Searching for their sweet tooth

We are a sugar-soaked nation: it is estimated that Canadians consume 26 teaspoons of sugar a day, according to a 2011 Stats Canada report. This is far more than the six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons a day for men that the American Heart Association recommends (the only professional body to suggest a daily limit).

With added sugars associated with weight gain and diabetes risk, consumers are starting to think about what they stir into their morning coffee.

Artificial sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda long enjoyed a reputation as being diet friendly; however, consumers are increasingly searching out what they believe to be healthier options and manufacturers are serving up a new breed of sweetener.

While health professionals are recommending that Canadians let go of their sweet tooth, consumers don’t seem to be giving up their sugary ways any time soon.

Let’s take a look at what’s on the shelves and whether they’re nutritional heroes or zeroes.

Agave nectar: Agave comes from the plant of the same name, the very same plant that we derive tequila from. Agave is processed by boiling off the nectar of the agave plant and made a name for itself as being a natural, low glycemic sweetener. Unfortunately, the low glycemic effect comes from a large dose of fructose–more than is found in high fructose corn syrup – which worries some health professionals due to the association with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and diabetes.

Coconut palm sugar: The newest kid on the sugar block, coconut palm sugar shows promise. Harvested sustainably in South East Asia from the sap of coconut flowers, coconut palm sugar is mostly sucrose (the same sugar as table sugar) but is far less processed and contains more minerals than other sweeteners. It has a caramel-like flavour and is growing in popularity in the search for the better sweetener.

Refined stevia crystals: Stevia has been around for quite some time in tincture form but didn’t make it beyond the die-hard health food crowd for its distinctive, licorice-like taste. Now, major players such as Cargill have introduced refined, isolated stevioside crystals (responsible for the plant’s sweetness) under the brands Truvia and PureVia. The only zero calorie option in the bunch and being marketed as the ‘natural’ no-calorie sweetener, this one is bound to become popular now that it has been approved by Health Canada for sale.

Xylitol: Xylitol is billed as a natural low calorie sweetener, although extracting sugar alcohols from wood pulp is not the most natural process. Xylitol has a cooling effect, which lends itself well to candies and chewing gum – and xylitol also helps prevent cavities. Of note, sugar alcohols can irritate the digestive tract when consumed in large amounts.

Raw honey: Honey isn’t new but the interest in the health properties of honey is growing. As consumers are becoming more aware of its health benefits, they will be looking for unpasteurized, local and organic options.