Is maple syrup really healthier than sugar?

The start of the year is a common time for making changes in our lifestyle and eating habits. Sugar is now the new fat and we are all aware we need to cut down on sugar consumption. But are natural sugar substitutes like maple syrup, dates and agave really healthier for us? Many food bloggers and writers would have us believe they are and there is a growing trend in the mainstream media to encourage us to swap sugar for natural sweeteners like maple syrup, agave nectar, dates and the latest sweetener on the market – Stevia.

Here at SLOAN! Magazine we want to help you cut through the hype and confusion so we went to leading Consultant Gastroenterologist Dr Matthew Banks at The Lister Hospital and asked him: Are natural sugar substitutes like maple syrup really healthier than sugar?

Dr Matthew Banks comments:

“On the whole, these sugar substitutes contain as much sugar as refined sugar and all contribute towards poor health including obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, and all the health implications of these conditions.

For example maple syrup from maple sap contains at least 66% sucrose which is the same as table sugar. The difference is that refined sugar has been bleached and is devoid of any other minerals or vitamins. Maple syrup typically contains high levels of minerals such a zinc and manganese. However, maple syrup is processed by boiling until the sugar condenses which may destroy many of the vitamins.

The glycemic index of sugar substitutes vary, but taking maple syrup as an example it is around 52-55, when compared to table sugar which is 65. This means that maple syrup raises blood sugar slightly slower than table sugar.
Agave syrup is also very high in sugars. Agave, taken from the Mexican plant is very high in fructose and fructans. The processing of agave results in very high levels of the simple sugar fructose – approximately 85%. Most minerals and vitamins are destroyed by this process which leaves essentially a high fructose sugar. Fructose is absorbed more slowly than sucrose and the GI index is therefore lower, however the calorie content is just as high. Agave nectar, like maple syrup, is not a healthy sugar substitute and contributes towards obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Probably the most healthy sugar-containing substitute is mashed bananas or dried fruit such as dates. These still contain relatively high levels of sugar, but dried fruits are high in anti-oxidants, minerals and vitamins and have a much lower GI index than refined sugars and syrups. The sugar content is still on average 50%. Therefore although they contain additional nutrition, the high sugar content can still contribute towards all the conditions associated with high-sugar diets if eaten in high quantities.
One of the only natural sweeteners which does not contain sugar is from a plant called Stevia. This contains two known molecules called Stevioside and Rebaudioside A which are similar to the synthetic sweeteners. However there is not a strong evidence base for this molecule and without this I would not advise its use.
The bottom line therefore is that these added sweeteners are no better for you than table sugar, apart from some vitamins and minerals which can easily be derived from other foods. We need to move away from cultivating the ’sweet tooth’ which is encouraged by consuming both sugar and sugar substitutes. Instead we need to educate ourselves and our children from a young age.”
Matthew Banks hi resDr Matthew Banks is a Consultant Gastroenterologist at The Lister Hospital. Occupying one of Chelsea’s most famous landmarks, The Lister Hospital offers the latest medical procedures as part of a renowned and highly successful hospital group, HCA that delivers world-class medical care to the capital. The Lister Hospital offers access to some of Britain’s leading specialists, many of who are considered amongst the best in the world. It is one of the highest rated hospitals with regard to patient care and hotel services, and aims to deliver patients the very best experience on their pathway from diagnosis to treatment.
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