Three Sweeteners You May Want to Try: Advantame, Coconut Palm Sugar, and Agave

coconut palm sugarThe supermarket sweetener shelves are getting more and more crowded.  Let's look at the specifics about 1) advantame, an artificial sweetener that the FDA just approved, which will soon join the crowd of other sweeteners with and without calories; 2) coconut palm sugar, a  natural product long a staple in Southeast Asia, which is becoming more popular in the U.S., along with other coconut products; and 3) agave nectar, another popular natural sweetener made from a Mexican plant. These last two contain--excuse my use of this bad word-- calories, but they have a more exciting taste than cane sugar. One has a hint of caramel and the other of maple.




In late May, the FDA amended its food additive regulations to add advantame to its list of non-nutritive sweeteners declared safe for use as general-purpose sweeteners and flavor enhancers in any food. (This determination excludes meat and poultry, which are handled by the USDA and wouldn't taste good sweetened anyway). New food additives must be approved by the FDA before they can be marketed in the United States. Advantame is the 6th high-intensity sweetener approved by the FDA.


High-intensity sweeteners, such as advantame, may be preferred in place of sugar for a number of reasons, including these:

  • They do not contribute calories or only contribute a few calories to the diet. 
  • They generally do not raise blood sugar levels.

Advantame is a water soluble, white to yellowish crystalline powder. It is a derivative of aspartame and is similar to the sweetener neotame. Its manufacturer, Ajinomoto, says it's "about 20,000 times sweeter than sucrose and has a "clean, sweet sugar-like taste" with "no off-flavors" Furthermore, the company says, it is very "low-cost." Advantame has been approved for use in Australia and New Zealand.  This year,  the European Union and Japan also approved its use.


Stable even at higher temperatures, advantame can be used for baking as well as for table-top sweetening. Manufacturers can use it in baked goods, non-alcoholic beverages (including soft drinks), chewing gum, confections and frostings, frozen desserts, gelatins and puddings, jams and jellies, processed fruits and fruit juices, toppings, and syrups.  It can be blended with sugar to lower the calorie count in foods and beverages.


Advantame has been declared safe for human consumption when used in amounts not exceeding what's needed to accomplish the intended effect.  In evaluating the safety of advantame, the FDA reviewed data from 37 animal and human studies. The studies were designed to identify possible toxic effects, such as reproductive, neurological, and cancer-causing effects.  For further information about the contents and testing of this product, visit this federal register article.


High-intensity sweeteners are commonly used as sugar alternatives because they are many times sweeter than sugar but contribute only a few to no calories to foods. The five other high-intensity sweeteners approved by the FDA are these: saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame potassium (ACE-K), sucralose, and neotame. GRAS  (generally recognized as safe) notices have been submitted to  the FDA for two more high-intensity sweeteners--certain steviol glycosides obtained from the leaves of the stevia plant and extracts obtained from Swingle fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo or monk fruit.


These types of products, which the FDA classifies as "high-intensity sweeteners," are often   referred to as "sugar alternatives/ substitutes" or "non-nutritive sweeteners."  Consumers generally call them "artificial sweeteners."

Why do we need all these artificial sweeteners? Obviously, the answer is rising rates of obesity. points out these actions, designed to help curb the public health problem stemming in part form too much sugar consumption:

  • The World Health Organization recently decreased its recommended daily sugar intake "from 10% to 5% of total daily calories."
  • The American Heart Association has new sugar guidelines: for women, added sugar should be limited to 100 calories a day; for men, the recommended limit is 150 calories.  That's less than a sugar-sweetened 12-ounce soft drink. 

It's not just carbonated beverages that are loaded with sugar. Beverages called fruit juices can be, too. I recently purchased a 20-oz. bottle of Minute Maid lemonade and drank very little of it after reading the nutrition facts: it contained 67 grams--more than 16 teaspoons!--of high fructose corn syrup (in other words, sugar). 


Coconut palm sugar:


If you're not counting every calorie and therefore determined to use an artificial sweetener, try the latest trendy natural sweetener--coconut palm sugar.  The package says it contains 20 calories a teaspoon, not significantly different from the 16-calorie teaspoon of cane sugar.  Forget all the health benefits that are touted.  The main reason to try it is that its slight caramel flavor is a treat for the taste buds.  But I do think that to get that benefit you may need to use a little more than a teaspoon. 


