Sweetness travels under a variety of aliases. Just check out the label of your favorite cereal or beverage and you're likely to see the flavor show up many times, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, cane syrup, maple syrup, fructose, molasses, honey—and even agave, the latest caloric sweetener, which is derived from a plant native to Mexico. (These are all in addition, of course, to plain old table sugar, or sucrose.)
You might also find some food labels or manufacturers hinting that their source of sweetness is more healthful than the others. Since the concept of "healthy" can be awfully fuzzy, let's put it bluntly. "All of these are empty calories that offer you no nutrition," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, a dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. That doesn't mean they're forbidden, just that they should be eaten in moderation, she says.
And many of us are not moderate in our consumption of added sugars. The World Health Organization recommends that we cap our intake at less than 10 percent of our day's calories, yet the average American gets 400 calories a day from beverages, a lot of which come from sugar. (Many people, including obesity expert Barry Popkin, say one of the easiest ways to drop weight is to simply cut out all caloric beverages.) Assuming you take in 1,800 calories per day, a 10 percent limit translates to fewer than 180 calories, or 45 grams, of sugar daily.
So if you are following WHO's guidance and eating a moderate amount of the sweet stuff, does it matter what form it takes? Some hypothesize that fructose, one of the components of sucrose, is a particularly bad kind of sugar. It may not suppress hunger or stimulate the natural feeling of fullness, says Kathleen Melanson, an assistant professor of food and nutrition at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. And there is also a concern that when it's consumed in very high amounts, fructose can't be properly processed by the body, which translates to a fatty liver or raised levels of triglycerides in the blood. It can also lead to higher levels of uric acid, which some believe raises the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, among other woes.
But those hypotheses have not been proven, emphasizes Melanson, and there's no take-home message for people in terms of the form of sugar they eat. Sucrose is about half fructose and half glucose, while honey is about 40 to 45 percent fructose, and high-fructose corn syrup is about 55 percent. The amount of fructose in agave nectar can vary, with estimates starting at about 50 or 55 percent (some say it's much higher, depending on the processing method).
There are tiny differences in the minerals in some sweeteners; the less processed, the more trace minerals, says Blatner. (Honey, for example, has some magnesium and calcium.) And there is some evidence that the levels of antioxidants in sweeteners can vary. One study, published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, found that among sweeteners, dark and blackstrap molasses had the most antioxidant activity. Maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey had a bit less, and refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar had the least.
Still, it usually comes down to personal taste and preference, Blatner says. Some find agave so sweet that they use much less of it, which can mean fewer calories. Others find the taste of molasses vile. It's up to you. Importantly, you shouldn't let any fructose worries scare you away from fruit; while it's true that tree fruits and berries contain a large percentage of fructose, the absolute amount is quite low, Melanson says. And it comes packaged with plenty of fiber and nutrients, which is more you can say for your averaged sweetened cereal or drink.