Sugar: the new health food

Food marketers must think we’re really dumb.

Recently, a colleague was asked to make a vegan chocolate pie for a friend’s dinner party.  She found a recipe that called for silken tofu, almond flour crust, vegan unsweetened chocolate (is there any other kind?) and maple syrup for sweetener.  Oh wait, no maple syrup.  According to her friend, maple syrup is not an acceptable sweetener for some reason.  Only agave syrup will do.  So my colleague was forced to jump through all kinds of hoops to find the acceptable ingredients to make this chocolate pie, including a bottle of agave syrup she will never use again.  We both had to laugh though — no maple syrup?!  One of the most pristine sweeteners around — nothing added, comes from trees, not GMO.  Gluten free!  But no, it won’t do for this particular vegan.  Agave was just sooooooo much better.

Let’s do the math.

1 tablespoon    calories  sugars  fructose  sucrose  

agave             64       14 g    11.5 g      0           

maple syrup       50       13 g     <<1       12 g

Agave is mostly fructose, while maple syrup is mostly sucrose; fructose is negligible.  If this friend is on some anti-fructose kick, this makes no sense.  So what is the point of agave?  Her friend objects to trees?  Trees aren’t vegan?  The vegan friend is pro-fructose?  Or perhaps he equates “maple-flavored” pancake syrups with pure maple syrup, making him a very poorly informed consumer.

All this got me thinking yet again about the massive amount of misinformation about sweeteners and sugar floating around in the mainstream media.  And then, right on schedule, another laughable example of this stupidity showed up on a box of cereal:

No High Fructose Corn Syrup!!!


Seriously!?  Brown sugar is now a health food?  I looked at the ingredients on a box of Raisin Bran.  And predictably, no HFCS.  Instead, we have sugar, brown sugar syrup and malted barley syrup.  So much healthier.  Not.All of this nonsense makes me want to start guzzling high fructose corn syrup just to be contrary.  Sweeteners are all sugar.  It doesn’t matter if it comes from corn or a tree or a bee or a cactus or a beet.  It’s all sugar.  It’s all digested and metabolized in the same basic way.  Over-eating any of it is not a good idea.  None of them are more pure or saintly or vegan than any other (although some vegans object to honey because it’s made by bees*).  Brown sugar is not a healthful ingredient; neither is agave.

But high fructose corn syrup is now a villain, and all other sweeteners that are not HFCS can be positioned as healthy and used to push market sell food products.  I have no doubt if agave syrup were cheaper it would be added to ready-to-eat cereals or ice cream or Snickers bars for the health halo marketing effect.  People would conclude “Yay! Snickers bars have agave syrup, they’re healthy, I can eat more of them.”  It’s my Golden Rule of Health Halos:

If you can give people permission to keep eating what they already want to eat by slapping a health halo on it, sales will go up.

It never fails.

One reason to prefer one sweetener over another is flavor.  There are definitely flavor differences.  Honey, maple syrup and brown sugar have distinctive flavors; granulated sugar and light corn syrup do not.  Some sweeteners work better is certain types of recipes than others.  Substituting a liquid-type sweetener (corn or agave syrup) into a recipe that calls for granulated sugar will change how the food comes out.  Making that substitution because you think one is “healthier” than another?  Not a valid reason at all.  Agave syrup will never show up in my kitchen. Maple syrup is always welcome, though. It’s great on yogurt, and apparently it’s great in vegan chocolate pie.


*The purpose of veganism is to avoid foods made with or by animals. Bees are not animals. They are insects.  If vegans add insects to that list, they will then have to avoid any food that might be contaminated with insects and any foods made with emerging products like cricket flour.  On the other hand, a vegan who doesn’t object to insects might want to reconsider lobster and crab. These marine creatures are in fact not fish/animals, but rather are related to insects.  That would expand options for high quality protein.

Copyright: All content © 2010-2019 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.