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Are some sweeteners better for you than others?

The question: A lot of "healthy" recipes call for syrups – agave, brown rice, maple – instead of refined white sugar. Are these really any better for you? Or is sugar just sugar, whatever the form?

The answer: Nutritionally speaking, all types of refined sugar are pretty much the same. Refined sugar provides carbohydrate and calories, but that's about it. They're lacking fibre, vitamins and minerals.

White sugar, or sucrose, comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. It contains 16 calories a teaspoon. Brown sugar is simply white granulated sugar with some molasses – a sugary syrup – added. This changes the taste and texture. One teaspoon of brown sugar has 12 calories.

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Many people think that honey is more natural so it's better for you. Honey is slightly less processed than white granulated sugar, but nutritionally there's no difference. In fact, honey has more calories than sugar – 21 calories a teaspoon compared with 16. It does, however, have a lower glycemic index than granulated sugar, meaning it makes your blood sugar rise less quickly.

Honey does contain some nutrients such as calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc and selenium. But the amounts found in one teaspoon are minuscule.

Brown rice syrup is made from, as its name implies, brown rice but it's highly refined and concentrated. It does contain a few trace minerals, including magnesium, manganese and zinc. But, like honey, the amount found in a teaspoon or two of brown rice syrup is negligible. There are 18 calories in one teaspoon of brown rice syrup.

Agave syrup or agave nectar is a sweetener produced in Mexico from the same plant that produces tequila. It tastes sweeter than honey but is not as thick. One teaspoon has roughly 20 calories. Because it has a very sweet taste, you may be able to use less of it than you would sugar or honey. Agave syrup has a high concentration of fructose, which results in it having a very low glycemic index. However, consumption of high amounts of fructose is thought to trigger harmful metabolic effects in the body.

Whichever sweetener you decide on, use only a little. Too much refined sugar can increase blood triglycerides (fats) and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. That's why the American Heart Association now advises limiting added sugars to 5 per cent of daily calories – roughly five teaspoons (80 calories worth) a day for women and nine teaspoons (144 calories) for men. The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada doesn't give a specific guideline for added sugar intake, nor does Health Canada, advocating moderation instead.

Send dietitian Leslie Beck your questions at . She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on the Globe website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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