It was Maple Weekend that got me thinking about sweeteners, but as a nutrition educator, I find that questions about sweeteners are endless.
That is at least partly to blame on food marketers competing to prove that theirs is the “healthiest” sweetener. Sweeteners can be nutritive, have calories, or non-nutritive, be calorie free, and some are considered natural, or at least more natural than others.
Recently, natural sweeteners have been popular, thanks to a resurgence in eating more whole foods. These natural sweeteners are very different and may not always be the best choice for you.
I have to start with the two local favorites, maple syrup and honey. Not only are these both delicious sweeteners with distinct flavors, but you can also support the local economy by choosing them.
Maple syrup has 52 calories per tablespoon and is a good source of the minerals manganese and zinc. Real maple syrup is delicious and because of the minerals, a better choice than pancake syrup, but be careful not to eat too much. Try a darker grade of syrup for a stronger flavor.
Honey has 64 calories per tablespoon and has antioxidants. Darker varieties of honey have more antioxidants. Honey also can help suppress coughs and alleviate sore throats. For children over the age of 1 and adults, either add to herbal tea or just eat a spoonful.
Agave, with 64 calories per tablespoon, is very trendy right now, but that does not necessarily mean that it is the right sweetener for everyone. Agave is plant based, and though agave nectar is processed (concentrated), it is done with very low heat, so it is favored among raw foodists and vegans.
Stevia has recently gained popularity as a natural no-calorie sweetener in the U.S., though it has been used in other countries for decades. The form found at the grocery store has been processed into liquid or granules and may have added ingredients. This sweetener is probably best for people trying to restrict calories or simple carbohydrates, like diabetics.