~ By Laura Brieser-Smith, Registered dietitian, Certified Personal Trainer ~
Many people have turned a little “sour” on the refined sweeteners, such as table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and have switched to more natural sweeteners. But are these sweeteners really that much better for us? While the natural sweeteners do contain small amounts of nutrients, it is not enough to be very significant. Also, even natural sweeteners contain calories and will cause your glucose levels to rise after consuming them. Here are some facts about the more common natural sweeteners.
Agave nectar. This sweetener is made from the sap of a Mexican succulent plant. The leaves produce a liquid which is similar to honey, although slightly thinner and sweeter. It also has a lower glycemic index (which means it will affect your blood sugar level less dramatically), due in part to the fact that it contains a natural soluble fiber called inulin.
Barley malt and rice syrups. Sprouted barley or rice is dried and cooked down to a thick syrup to create these sweeteners. The benefit of these sweeteners is that they are digested more slowly and, thus, cause a slower rise of blood sugar levels.
Date sugar crystals. Dates are dried and ground to a powder to produce this sweetener. The resulting crystals contain the same nutrients as dates – fiber, potassium, B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, lutein, and beta-carotene. However, most people are unlikely to consume enough date sugar crystals to get much nutritional value.
Honey. The color of honey indicates the flavor and antioxidant level; the darker the color the more robust the flavor and the more antioxidants it contains. Honey may also help to boost the activity of the “good” bacteria found in yogurt.
Molasses. This sweetener is the syrup that is left over from processing sugar cane or sugar beets into granulated sugar. Color indicates depth of flavor in molasses, too, with the darkest (blackstrap) molasses being the least sweet and the most pungent in flavor. Blackstrap molasses is the only natural sweetener that contains a significant amount of nutrients, including calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, selenium, and manganese.
Stevia. This comes from the sweetleaf or sugarleaf plant which is native to Paraguay. While it is sold as a sweetener in many other countries, it can be sold only as a dietary supplement in the U.S. Stevia can be purchased in the form of a powdered extract, liquid extract or powdered leaf. Because it is a concentrated sweetener, it contains zero calories per teaspoon.
Keep in mind that while all of these do make excellent alternatives to sugar, you will most likely need to use smaller amounts when using them in recipes. In addition, other modifications, such as reduction in liquid, lower cooking temperatures, etc. may be required.
Laura Brieser-Smith, RD, MPH, CHFS is the owner of Healthy Designs, LLC which provides nutrition counseling and personal training to clients in their homes or offices. She can be reached at 303-635-1131 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.