or processed sugar, like Equal, without the spike in blood sugar levels.
First up: Honey
“In terms of nutritional benefits, honey contains antioxidants and enzymes, as well as antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties,” says Menendez. “On top of this, it has small amounts of B vitamins and minerals, including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and zinc.”
However, Menendez warns against using honey that’s been heated above 95 degrees, or “beehive temperature,” because it loses its nutritional value. “Some manufacturers heat honey to delay the crystallization process,” she explains. According to NPR, US consumers tend to dislike crystallized honey, even though it’s completely natural.
How can you tell if honey hasn’t been heated and you’re buying the best quality? When shopping, keep an eye out for labels that read “raw,” “unfiltered,” “unpasteurized,” or “USDA grade A,” which indicate the honey hasn’t been heavily processed.
Similar to honey, maple syrup is minimally processed and doesn’t dramatically raise blood sugar levels when consumed in moderation, especially when compared to white sugar. “Maple syrup is made from boiled down maple tree sap, making it a relatively unprocessed option,” says Menendez. “It contains antioxidants, significant amounts of the minerals manganese and zinc, and small amounts of calcium, potassium, and iron.”
When shopping for maple syrup, choose bottles that read “100% maple syrup” and not “maple-flavored syrup.” The latter can be filled with high-fructose corn syrup and refined, processed sugars.
The South American sweetener
Stevia is a South American plant that’s become popular because it is calorie-free and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels at all,unlike honey and maple syrup. “Even though stevia tastes much sweeter than regular sugar, it doesn’t raise our blood sugar levels,” says Menendez.
If you’re shocked, wait until you hear this: some studies show that stevia, which has a glycemic index of zero, may in fact help lower blood glucose levels.
Scientists are still researching the specific health benefits of stevia, but a 2003 study found that stevioside, the main ingredient in stevia, can reduce blood pressure in patients with mild hypertension. Another study found that stevia leaf extract had a positive effect on cholesterol levels in a group of overweight women between the ages of 40 and 60.
However, many brands of stevia are in some way altered. For example, the stevia-based sweetener Truvia is only actually composed of less than 1 percent stevia, and goes through a 42-step process to be created, according to the US patent for the Coca-Cola Company.
“When buying stevia, look for terms like ‘100% pure,’ ‘whole leaf stevia,’ and ‘green leaf stevia’ on the label and ingredient list,” says Menendez. “This indicates you’re getting stevia that’s less processed and with the possible health benefits previously mentioned.”
“Dates are known as nature’s candy,” says Menendez, who explains that dates impact blood sugar less than white sugar and are chock full of vitamins and minerals.
“Dates are are unprocessed, fiber-rich, and may promote digestive and heart health. Additionally, they contain antioxidants, vitamins A, B6, K, niacin, folate, and choline, as well as the minerals potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper, and manganese. If that list isn’t enough, they also may help lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.”
However, even though dates have many health benefits, they’re calorically dense. “I’d recommend sticking to one serving size or two to three Medjool dates per day,” says Menendez.
Keep in mind, natural sweeteners are still sugar
“Although all of us could use a little extra sweetness in our lives, even natural sweeteners are still sugar,” says Menendez. “All this means is that natural sweeteners should be enjoyed sparingly as part of a nutritious, well-balanced diet.”
So while we may not recommend polishing off an entire package of dates in one sitting (though as the saying goes: everything in moderation, even moderation), it’s reassuring to know that there are natural sweetener options that benefit us nutritionally and satisfy our sweet tooth too.