Sorting out natural sweeteners and sugar

Moderation is important when using any kind of added sugar or sweetener.

It is fairly common for participants of Michigan State University Extension programs and educational presentations to ask questions about alternatives to sugar. “What is agave?” “Is honey better than white sugar?” Agave and honey are considered examples of “natural sweetener” alternatives to table or white sugar and are grouped as nutritive sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners contain carbohydrate, provide energy, occur naturally in food or may be added in food processing or by consumers. Consider referencing the short table below to learn more about some common nutritive sweeteners. 

Sweetener Name

What is it?

Nutrition Note

Table (White) Sugar

Sugar cane and sugar beet are main sources

one teaspoon provides up to 16 calories

Turbinado (Raw) Sugar

Made from the juice that remains after the sugar cane has been processed to remove the sugar crystals and molasses.

Although its color and name suggest it may be a healthier alternative to table sugar, it is not.

Brown Sugar

Combination of table sugar and molasses

Contains minute amounts of minerals, but not significantly different when compared with white sugar

Agave Nectar

The juice from the agave plant. A thick syrup ranging from light to dark amber in color that’s about one-and-a-half times sweeter than sugar

Often promoted as a healthier sweetener, agave should be used sparingly

Maple Syrup

Made by boiling down sap of maple trees

May contain more minerals than table sugar – manganese and zinc


Flavor, color and aroma differ depending on the nectar of the flowers visited by the bee.

Due to botulism risk, honey should not be given to infants less than one year old. Known to have antioxidant and antimicrobial and soothing properties. The World Health Organization and American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended it as a cough suppressant for children older than one year.


The liquid remaining after refining sugar cane or beets becomes molasses.

Black strap molasses is the result of a third boiling and noted as a source of calcium and magnesium.

Sources: Food & Nutrition Magazine, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics November/December 2013; Today’s Dietitian January 2015.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “consumers can safely enjoy a range of nutritive sweeteners when consumed within an eating plan that is guided by current federal nutrition recommendations.” It is important to remember that there are no significant health benefits to consuming one type of sugar over the other. Consuming a diet high in any added sugar can be detrimental to overall health and may contribute to risk of obesity, prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay.

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