Whether or not you have a nagging sweet tooth, you’ve probably heard a lot of talk about alternative sweeteners lately.
Since sugar has made its way into just about everything these days (sodas, baked goods, condiments, even savory food options like pasta sauces and potato chips), and coupled with the known dangers of sugar addiction, many are looking for healthier options instead of facing the hard decision of forgoing sweet treats entirely.
Sugar, whether it’s natural or refined, leads to a spike in blood sugar, a.k.a. glucose. Too much of the sweet stuff can prompt the body to start storing glucose as fat instead of using it as it’s intended for fuel. Even more serious is the long-term health implications that come from consuming excess sugar, which contributes to a higher risk of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic diseases.
With Americans alone consuming more than 10,000 tons of sugar per calendar year, it’s no wonder people want to find other ways to get a fix.
Alternative sweeteners are a strong option. And there’s plenty to try: Coconut palm sugar, stevia, honey, and even fruit products like apple sauce and jam can be good replacements. Each one has their own set of pros and cons, however, and of course they each add a distinct flavor to any dish. Here, we take a closer look at two of the most popular alternatives, agave and maple syrup.
More about agave
Agave is a syrupy sweetener that comes from the juice of the same-named succulent plant. Blue Agave is native to Mexico and is regarded for its use in making tequila—but don’t worry, agave syrup is completely safe for the whole family. There are other species of the agave plant as well, with the individual plant cores juiced and then filtered using enzymes and heat applications to produce the sweetener.
The flavor of agave
Agave actually tastes relatively bland, which makes it ideal for those times when you simply want to add sweetness but not change the flavors of a dish or drink. Agave also comes in light and dark amber colors, the darker of which can taste most similar to honey.
The pros of using agave
Aside from not having a decidedly strong flavor, agave is a syrup and therefore incredibly convenient for beverages, whether that’s tea, lemonade, flavored water, or cocktails. Additionally, it’s vegan-friendly—unlike honey, which is considered an animal byproduct, agave is 100 percent animal- and cruelty-free.
Agave’s big advantage over traditional white sugar though is its low Glycemic Index (GI), or the numerical value for how a certain food item will affect blood sugar; the higher the number, the more impact it has. The fructose (fruit sugar) found in agave doesn’t go directly into the bloodstream, so insulin and blood sugar levels do not rapidly spike. For those that struggle with diabetes or simply want to find a healthier sweetener without the impending sugar crash, agave is a good solution.
The cons of using agave
Unfortunately, agave isn’t simply a free pass to add into all of your favorite recipes to make them sweeter. Agave nectar has about the same amount of calories as sugar, so if you’re looking for a low-cal option it’s not ideal. The biggest concern, though, is that agave is typically highly processed and also rather high in fructose.
Obviously, the more that agave is processed, the more that healthy compounds like fructans (which have a beneficial effect on insulin and metabolism) break down. Luckily, there are some agave sweeteners that are not as processed as others, and those are among the best choice available. Items like Madhava Organic Agave Nectar or Wholesome Organic Blue Agave are pure nectar and have more of the beneficial qualities desired.
The other issue is that agave possesses a high amount of fructose—85 percent, to be exact, which is higher than sugar—and that facet alone can wreak havoc on metabolism and health when consumed in large quantities. The only part of the body that can process fructose is the liver, so too much and the liver becomes overloaded and unable to turn it into energy. Instead, the leftover fructose is transformed into fat, which can raise blood triglycerides and lead to blocked arteries, weight problems, and heart issues. While fructose doesn't raise blood sugar levels on its own, it can raise the risk of diabetes in the long-term with excess consumption.
More about maple syrup
Maple syrup comes from maple tree sap, and has an amber hue and sticky, runny texture. The primary tree used for sourcing it is the sugar maple tree, or Acer saccharum. Sap is collected using a tap and the liquid is boiled immediately in order to remove all the water. This step is a crucial part in filtering the sap, allowing it to become syrupy, and providing a particular grade. The four classifications are Grade A Light Amber, Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber, and Grade B—with every grade getting gradually darker (and more intense with flavor).
Contrary to popular belief, these grades do not indicate that one syrup is better than the other. More than anything, they’re classifications. Each bottle contains the same amount of sugar, but the difference in color and taste is attributed to how long the sap was boiled.
The pros of using maple syrup
Maple syrup, such as Coombs Organic Dark Maple Syrup Grade A or Thrive Market Organic Maple Syrup Grade A, also has a lower Glycemic Index than regular sugar, so it’s also a good option for those looking to enjoy a little something sweet without spiking blood sugar levels. It also has fewer calories than other sweeteners like honey.
The best part though is that maple syrup has many nutrients, including manganese, riboflavin, and zinc (as well as small doses of potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus, iron, and selenium). Each has their own benefits they impart to the body:
- Manganese, a mineral naturally occurs in our bodies in small amounts. It’s a powerful antioxidant that damages free radical particles, preventing many potential dangers like signs of early aging and risks for chronic diseases. It contributes to optimal bone health and metabolism, as well.
- Riboflavin is more commonly called vitamin B2. The family of B vitamins provides energy but can’t be stored for long periods of time, so they must be consumed daily.
- Zinc is a maconutrient the body must have for survival. It’s best known for keeping the common cold at bay and plays a vital role in overall wellness, including aiding in cell growth and development, hormone regulation, and neurological function.
The cons of using maple syrup
The biggest concern with maple syrup is that it contains sucrose, a naturally occurring sugar found in plants. While not inherently a bad thing, when consumed in large amounts, sucrose has some of the same problems of regular sugar, like contributing to weight gain.
Which is better: agave or maple syrup?
The best idea to keep in mind with sweeteners of any kind is to use them in moderation. Whether you prefer the subtle taste of agave or rich amber flavor of maple syrup, it’s important to never go overboard with either and, instead, try to fill your diet with fresh vegetables, fruits, and other filling fiber and protein options.
Both agave and maple syrup have a lower Glycemic Index than regular table sugar and can be enjoyed by anyone following a vegan diet. Because maple syrup offers some nutritional benefits (like vitamins and minerals), it has a slight edge over agave syrup—particularly the more processed varieties.
No matter which you choose, always be sure to check the ingredient label and purchase options that are pure agave or pure maple syrup and not pumped full of mystery additives or additional sugars, which can defeat the whole purpose of using them.
Recipes to try using agave or maple syrup
While maple syrup is always a staple with pancakes, and the lighter agave syrup can be an ideal add-on to beverages like coffee and tea, there are creative ways to use both as well. Try three of Thrive Market’s favorite ideas below.
Use maple syrup to drench grilled peaches in this mouthwatering dessert that is a satisfying and naturally sweet snack. The heat from the grill will caramelize the sugars in the fruit, adding some smokiness and making them delightfully soft, just like they’ve been plucked from a piping hot pie. Then, top them with a bit of yogurt, granola, and maple syrup (instead of the honey called for in the recipe) for a mix of texture and flavor.
Finally, a gluten-free variety of this favorite bread that is dense, moist, and fruity. Full of bananas and walnuts, enjoy a slice or two at breakfast, for an afternoon snack, or even dessert. Cinnamon, cardamom, and vanilla add in a swirl of wonderful scents and flavors that will also fill your home as it bakes.
Oatmeal is a perfectly filling breakfast option, but you’ll swear this recipe was intended for dessert. The result is a luxuriously thick dish, similar to spice pudding-cake, and complete with carrots, apples, and raisins. It’s an energizing way to start the day, or end your day on a sweet note.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho