You may be surprised to learn how trendy sweeteners are created and that most “all-natural” sweeteners are, indeed, processed.
Agave nectar is derived from the juice of agave leaves, mainly grown in Mexico and Latin America. The harvested leaves are pressed to extract the juice. Most agave sweetener in the market is made by treating the liquid with heat and enzymes to convert all the carbohydrate into fructose. The heat destroys potential health benefits, but the 60 sugar calories in one tablespoon are reported to have a low glycemic index.
Monk Fruit Extract
Monk fruit is a small round fruit native to southern China, and after processing, its extract is a no-calorie sweetener. The ripe fruit is crushed, mixed with hot water, and filtered to create a clear juice containing fruit sugars and sweet antioxidants. These two components are mechanically separated, and the remaining sweet antioxidants are spray-dried to make a powder.
Maple syrup production starts in early spring when small holes are drilled in maple trees, and the tree’s sap flows through tubes to a collection tank. Each tree will yield about 10 gallons of sap. The liquid is boiled to concentrate the sweetness. When juice first enters the evaporator, it contains about 98 percent water and two percent sugar. When it exits, it has 33 percent water and 67 percent sugar. The syrup is filtered and packaged. Each tablespoon provides about 50 calories with trace amounts of minerals.
Stevia, or Stevia rebaudiana, is a plant native to South America. People there have used the leaves for sweetness for hundreds of years. Unlike artificial sweeteners made in a lab, stevia comes from plant leaves. But it must be processed before it gets to your table or in your food—it’s not likely you’ll eat the leaf itself. The leaves are first harvested, dried, and steeped in hot water. The liquid is then filtered and spun to make an extract from the intensely sweet components of the leaf called steviol glycosides. Stevia leaf extract is 300 to 400 times sweeter than cane sugar. Manufacturers blend it with plant-based ingredients like dextrose and maltodextrin to measure the same as table sugar but with zero calories. The manufacturer of Stevia in The Raw® states that their product “derives virtually all its sweetness from stevia leaf extract, whereas some other stevia-based products contain added flavors.”
Turbinado sugar is partially refined from sugar cane and retains some original molasses, giving it a subtle caramel flavor. Turbinado is often called raw sugar a marketing term implying that it’s minimally processed. However, the sugar is not “raw” despite this name because sugarcane juice is boiled to thicken and crystallize. Turbinado sugar matches white sugar for calories—about 54 per tablespoon. The small amounts of minerals and antioxidants it provides are relatively insignificant.
Honey – Nature’s Original Sweetener
Bees are amazing insects that extract nectar from flowers and naturally transform it into honey inside their hive. Beekeepers remove honey the bees don’t need for food and extract it by removing the wax caps with a heated knife and spinning the honey to separate it from the comb. The honey is then filtered to remove parts of the beehive or honeycomb. Honey is not manipulated or exposed to extreme heat. Some beekeepers and handlers might heat it to streamline bottling, but that doesn’t alter the natural composition. One tablespoon of honey provides 64 calories, and trace amounts of potassium, iron and calcium may be found in raw honey.
Most of the health benefits of honey are associated with trace antioxidants, including phenolic acids and flavonoids that are most concentrated in high-quality, unfiltered honey.
- Studies have shown that honey affects blood sugar levels less significantly than sugar. It also enhances insulin sensitivity.
- Unprocessed raw honey may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides in people with diabetes while raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
- Current studies show that honey may exert anticancer effects.
- The antioxidative properties of honey help in reducing oxidative stress.
No matter which option you choose, please don’t overdo it. Let your taste buds become attuned to the sweetness of minimally processed fruits and vegetables.
Nancy Teeter is a Registered Dietitian and a SaddleBrooke resident. Though mostly retired, she is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge with others. This article should not replace advice from your medical provider.