Sorting Out Sweeteners: Agave, Corn Syrup, Sugar, and More
Moderating the sweet stuff.
By Katherine Hobson, U.S. News & World Report
under a variety of aliases. Just check out the label of your favorite
cereal or beverage and you're likely to see the flavor show up many times, in
the form of high-fructose
corn syrup, dextrose, cane syrup, maple syrup, fructose, molasses, honey�and
even agave, the latest caloric sweetener, which is derived from a plant native
to Mexico. (These are all in addition, of course, to plain
old table sugar, or sucrose.)
You might also find some food labels or
manufacturers hinting that their source of sweetness is more healthful than
the others. Since the concept of "healthy" can be awfully fuzzy, let's put it
bluntly. "All of these are empty calories that offer you no nutrition," says
Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic
Association. That doesn't mean they're forbidden, just that they should be
eaten in moderation, she says.
And many of us are not moderate in our
consumption of added sugars. The World Health Organization recommends that
we cap our intake at less than 10 percent of our day's calories, yet the
average American gets 400 calories a day from beverages, a lot of which come
from sugar. (Many people, including obesity expert Barry Popkin, say one
of the easiest ways to drop weight is to simply cut out all caloric
beverages.) Assuming you take in 1,800 calories per day, a 10 percent limit
translates to fewer than 180 calories, or 45 grams, of sugar daily.
So if you are following WHO's guidance and
eating a moderate amount of the sweet stuff, does it matter what form it
takes? Some hypothesize that fructose,
one of the components of sucrose, is a particularly bad kind of sugar. It may
not suppress hunger or stimulate the natural feeling of fullness, says
Kathleen Melanson, an assistant professor of food and nutrition at the
University of Rhode Island in Kingston. And there is also a concern that
when it's consumed in very high amounts, fructose can't be properly processed
by the body, which translates to a fatty liver or raised levels of
triglycerides in the blood. It can also lead to higher levels of uric
acid, which some believe raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and
diabetes, among other woes.
But those hypotheses have not been proven,
emphasizes Melanson, and there's no take-home message for people in terms of
the form of sugar they eat. Sucrose is about half fructose and half glucose,
while honey is about 40 to 45 percent fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup
is about 55 percent. The amount of fructose in agave nectar can vary, with
estimates starting at about 50 or 55 percent (some say it's much higher,
depending on the processing method).
There are tiny differences in the minerals in
some sweeteners; the less processed, the more trace minerals, says Blatner.
(Honey, for example, has some magnesium and calcium.) And there is some
evidence that the levels of antioxidants in sweeteners can vary. One study,
published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Dietetic
Association, found that among sweeteners, dark and blackstrap molasses had the
most antioxidant activity. Maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey had a bit less,
and refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar had the least.
Still, it usually comes down to personal taste
and preference, Blatner says. Some find agave so sweet that they use much less
of it, which can mean fewer calories. Others find the taste of molasses vile.
It's up to you. Importantly, you shouldn't let any fructose worries scare
you away from fruit; while it's true that tree fruits and berries contain a
large percentage of fructose, the absolute amount is quite low, Melanson says.
And it comes packaged with plenty of fiber and nutrients, which is more
you can say for your average sweetened cereal or drink.