How Sustainable Are Sugar Alternatives?
It’s virtually impossible to avoid either baking or eating sweet treats from Halloween straight through to the New Year — they’re a wonderful staple of our holidays and celebrations. But as more and more information comes out about the negative health and environmental impacts of sugar and high fructose corn syrup, cooks and consumers are increasingly interested in using cane sugar alternatives in their recipes. Many companies have noticed this trend and have flooded the market in recent years with a wide variety of sweeteners. But how sustainable are these cane sugar replacements? And are some better for the environment than others?
We got in touch with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN to get their take on the subject and according to their staff it’s nearly impossible to define “the most sustainable sweetener” since conditions vary immensely around the world in terms of soils, plants, farming methods and weather, even for the production of the same type of sweetener. However, it is possible to understand what the environmental impacts are of making various sugar substitutes and how different production methods impact the sustainability of a product. Armed with this information you’ll be better equipped to select the best option for you.
To help you with this process, we’ve pulled together a list of common sugar substitutes and included information about how they are typically produced, the environmental impacts of that production and the greenest options for each type of product.
Agave syrup or “nectar” is a sweetener produced from the refined filtered sap of the blue agave plant, a succulent native to Mexico that is also used to make tequila. Today, most agave nectar comes from plants grown in the high desert of Mexico or South Africa where they rely on rainwater for irrigation. While there is little information about the environmental impacts of agave nectar production, a lot of research has been done on the impacts of producing tequila from the same plants. Manufacturing agave nectar requires the farmer to kill the plant completely, a problem because the plants are not a quickly renewing resource. Agave plant production is poorly managed in Mexico and has led to several crises in the industry, like skyrocketing prices and shortages, which has forced small producers out of business. While production of some agave products like mezcal is still mostly done in the traditional way by small scale producers, blue agave grown in Mexico is increasingly produced on large plantations in monocrops requiring the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. The most sustainable options on the market for agave are certified organic and free trade products.
Date sugar, made from finely chopped dehydrated dates, is a great option if you are looking for a sweetener that has gone through minimal processing. Most dates are produced in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where properly managed, well-tended date trees can live up to 150 years. Although date palms can withstand long periods of drought under high temperatures, they require large amounts of water for vigorous growth, high yield and high-quality fruit. Flood irrigation is still used in many areas, especially on older plantations. Despite high water use, many producers in traditional date production areas use sustainable agriculture practices like natural fertilizers, cover crops and intercropping, often with other fruits, vegetables and pasture — even in industrialized production.
In addition, date palm groves are important environmental niches for local wildlife and play a central role in the desert ecological system. Date palms have also been effective for the control of desertification and land reclamation in the Arabian Peninsula, especially in UAE. Since date sugar is mostly produced in North Africa and the Middle East, finding locally produced varieties may be difficult for American consumers. So when buying date sugar online or at specialty grocery stores, look for organic options to ensure that no harmful pesticides or other chemicals were used during production, or you could always buy some whole organic dates and make your own.
Honeybees make honey from flower nectar, which is later extracted from their hives by beekeepers. Some honey operations are large and commercial while others are small-scale family run operations. Like other factory-farmed animals, honeybees farmed at the commercial level can suffer from crowded and stressful living conditions like long distance transportation on the back of trucks and often are treated with antibiotics. Since late 2006, millions of honeybees have succumbed to “colony collapse disorder”, a disease that killed 40 percent of all beehives in the US last year. Although scientists have yet to find a cause, the US Department of Agriculture says researchers continue to focus on key possibilities that include bee stress, pesticides, bacterial diseases and viruses, inadequate forage and poor nutrition.
Despite many articles claiming that most honey at grocery stores is fake, in reality it’s mostly honey that’s been ultra- filtered, a method perfected in China where honey is made containing unapproved antibiotics. Finding “organic” honey is difficult because it’s difficult to produce: the beekeeper has to prove that the bees have only foraged in areas that are exclusively organic. The easiest way to purchase sustainable honey is to buy it from local small scale producers at your local farmers market who use natural beekeeping methods that minimize chemical inputs and allow bees to engage in natural behaviors like swarming and overwintering.
Made from the boiled-down sap of maple trees, pure maple syrup is, in most cases, a great example of sustainable food. Properly tapped and well-tended trees can yield sap for more than 100 years, and many families have been producing maple syrup, a process known as sugaring, from the same group of trees, or sugar bush, for generations. Even dead and diseased trees are used, either as lumber or, if it’s syrup season, to fuel the evaporator. And for small landowners in particular, sugaring provides an ecologically-responsible way to supplement ever-dwindling farm incomes and incentive to maintain forest on their land.
If you live in a region where maple syrup is produced, seek out producers at your local farmers market that practice sustainable harvesting. Otherwise, look for US certified organic maple syrup to ensure that your syrup is free of artificial ingredients and dyes and comes from trees that are free of pesticides and chemicals and forests that have not been over-tapped for short-term gain.
Palm Sugar (aka Coconut Sugar)
Palm sugar is made from the sap of various varieties of palm trees. The sap is collected and boiled down and sold either as a syrup, a hardened disk or as a granulated sugar. Although many food blogs cite a 2014 study from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) listing palm sugar as the most “sustainable sweetener,” when reached for comment by GRACE staff, the FAO could not verify that they had ever made this claim. The FAO also explained that labeling any sweetener as the “most sustainable” would be incredibly difficult since coconut sugar is made from many different types of palms, in many different environments, with many production methods.
However, with that in mind, unlike palm oil, palm sugar is a greener palm product produced using many sustainable methods and minimal processing. Palm trees don’t need to be cut down to produce palm sugar and can produce sap for about 20 years with relatively small inputs of resources. Also, the sugar is usually harvested by small-scale producers year round, ensuring a source of income throughout the year. Since palm sugar is mostly produced in Southeast Asia, you won’t find local varieties so your best bet for buying a sustainable version is to go with fair-trade and/or organic options.
Stevia is a zero-calorie sweetener made from the stevia plant, which is native to South America. Today, stevia is cultivated mostly in Paraguay, Kenya, China and the United States and mostly processed in China. The sweetener is made by steeping the leaves in water, filtering and purifying it, sometimes with alcohol, then drying the product. According to industry-funded reports, stevia has a smaller carbon and water footprint than both beet sugar and cane sugar. However, the report seems to leave the amount of water required to process the sweetener out of its water-footprint calculation. Given that stevia requires a lot of water to process — at least one cup water for every quarter cup of leaves — it’s possible that the water footprint of stevia may actually be a lot higher than those reports indicate.
Most stevia is grown for large agribusiness corporations and sweetener companies through grower cooperatives in South America and China. In Peru, some of this growing is done on deforested rainforest land, creating issues with soil erosion, waste generation and water pollution. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any fair-trade stevia sweeteners on the market, so if you’re concerned with sustainability your best bet is to go with products that are certified organic and Rainforest Alliance certified.