Which is healthier: agave, maple, or coconut sugar?
There are a lot of sugar ‘alternatives’ now available and common in healthier versions of your favourite bakes and every health food store. Are they actually better for you than table sugar? Here’s a quick nutritional comparison that may surprise you!
Despite being seen as more ‘natural’, this has no additional health benefits to sugar. Per gram, it has fewer calories than table sugar, but because it’s liquid, you’re likely to use more so it makes no difference.
Pronounced uh-gar-vay, agave nectar also has no additional health benefits to sugar. It’s made up of more fructose than glucose, which means it has less of an impact on your blood sugars; however, the impact of high levels of fructose on the body are still being debated and some experts believe that excessive consumption may have negative consequences.
It also naturally tastes sweeter than sugar, so in theory, you would use less. Like with maple syrup, this often isn’t the case as it’s in liquid form, so the benefits for keeping energy intake down are minimal. The vitamins and minerals it contains are also negligible for the amount you will consume in a tea or baked goods recipes.
This does sometimes contain prebiotic fibre, which our good gut bacteria use for food, however, it is still just a form of sugar.
High-quality Manuka honey actually has some truth behind the health claims. It depends on the UMF (Unique Manuka Factor) rating and whether it’s monofloral (from one source of nectar rather than lots). The higher the UMF, the more antibacterial properties it is believed to contain, so you could try it for a sore throat or cold - just not in hot water, as this kills off the beneficial enzymes.
Other honey may contain trace amounts of some nutrients like B vitamins and some antioxidants, but these are very small amounts and less likely to be found in supermarket honey. The effect on your blood sugar is also almost exactly the same as table sugar.
These can help people with diabetes who need to watch their blood sugar levels, and can also be helpful with weight loss as they provide a sweet taste without the calories. However, more research is needed - they may negatively affect the gut microbiome and high amounts of them can cause issues like bloating, gas and diarrhoea.
In addition, some research suggests that sweeteners actually stimulate appetite, making you feel hungrier, so not so great for weight loss after all!
The sweet spot
Basically, there is very little difference between these alternatives to sugar. Most of them have the same effect on our blood sugars, insulin production and dental health as table sugar does. Any vitamins, minerals or antioxidants in them are in such small amounts that they don’t bring additional benefits.
They all count as ‘free’ sugars, which means that the sugars are not inside the cells (like in fruit). They should be limited because of their impact on our teeth and high energy content, which can lead to weight gain. Instead of worrying about which is ‘healthier’, just choose the one you like the taste of, or works better in a recipe, and be mindful of portion size - the recommended intake of free sugars in the UK is 5% of your total dietary energy, which is about six or seven teaspoons a day.