From agave nectar to coconut sugar, sift through the specs of so-called natural sweeteners before settling

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Jennifer Sygo | 13/05/14 | Last Updated: 13/05/14 9:36 AM ET More from Jennifer Sygo

Agave actually has higher concentrations of calories than sugar does. So using it as an "alernative" to sucrose? It can be tricky, if weight loss results are what you're after.

Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images filesAgave actually has higher concentrations of calories than sugar does. So using it as an "alernative" to sucrose? It can be tricky, if weight loss results are what you're after.

In a world where nutrition trends are fuelled by celebrities and talk show hosts, the average person can feel like they’re in a fog when it comes to “the next big thing” in dietary advice. In that sense, the recent buzz about agave and coconut sugar is probably about as welcome as the return of fanny packs and acid-washed jeans. Can’t we just enjoy our flaxseeds and salmon for a while? Nope — because when it comes to the cult of health and wellness, the big wheels are always turning. So, to get you up speed on the lingo before your next lunch date with a Hollywood celebrity trainer, here’s a primer on some of the hot new sugar substitutes that are taking up shelf space in health food stores these days.


Its story: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, derived from plant products, especially corn cobs and hardwood. Claim to fame: Xylitol is said to be as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), but with a third fewer calories. It also looks like sugar, and many feel it tastes like sugar. Xylitol and other sugar alcohols have a prolonged history of use in the diabetic community, since they do not trigger the same blood sugar spike or insulin response as other more common sugars. And heck, Gwyneth Paltrow uses xylitol in her new cookbook, It’s All Good, so it must be good, right? The nutrition: A teaspoon of xylitol provides about 10 calories’ worth of energy, versus 15 calories per gram of sugar. The downside: As with all sugar alcohols, xylitol is fermented in the large intestine. That means it can trigger gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially at high doses. The bottom line: With a 40-year history of use, xylitol has one of the better track records among sweeteners. Whether or not it actually triggers weight loss when substituted for table sugar is not known.

Sugar should be controlled like alcohol: report

Sugar is so toxic it should be controlled like alcohol, according to new report that goes so far as to suggest setting an age limit of 17 years to buy soda pop.

It points to sugar as a culprit behind many of the world’s major killers — heart disease, cancer and diabetes — that are now a greater health burden than infectious disease.

A little sugar “is not a problem, but a lot kills — slowly,” says the report to be published Thursday in Nature, a top research journal.


Its story: Coconut sugar or coconut palm sugar is a granular sugar derived from the sap of the coconut tree, much like maple syrup is derived from a maple tree. Claim to fame: Recently featured on The Dr. Oz Show, coconut sugar is said to be lower glycemic — meaning it causes less of a blood sugar spike and crash — than sucrose, which in turn suggests it could help to control cravings and reduce hunger — and, of course, help you to lose weight. Many feel it also tastes like traditional sugar and can be substituted in a one-to-one ratio for sugar in recipes, making it easy to use. The nutrition: A teaspoon of most commercial coconut sugars provide the same number of calories (15) as table sugar. The downside: The relationship between low glycemic index foods and weight loss isn’t black-and-white. Also, leaving people with the impression that coconut sugar is somehow “healthier” than regular sugar can result in the so-called “health halo” effect, meaning that we give ourselves permission to eat more of the food because we perceive it to be good for us. With few if any quality standards in place, it’s not clear if the coconut sugar obtained from different preparation methods, or from different types of trees, will produce the same kind of product. The bottom line: It might have a lower impact on blood sugar, but coconut sugar is far too new a product to be able to provide any clear recommendations. For now, it’s simply a matter of buyer beware.  But quality aside, coconut sugar is still sugar, and needs to be used with as much caution as table sugar.


Its story: Agave nectar is a natural sweetener derived from the same plant as tequila. Claim to fame: Like coconut sugar, agave is a low glycemic food, at least compared with sucrose.  Since blood sugar spikes and crashes are generally not desirable, agave has become a sweetener of choice for health foodies. The nutrition: A tablespoon of agave provides about 60 calories’ worth of energy, which is about 15 calories more than an equal serving of sucrose.  On the other hand, since agave is a more intense sweetener than sugar, you should be able to use less of it. The downside: Agave is actually very high in fructose; a recent analysis of 19 pure agave syrups found they contained an average of 84% fructose), a type of sugar that doesn’t convert to glucose, and therefore doesn’t raise blood sugar (also known as blood glucose levels). Since fructose, which also occurs naturally in fruit and honey, as well as in table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, is on the nutritional naughty list these days, agave has been kicked out of many kitchens, including that of health guru Dr. Andrew Weil. The bottom line: The fructose story is a complex one. While some research suggests high fructose diets can contribute to insulin-resistance and high triglycerides, ultimately increasing our risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes, there are a number of well-respected researchers who doubt the fructose-is-poison theory, at least significantly more so than other added sugars or refined carbohydrates. Regardless, agave is still a form of sugar, and is actually higher in calories than sucrose, so it needs to be used sparingly. As for clinical trials on agave? You’re out of luck.

—Jennifer Sygo, M.Sc., RD, is a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist at Cleveland Clinic Canada. Visit her on the Web at and send your comments and nutrition-related questions to her at