Confused and frustrated by the search for the healthiest sweetener? You're not alone. From saccharin to agave, we've been barraged with alternatives to plain old cane sugar since the early 20th century. But a savior may be here—a chemical-free, minimally processed alternative. Coconut sugar, which is drawn from the sap of the coconut palm tree and has a mild caramel flavor, is packed with magnesium, potassium, and iron—minerals that stabilize your energy levels. It's also high in inositol, a B vitamin that is widely used as a mood booster. Health-minded hot-spot restaurants like Pure Food and Wine in New York City and Moonshadows in Malibu, California, use coconut sugar in their desserts and some entrees. "It doesn't give you an energy crash, and it's not as fattening as regular sugar," says one convert, Allison Lubert, co-owner of Philadelphia's Sweet Freedom Bakery. "Those two benefits alone sold me."
Many of those turning to coconut sugar are using it in place of agave, which was the sweetener du jour until recent reports showed that it's worse for your body than high-fructose corn syrup. Agave is up to 90 percent fructose, which your system immediately converts to fat; by comparison, HFCS contains 55 percent fructose, while coconut sugar averages around 45 percent. And coconut sugar isn't just better for your heart—it's good for your conscience, too. The Food and Agriculture Organization calls it the world's most sustainable sweetener.
SWEETENER TRENDS THROUGH THE YEARS
Cave paintings suggest that the Spanish were among the early honey gatherers.
Brought to Europe from India by Alexander the Great.
Developed by Napoleon after the Brits kicked France out of the Caribbean.
Sugar shortages later made it popular during WWI. Most commonly found in Sweet'N Low.
Banned in 1969 after being linked to bladder cancer.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Became popular almost overnight after sugar tariffs made it comparitively cheap to produce.
Plagued by controversy over brain-tumor fears after being FDA-approved.
Stricter testing was (unsuccessfully) called for after possible cancer links.
Primarily used in Splenda and approved in more than 80 countries.
Introduced by Nutra Sweet, maker of aspartame. Controversy persists.
Hyped as healthy, but a 90 percent fructose count makes it fattier than high-fructose corn syrup.
Thirty times sweeter than sugar; has no calories and few reported side effects.
INSIDE THE INGREDIENTS
The Skinny on Three Popular Sugar Alternatives
Added to many sports drinks, this processed sweetener, derived from corn, contains 98 percent or more fructose, making it much more fattening than high-fructose corn syrup.
This is used to sweeten everything from smoothies to teas, and although it looks healthy on an ingredient list (it's fruit!), it's 64 percent fructose, compared with high-fructose corn syrup's 55 percent.
Extracted from a South American herb, stevia is calorie-free and devoid of the serious side effects (memory loss, arrhythmia, and seizures) associated with some other zero-calorie sweeteners.