THE BLOG
01/16/2015 12:38 pm ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

Ask JJ: Healthier Sugars or Hype?

Dear JJ: I know table sugar is bad, high-fructose corn syrup is worse, and artificial sweeteners aren't any better. What becomes confusing are so-called healthier sweeteners like honey and agave. Some experts claim they are healthy; others, not so much. Can you shed some light here?

Let's carefully look at four popular "healthy sugars" to determine whether they offer benefits or just hype.

Honey

"Honey also has trace elements in it -- stuff that bees picked up while going from plant to plant," writes Keith Kantor, Ph.D. "These will depend on region, so depending on the source of your honey it could have varying small amounts of minerals like zinc and selenium, as well as some vitamins. And because honey doesn't break down in nature, it doesn't contain preservatives or other additives."

Unfortunately, Richard Schiffman found that "over three-quarters of the honey sold in American supermarkets and drug stores may not be what the bees created, but a watered down, reconstituted hodge-podge of the real deal mixed with other cheaper, less-savory, and often less-safe ingredients."

So opt for raw, unfiltered, organic honey from a reputable source. Even then, let's not get too carried away. Despite its health glow, "Sugar is sugar. And honey is (mostly) sugar," Kantor says.

Bottom line: Quality and quantity matter here. For immune responses to mold and dust, organic honey can strengthen your immune system, but even then only about half a teaspoon can do the job.

Coconut Sugar

Compared with table and brown sugars, coconut sugar has impressive amounts of nutrients like zinc and iron as well as antioxidants.

Coconut sugar also contains good amounts of inulin, a type of dietary fiber you don't digest in your upper gastrointestinal tract. Instead, inulin acts as a prebiotic, feeding your intestinal bifidobacteria (a probiotic).

Regardless, let's not forget coconut sugar is a sweetener. A study in the ASEAN Food Journal found coconut sugar has about 71 percent sucrose, or table sugar, as well as 3 percent pure glucose and 3 percent pure fructose.
In other words, about 78 percent -- over three-fourths -- of coconut sugar is actually sugar, compared with 100 percent of table sugar. (Nutrients, inulin, and antioxidants constitute coconut sugar's other 22 percent.)

Bottom line: Like honey, coconut sugar becomes dose dependent. A little provides some nutrients, but this is not a by-the-heaping-teaspoon type of sweetener, especially if you have blood sugar issues.

Agave

Why this sweetener still gets any "healthy" press is a testimony to its "triumph of marketing over science," as Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., brilliantly says.

"Most agave 'nectar' or agave 'syrup' is nothing more than a laboratory-generated super-condensed fructose syrup, devoid of virtually all nutrient value, and offering you metabolic misfortune in its place," writes Dr. Joseph Mercola.

Agave can contain up to 90 percent fructose, the most metabolically damaging sugar that Mercola calls "far worse than high-fructose corn syrup."

In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dr. Robert Lustig notes among its problems, fructose contributes "to rising rates of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome." Excessive fructose also becomes a key player in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Even though it doesn't raise blood sugar or insulin, fructose contributes to insulin resistance. One study found fructose raises triglycerides and doesn't signal your satiety hormone leptin or suppress your hunger hormone gherkin.

Fructose also makes you fat. One study found fructose converts to fat twice as much as other sweeteners. According to Lustig, about 30 percent of fructose will convert to fat.

Bottom line: Steer far, far away from agave as a sweetener.

Yacón Syrup
Yacón syrup is derived from the yacón plant indigenous to the Andes mountains. The plant's shape resembles a yam or sweet potato.

About 50 percent of Yacón syrup consists of fructooligosaccharides (FOS), or short chains of fructose molecules, which naturally occur in foods like onions and garlic. Like inulin (also found in Yacón), FOS is indigestible and performs as a prebiotic.

One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with 48 overweight adults over 12 weeks, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found those who supplemented with FOS lost weight, whereas the control group gained weight. Among its benefits, FOS reduced concentrations of the hunger hormone gherkin.

Regardless, about 35 percent of Yacón syrup is fructose, the most metabolically damaging sweetener. While that's far less than agave, higher amounts of Yacón syrup could still potentially create fructose overload and all its repercussions.

Ever since Dr. Mehmet Oz touted it as a potential metabolic game changer, Yacón Syrup has developed a reputation for fat loss. At least one study supports his claim.

Published in the journal Clinical Nutrition, this double-blind, placebo-controlled trial with 55 obese pre-menopausal women gave 40 participants Yacón syrup and the others a placebo. Both groups stuck with a low-fat diet over 120 days.

The results were impressive. Whereas the placebo group lost less than four pounds, the Yacón syrup group lost an average of 33 pounds.

Bottom line: Despite that small study, I'm not so eager to jump on the Yacón syrup train. FOS and inulin benefits aside, its fructose makes Yacón syrup another dose-dependent sweetener. A little bit might provide benefits, but too much can provide a fructose overload. I definitely wouldn't consider it a fat loss miracle sweetener.

What are your thoughts about honey, agave, and other so-called healthy sugars? Do you use any of them? Share your comments below. Please keep those amazing questions coming at AskJJ@jjvirgin.com.