Stevia: A Sweet Sugar Substitute

Every few years a new sugar alternative hits the market. People who prefer to get their sweeteners’ calorie-free rush to buy up the local supermarket’s stock and eagerly tout the benefits of the latest and greatest sweet invention. About a decade ago sucrolose (aka Splenda) gave Sweet ‘n Low and Equal a run for their money.Agave nectar has received a “health halo” among some people, despite the fact that it is nearly all fructose and may be worse for your health than table sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Most recently, another non-sugar has made a splash in our coffees.

Stevia (sold at health food stores as Truvia, PureVia, Sun Crystals, among others) is made from the sweetest part of the South American stevia plant. The human body cannot use these steviol glycosides as fuel which means the calorie and carbohydrate count is zero.  It also tastes 200-300 times sweeter than sugar.

As with any new product, there are some questions that you may want answered. So, I got ya covered:

Is Stevia Safe?

Stevia has been used safely for a long time in South American and Asian countries. Stevia has been the subject of quite a bit of rigorous research assuring the safety of the sweetener, and has been approved by the FDA. Other calorie-free sweeteners such as saccharin (Sweet ‘n Low), aspartame (Equal), and sucralose (Splenda) have also been approved as safe.

Can I Bake with Stevia?

Unlike saccharin or aspartame, which denature (change molecular structure) under high heat, you can bake with Stevia! Check out these Truvia chocolate chip cookies as an example.

Is it Worth Switching My Sweetener?

It depends. While Stevia may be natural, and fits in with the current trend to consume less processed foods, it still should be used in moderation. It can be a great alternative to caloric sweeteners (sugar) as part of a balanced diet if you like the taste.

Here’s how I’d assess the sweetener issue:

  • If you are someone who is drinking soda, sweet tea, or other sweetened beverages, start to make the transition to water or lightly sweetened water-based beverages. You may be gulping down gobs of added sugar, which leads to diabetes and weight gain. If you already have diabetes or have been told that you are pre-diabetic, take heed now to cut back on foods and beverages with added sugars.
  • Take a look in your pantry… are you addicted to diet foods? Do you have a lot of packaged low-cal stuff that you snack on and no real food to speak of? Maybe there’s a problem. A few artificially sweetened treats may be fine, but if you are loading up on packaged snacks all day, you lose a chance to get good nutrition. Have a fat-free Greek yogurt with fruit instead of a sugar-free pudding.
  • Retrain your sweet tooth. If you really feel like you overdo it on all things sweet, maybe your whole eating plan needs a makeover. You’ll find by eating healthy, whole foods that your need for sweets goes down over time.
  • As with anything you add to coffee, cereal, or baked goods, taste makes all the difference.  Use what tastes good to you – just because Stevia comes from a plant doesn’t mean it’s any better (or worse) for your health. You have to enjoy your food. If you prefer sugar, fine. If you prefer Stevia, fine. If you prefer artificial sweetener, fine too. As long as you don’t think you are overdoing it. If you aren’t sure, you can always have your eating habits evaluated by a dietitian.

Agave Nectar No Healthier Than Othan Sweeteners

Have you turned your love of sugar in to a love of agave in an effort to be healthier? Maybe you should rethink much “love” you give it. If you are unfamiliar, agave nectar (ah gav ee) is a sweetener that ranges in color from light to dark, depending on the processing time and amount of minerals in the product. It is less thick than honey or maple syrup and has a sweeter taste. The agave sweetener comes from various species of the agave plant. After the juice has been extracted, it is heated to create simple sugars. The final product is some percentage of the sugars glucose and fructose.

So far agave should remind you of typical sugar sweeteners – including high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). However, the reality is that in recent years agave has been given a “health halo.” Since agave is vegan and can be processed at lower heat temperatures to satisfy raw food enthusiasts, it is an obvious desirable sweetener for some. But people have been flocking to use agave more and more because of its “low glycemic index” (low immediate effect on blood sugar). Since agave is mostly fructose the glycemic index is lowest of all the sugars. This has led some people to believe that agave is a healthier option. However, low glycemic index does not mean healthy. In fact, fructose is metabolized directly by the liver, which is different from other sugars, and can lead to fatty liver deposits. High fructose intake has also been linked to weight gain, insulin resistance, and heart disease risk in animal studies.

At best, agave is no healthier for you than other sweeteners. The fructose in agave (even if they call it natural) is not the same fructose in a piece of natural fruit. It is processed. Like all processed food products with added sugars, you should have them rarely and in limited quantities. There is no reason to select agave before other sweeteners when it comes to nutrition.

However, there may be culinary benefits. For example, the light agave is neutral in flavor and might be a good choice to sweeten sauces or beverages. The darker agave has a more caramel flavor and might be preferred for more robust dishes.

Agave is not the “angel” it’s been made out to be and certainly is not deserving of the “health halo” it has been given. That said, it’s not a “devil” ingredient either if you are health conscious. Like all sugars, it’s up to you to decide how much you will have and how often. Avoiding foods with added sugars altogether is not entirely realistic, but don’t think of agave as a free pass to eat a pan of cookies or brownies made with the nectar, either.