Coconut palm sugar is made from the nectar of coconut palm blossoms, which, if left on the tree, would grow into coconuts.  After the nectar is collected, it is boiled to evaporate the water and then dried into granules.  The package claims the following: "It is completely natural, produced from sustainably grown trees, and an ideal alternative to cane sugar."  Not everyone would agree.  Nor does everyone agree that its vitamin content will do good things for your health.  (Read on for dissenting arguments.)


The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter says that coconut palm sugar is being touted as "the best new sugar alternative, " as good for diabetics, as helpful for weight loss, as generally healthful. The newsletter proceeds to disprove these claims by making these points:   

  •  This sweetener isn't really new.  It's a traditional sweetener in the Philippines, Thailand, and other Southeast Asian countries. 
  • The fact that it contains many nutrients doesn't mean much.  "No sugar is a good source of nutrients in the amounts typically consumed. For example, coconut palm sugar contains about 1 milligram of magnesium per teaspoon.  You'd have to eat about 400 teaspoons to meet the Daily Value for this mineral."
  • Many websites and the Dr. Oz TV show have claimed that, because of its low glycemic index, coconut sugar could help diabetics prevent blood sugar "crashes" and could help dieters lose weight.  But coconut palm sugar, like cane sugar, is mostly sucrose and has the same amount of carbohydrates and roughly the same number of calories as cane sugar.  Moreover, the Berkeley Wellness Letter questions whether this product really has a low GI since that conclusion comes from just one unpublished Philippine study involving only 10 people! No other studies have corroborated any of the claims that this product is healthful.
  • The growing demand for coconut sugar "is diverting production away from other coconut products, such as coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut flour, and there is concern that this will decrease supply and thus drive up prices of these commodities.  People in Asia who rely heavily on such coconut stapes would be most affected financially."

Despite my guilt about ending the life of a coconut in progress, for the sake of Shelf Life Advice, I decided to purchase some coconut palm sugar.  The supermarkets in my area didn't carry it, so I started calling health food stores.  The third store I called actually carried one brand of the product.  The brand I purchased (Xyloburst®) cost $7.95 a pound. According to the Wellness Letter, prices for coconut palm sugar usually range from $4 - $12, and one brand sells for $30 a pound, so I suppose I got a bargain, but it didn't feel that way. "This better be good," I mumbled to the cashier as I reluctantly handed her a $10 bill.


Well, it WAS good when I used enough of it. Perhaps the fault lies with my aging taste buds, but the Wellness Letter does say it's less sweet than sugar. Coconut palm sugar (or, to use its nickname, "coco sugar") has a pleasant, slightly caramel flavor especially when added to cold milk or hot cereal.  I didn't like it in chamomile tea. In coffee, one teaspoon cut the bitterness a bit, but I needed another half teaspoon to begin to taste the sweetness and the caramel.   In cold milk, it was delicious, but not all of the granules totally dissolved.  I conclude that it won't be as tasty with dry cereal and cold milk as it would with hot cereal and warm milk.  But perhaps you breakfast on eggs?  If so, you can use up the bag when cooking and baking, thereby serving those extra calories to your dinner guests.  


For more information about coconut products, go to "Coconut Products: Are They Really Health Foods?"



If you love the taste of coco sugar, you may also enjoy agave nectar.  I did.  It has a maple-like flavor. Moreover, it's 1.4 times sweeter than cane sugar. Like coco sugar, the calorie count is 20 per teaspoon (60 per tablespoon). Agave was the newest, trendy sweetener in the U.S. just a few years ago.  Today, I think you'll find it in most supermarkets. 


As the website explains, agave (pronounced ah-GAH-vay) comes from blue agaves, large, spiky Mexican plants that resemble cactus or yucca in form and habitat but are actually more similar to aloe vera. Agave is most known as the plant from which tequila is produced.  There are more than 100 species of agave.  The Blue Agave is the favored one for making syrup because of its high percentage of fructose. 


The Madhava brand bottle lists 3 types of agave. I purchased the amber. The bottle says it's a great alternative to brown sugar, maple syrup, or molasses. Agave has been promoted, as coco sugar has, for its low glycemic level and many health benefits. But remember, both products are mostly sugar.  Enjoy them in moderation for the taste, but don't expect them to lengthen your life. 


Source(s): "FDA Approves New High-Intensity Sweetener Advantame" "Additional information about High-Intensity Sweeteners Permitted for use in Food in the United States" "Food Additives Permitted for Direct Addition to Food for Human Consumption; Advantame" "Food: High Intensity Sweeteners" "New artificial sweetener gains FDA approval"


University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter, "A better sugar from the tropics?" July 2014. "The Glycemic Index Diet" "What is Agave Nectar?"



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