But what if you want to cut down on your sugar intake? Or what if you want a slightly different type of sweetness to better complement your coffee? There are a bunch of alternatives to sugar, and they can sometimes be a little confusing. We break them down here.
Perhaps the most obvious place to start is the host of different artificial sweeteners. These chemical substances are designed to mimic sugar’s sweetening abilities without actually containing any sugar, though some are derived from sugar.
Generally known by a common name and an E number, sweeteners are approved and regulated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Sweeteners approved for consumption in the EU include: acesulfame K, aspartame, saccharin, sorbitol, sucralose, stevia and xylitol.
Despite being chemically produced compounds, the regulation around sweeteners is very strict, and research has confirmed that intake within the recommended daily allowances is perfectly safe. However, while sweetener manufacturers make many claims about the benefits of their sugar alternatives, they’ve only been proven to help prevent tooth decay, and to control blood sugar levels – particularly useful for diabetics.
We have bees to thank for this delicious, syrupy nectar. Collecting nectar from flowers, a bee will produce around half a teaspoon of honey over the course of its life, barely enough for a coffee!
Made up of 40% fructose, 30% glucose, water and a bunch of minerals including iron, calcium and magnesium, honey is both sweeter and more nutritional than normal sugar. This is particularly true of unpasteurised or raw honeys, which retain more of their natural goodness, and tend to be tastier too.
Honey also has a (relatively) low GI value of 55 – meaning it raises blood sugar levels more slowly – though this fluctuates massively between different varieties. Combined with its richer, more complex flavour profile, honey is an attractive alternative to sugar. However, it is still primarily sugar and leads to an increase in blood sugar levels, so should be consumed with the same moderation as regular sugar.
Agave is another popular natural source of sugar. It’s made from the agave cactus, native to Mexico, which is also used to make Tequila and Mezcal. The juice of the cactus is reduced with heat into a thick, sweet syrup.
This reduction process is a type of pasteurisation, meaning that many of the natural minerals and antioxidants in the agave are removed. Compared with honey, agave therefore has a lower nutritional value. While agave contains more calories per gram than table sugar, it is also one-and-a-half times sweeter, meaning that less is needed and the overall calorie intake is lower.
Agave has a low glucose content and therefore a low GI value, slowing the uptake of the sugars into the bloodstream. However, the low glucose level is made up for with a higher fructose content. Fructose is harder for the body to metabolise, leaning heavily on the liver. Many people struggle processing fructose, and it can lead to bloating and discomfort in the stomach.
While there are some benefits to agave syrup over sugar, it can be just as damaging in different ways. Moreover, not all agave syrups are created equal: look for ethically produced agaves processed at low temperatures to maintain the maximum nutritional content.