Healthy in the kitchen, alternatives to white sugar Part 1, stevia, coconut sugar and agave syrup
Let's see the possible alternatives to white sugar analyzing for each properties, benefits and disadvantages.
White sugar is probably one of the most used and also most dangerous ingredients in Western diet. In addition to the sugar that we often add to sweeten desserts and coffee, during the day we consume sugar even without knowing it, for example in ready meals. The problem is that white sugar is associated with various health problems, from obesity, diabetes to even tumors (Shapiro et al, Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol., 2008 - Yang et al, JAMA Intern Med., 2014). What can we do? Definitely avoid, where possible, foods that have added sugar. We know this by reading the food label and looking for the word sugar or sucrose. We can then use, in our preparations, alternatives to white sugar. Among the possible sweeteners there are different types of white sugar substitutes, however, they are not all the same, some are healthier than others and some are just to be avoided. So let's start to see the possible alternatives to white sugar.
Stevia is a sweetener extracted from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana, a plant native to South America. Stevia does not provide calories, and therefore does not cause overweight, and has a sweetening power up to 300 times higher than sugar (Goyal et al, Int J Food Sci Nutr, 2010). In addition to this, studies have noted that stevia improves blood sugar levels and insulin work in humans (Anton et al, Appetite, 2010). In general, stevia is therefore considered safe and an excellent alternative to sugar. In any case, as for any food, even for stevia it is good not to overdo the doses.
Agave syrup is produced, as the name suggests, from agave. Considered by many an excellent substitute for white sugar, since it is characterized by a low glycemic index, actually it is not a valid, and healthy, alternative. In fact, although some studies report its antioxidant power and the fact that in the short term it does not cause an increase in blood sugar levels, as it happens with white sugar, agave syrup may cause in the long run an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease due to its content in fructose (Stanhope et al, Curr Opin Lipidol, 2013). This is why it is good to avoid agave syrup, both in ready meals and in home preparations.
It is a sugar obtained from the nectar of the flowers of the coconut palm. Coconut sugar contains in small quantities mineral salts such as iron, zinc, calcium and potassium (FNRI, Department of Science and Technology). Not only that, it also contains inulin, which is a fiber that proves able to lower the absorption of sugar (Kim et al, J Nutr, 1996). However, despite these characteristics, it is good not to abuse it as it is a caloric sweetener and contains fructose. As we have seen in the previous paragraph, fructose intake can increase the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the long run. Moreover, excessive quantities of fructose are also linked to the fatty liver (Jensen et al, J Hepatol, 2018).
Next time we will explore the properties of xylitol, brown cane sugar, honey and also talk about aspartame!