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Ask the RD: Are sugar alternatives healthier?

QUESTION: I know white sugar isn’t good for me, but what about other sugars? Are alternative sugars like honey and agave syrup any healthier?

ANSWER: Too much added sugar is linked to increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which is why the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of added sugar per day for women and 38 g (9 teaspoons) per day for men (AHA 2018).

Any added sugar has been processed to concentrate the sugar. Sugar cane, sugar beets and agave plants are naturally only slightly sweet. White, or granulated, sugar is made by extracting and isolating sucrose from sugar cane or sugar beets.

Molasses is a thick, sweet byproduct of white sugar production. Most brown sugar is white sugar with some molasses added back. Raw sugar has some of the molasses left in.

Coconut sugar and date palm sugar are concentrated from liquid in palm flower stalks.

Agave syrup is made by concentrating sugar in agave plants. Compared with most other sweeteners, agave is higher in fructose. Honey is also high in fructose, which is concentrated by bees from flower nectar.

Because they are less processed, alternative sugars have slightly more vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (healthful substances that contribute flavor and color to plant foods) than white sugar. However, if you eat sugar in the small amounts recommended, the extra vitamins and minerals are insignificant. See the table table, right, keeping in mind that the daily values for calcium and iron are 1,300 milligrams and 18 mg, respectively (NIH 2018).

Chart with nutritional value of sugar

In terms of health, there isn’t much difference between sources of added sugar. But there might be good culinary reasons to use an alternative sugar. Maybe you want a liquid-like agave syrup to dissolve quickly in a cold drink, or perhaps you like the caramel notes of palm sugar in ginger tea. I recommend keeping your added sugar intake low and using what you like.

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