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The Real Deal On Sugar Alternatives

Agave, stevia, and honey—oh my

sugar

Kids like sweet stuff (duh). But that doesn't mean we're down with sugar—no matter what Mary Poppins says. And we're not totally sold on "all natural" sugar alternatives either. So we asked nutritionist Amy Shapiro, founder of Real Nutrition NYC and mom of three, to give us a crash course on sweetening agents.

Agave. “Agave is generally regarded as safe to consume unless someone is intolerant of fructose, which is in agave’s make-up,” says Shapiro. While fruits only contain about 7 percent of fructose, agave contains anywhere from 55 to 90 percent fructose. And even though it’s touted as natural, it’s actually highly processed from the original form. It’s one-and-a-half times sweeter than table sugar, and has 20 calories more in a tablespoon. Unlike the glucose in table sugar, which gets used by the body’s cells for energy, fructose is processed through the liver and can increase triglycerides and cause fatty deposits. “The bottom line is that in small doses agave can't hurt you, but it’s not any better than regular sugar or high fructose corn syrup.”

Stevia. Shapiro thinks Stevia used in reasonable amounts is probably okay for humans, though its effect on fertility in women has been debated. “There’s simply a lack of long-term studies. I would use it sparingly and only in its most pure form,” Shapiro says. Unless you purchase the actual stevia leaves, which are available at some farmers market, Shapiro explains that the product that ends up in your kitchen is highly processed.

Honey. "Honey is a safe sweetener for expectant and nursing moms, as well as toddlers over the age of 1,” Shapiro says. But children under the age of 1 should not be fed honey, because of the risk of botulism. Shapiro cites honey as a terrific and natural throat soother for children, in lieu of cough syrups or drops. Raw honey has advantages over processed: “It contains vitamins and minerals that pasteurized honey may not” Shapiro adds. Still, she says, it’s sugar, and it should be used in moderation.

Maple syrup. According to Shapiro, it’s safe for all age groups and has many health benefits, to boot. “Maple syrup contains polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can help to fight inflammatory diseases including cancer, Alzheimer's, and osteoporosis. It also contains minerals including zinc and manganese, which aid in immunity and fighting illness,” explains Shapiro. She recommends using real maple syrup (check the label to make sure there are no other ingredients in the bottle) to gain the most benefits. “And like honey, maple syrup is a form of sugar, so use it in moderation."

Medjool dates. Dates can be used as a sweetener in smoothies or in cooking and baking. “Dates are safe for all age groups, but they can be a choking hazard for children under 7 months, so make sure to cut them into small pieces or mash them up.” Shapiro says dates can be particularly beneficial for pregnant women because of their high fiber and iron content—they can help ward off constipation and anemia (both common during pregnancy). Dates also contain electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium, as well as zinc, manganese, calcium, and folate. Each date has about 66 calories and is high in sugar, so limiting them is still a good idea.

Coconut sugar. Here's another reason to jump on the coconut bandwagon. Shapiro says coconut sugar contains iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and inulin—a form of fiber that the body digests more slowly than table sugar; therefore, it has a lower glycemic index. “It’s safe for all age groups, and you can substitute it one to one for sugar when cooking,” Shapiro explains. Sounds good to us.