Agave, stevia sweeteners to be used with caution, dietitian advises

Alternative sweeteners to sugar like agave syrup and stevia are often perceived as healthier options but they can also be overdone, a dietitian cautions.

Watch out for healthy halo effect

It's important to know the facts when choosing sweeteners, experts say 2:09

Alternative sweeteners to sugar like agave syrup and stevia are often perceived as healthier options but they can also be overdone, a dietitian cautions.

As research links refined sugar to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, some people are switching.

"Refined sugar, it's the new smoking, isn't it?" said Toronto dietitian Jennifer Sygo, author of Unmasking Superfoods.

CBC News asked Sygo about whether some alternative sweeteners are healthier than sugar.

"Somebody switching from table sugar to agave, will typically see less of a blood sugar spike," said Sygo. "It does have some redeeming nutritional properties, but they're small."

Agave, the plant used to make tequila, is higher in calories than sugar and three times as sweet.

Stevia has no calories, looks like sugar and is up to 300 times sweeter.

"We don't want to habituate our taste buds, get them used to sweet foods all the time," Sygo advised on using alternative sweeteners.  

We don't want to habituate our taste buds to sweet foods all the time, says Jennifer Sygo. (CBC)

For non-nutritive, no calorie sweeteners, there's a contentious debate within nutrition circles about whether they make us crave sugar down the road.

"If you're going to use stevia, use it with caution," Sygo suggested. 

At a bakery in Toronto, co-owner Ashley Whittig swears by organic agave nectar for sweet delights without the sugar rush.

"I don't feel as jacked up after," Whittig said.

But researchers have demonstrated a "healthy halo effect" — when you substitute something that is unhealthy with a food you perceive to be healthy, you end up eating more. For example, some people end up eating more ice cream when there are berries on top because they think the health value of the fruit allows them to consume extra.

 "In general, we could all do well to reduce our need for highly sweet, sugary foods, no matter where they come from," Sygo said. 

With files from CBC's Christine Birak

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