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Stevia on a table. (Thinkstock)
Stevia on a table. (Thinkstock)

Are stevia and agave syrup healthier sweeteners than sugar? Add to ...

The questions: What’s the difference between agave syrup and stevia? Are they healthier than sugar?

The answer: Many health-conscious people are steering away from refined white sugar, and opting for agave syrup (agave nectar) or stevia to sweeten their foods. These alternative sweeteners are often perceived as more natural, or less highly processed, than table sugar and artificial sweeteners. Yet, both are derived from multistep processing methods.

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Agave syrup comes from the same plant that produces tequila, the blue agave plant that grows primarily in Mexico. The core of the plant contains aguamiel, the sweet substance used to produce agave syrup. While processing methods can vary, most involve enzymes, chemicals and heat to convert aguamiel into agave syrup. Organic manufacturers use low heat and no chemicals.

Agave syrup has either a dark or light amber colour and it’s slightly thinner in consistency than honey. It contains 60 calories per tablespoon – versus 48 for table sugar – but because it is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, you can use less of it.

Nutritionally, agave syrup is similar to high-fructose corn syrup. Depending on processing, it can contain anywhere from 55 to 97 per cent fructose. (High-fructose corn syrup, by comparison, consists of 55 per cent fructose; the rest is glucose.) Its fructose content results in a sweetener with a glycemic index (10-20) much lower than plain sugar (65). The fact that agave syrup doesn’t spike your blood sugar and insulin has led many manufacturers to market it as “diabetic friendly.”

Yet, according to many experts, agave’s high fructose concentration makes it an unhealthy sweetener. That’s because research has linked high- fructose sweeteners to obesity, diabetes, high triglycerides (blood fats), metabolic syndrome and fatty liver.

Stevia is a no-calorie sweetener that’s made from the leaves of a plant, Stevia rebaudiana, native to South America. Stevia leaves get their sweet taste – about 10 to 15 times sweeter than sugar – from natural compounds called steviol glycosides.

Stevia leaves and stevia extracts are sold as tabletop sweeteners in natural food stores. They have not, however, been approved for use as food additives in Canada and the United States because animal studies have suggested stevia could cause genetic mutations and male infertility. Health Canada considers the available safety data on these products insufficient.

A highly purified stevia extract – sold under the brand names Truvia and PureVia – has been deemed safe and given the green light to sweeten foods in Canada and the U.S., including breakfast cereals, salad dressings, chewing gum and beverages. This purified stevia extract is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar so it takes only a minuscule amount to sweeten foods.

In the sense that stevia doesn’t add calories, affect blood sugar or insulin levels, or contribute to dental cavities, I suppose it is a better choice than sugar. Even so, it’s a highly refined extract that perpetuates the desire for sweet-tasting foods and drinks.

If you prefer a caloric sweetener – be it agave syrup, honey, maple syrup or white sugar – use as little as possible. Too much sugar of any type raises blood triglycerides, lowers HDL (good) cholesterol and contributes excess calories to your diet.

My recommendation: Train your taste buds to adjust to a less sweet taste by gradually cutting back on sugars, stevia or artificial sweeteners. Eventually, you’ll be surprised to learn that your cup of coffee or tea, glass of water, or bowl of cereal tastes just fine without adding sweetener.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen Thursdays at noon on CTV News Channel’s Direct. Lesliebeck.com

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd

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