Sugar or sucrose, is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in every fruit and vegetable in the plant kingdom. It is the major product of photosynthesis, the process by which plants transform the sugar energy into food. Sugar occurs in greatest quantities in sugar cane and sugar beets from which it is separated for commercial use.
Sugar is all around us and goes by many names. Palm sugar, sucanat, rapadura, muscavado, demarara, panela, jaggery, turbinado, honey, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, sugar cane juice, whole cane sugar, raw sugar, powdered sugar, confectioner’s sugar, basic white sugar, swizzle sticks (sugar cane stalks), stevia, xylitol, agave nectar, and piloncillo, just to name a few. Geeze…
What’s the difference between all the types of sweeteners available anyway?
I have compiled information on some of the more well known natural and healthy sugars. This is not at all an exhaustive list but my hope is to provide a resource for you when you are selecting which sugar type to consume. The fact remains that the less sugar you consume (no matter the type) the better for your health. However, there are better choices than others when it comes to sweeteners.
I am avoiding any discussion on white sugar, brown sugar, artificial sweeteners. They are bad for you. Period. All of them. Perhaps that is a post for another day. But seriously, they are bad. Real bad. I wouldn’t lie.
All sugar is processed if it’s in a granulated form. Keep in mind that the term ‘raw’ is used quite loosely, mostly to designate that it hasn’t been stripped of its minerals. A truly raw form of sugar would be the sugar cane stalk itself (such as the raw swizzle sticks, which are pre-peeled strips of raw cane sugar).
Coconut Palm Sugar is a granulated sugar that comes from palm trees. This sugar is made from collecting the sap from palm flowers (and not the fruit of the palm itself, such as date or coconut). It’s then boiled to a concentrated form and then further processed to its dry, granulated form. In appearance it is a brown granulated sugar. It has a very pleasant, light flavor which is quite different from ordinary brown sugar. It has a reported glycemic index of 35.
Benefits: It contains more minerals and vitamins and then ordinary sugar. Due to the very high mineral content (even higher than whole can sugar), it has a low glycemic index of 35. It’s especially high in Potassium, Magnesium, Zinc and Iron and is also a natural source of vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and C. It has a very rich, buttery and carmel flavor likened to butterscotch, and is considered less bitter than cane sugar.
Concerns: There is an argument that coconut palm sugar is essentially a type of refined sugar. It is mainly composed of sucrose with smaller quantities of glucose and fructose. Therefore, there is really no reason why it should have a lower glycemic index than sugar. Without other independent tests it cannot be confidently assumed to have such a low index.
Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Can be used in a wide variety of foods and recipes without adversely affecting color or flavor.
Rapadura: is an evaporated cane sugar juice. It’s extracted from the sugar cane using a press or composting process and is then evaporated to dry and form granules (not heated or spun like regular white sugar, thus most vitamins and minerals have been retained). It has a reported glycemic index of 65.
Benefits: It is the least refined solid sweetener, inexpensive and slightly better than pure sugar. Because of little processing it maintains its natural balance of sucrose, glucose, and fructose, and still contains components to aid in digestion. It is metabolized more slowly than white sugar, and therefore will not affect your blood sugar levels like white sugar.
Concerns: Just like sugar it causes a host of health problems if consumed in excess. Typically not suitable for diabetics. It contains the same calories as sugar.
Cooking notes: Rapadura replaces sugar 1:1 and adds a molasses flavor and dark color, so it’s great in baked goods like brownies, coffee and black tea, but it may not be desirable in something like lemonade.
Sucanat: stands for sugar-cane-natural, and is very similar to rapadura. It is an alternative sweetener prepared by crushing the stems of sugar cane to extract the plant’s juice, and then spinning the juice in a vacuum tunnel at high temperature to evaporate the water content. The dried whole food product is then milled to a powder that retains the same vitamin and mineral content as the original juice. The process is similar to the preparation of powdered milk. It has a reported glycemic index of 65.
Benefits: Sucanat contains residual antioxidants, including phenols such as hydroxycinnamic acids and sinapic acid, and flavonoids such as tricin and apigenin. Both phenols and flavonoids reduce “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol content in the blood and help prevent heart and artery diseases, as well as scavenging peroxidases. Conventionally refined cane sugars are filtered following treatment with lime or phosphoric acid. In half of the sugar refineries in the United States, the filter medium is “bone-black,” which is animal charcoal made from bones and blood albumin by-products of the meatpacking industry. In Sucanat, filtering is not necessary, since the original whole food is preserved in the final product, rather than simply the sucrose crystals. Therefore, Sucanat is suitable for vegetarians.
Concerns: None other than it should not be consumed in excess as it still is a sweetener.
Cooking notes: Sucanat replaces sugar 1:1 and is also an accepted substitute for traditional brown sugar. Use it as you would rapadura (see above).
Turbinado: more refined cane juice than Rapadura but less refined than white sugar. It is often confused with sucanat, but the two are different. After the sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, the juice is then boiled, cooled, and allowed to crystallize into granules. Next, these granules are refined to a light tan color by washing them in a centrifuge to remove impurities and surface molasses. Turbinado is lighter in color and contains less molasses than both rapadura and sucanat. A popular brand-name of turbinado sugar is Sugar in the Raw, which can be found in most natural food stores, and even in single-serve packets at coffee shops. It has a glycemic index of 65.
Benefits: It has less calories than white sugar plus the molasses contains vitamins and minerals.
Concerns: Turbinado attracts moisture because of its soft texture. These sugars may or may not be more beneficial than simply white sugar plus molasses, or brown sugar. Just like sugar it causes a host of health problems if consumed in excess. Typically not suitable for diabetics.
Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Turbinado is a great substitute for brown sugar, too.
Stevia: is a plant native to South America, and particularly Paraguay. However it can be grown in any sub-tropical or tropical climate. Its leaves are between 15 and 30 times sweeter than sugar. The sweetness comes from two compounds in the plant called steviosides and rebaudiosides, and they are up to 300 times as sweet as sugar. Stevia is technically an herb, not a “sugar.” It has a reported glycemic index of 0.
Benefits: It is a natural product and very sweet. Studies suggest that stevia has a regulating effect on the pancreas and could help stabilize blood sugar levels in the body, therefore making it a safe dietary supplement for people with diabetes, hypoglycemia, and candidiasis. It does not cause damage to the teeth like other sweeteners. It is heat stable and suitable for use in cooking.
Concerns: Because the marketplace is unregulated, you have to be careful about which types of Stevia you choose to ensure you are getting the safest, purest (and most useful) form. The more concentrated liquid forms are superior and many brands are rather inferior in how they process the plant. In addition, there are some reports of diarrhea from overconsumption.
Cooking notes: A little goes a loooooong way. Stevia is one of those sweeteners that you have to taste test with. It is typically used in concert with another sweetener. Use less of the sweetener called for in the recipe and add stevia in by the ¼ teaspoon until you have achieved a flavor you like.
Xylitol: the best known sugar alcohol (polyol). It looks and tastes like sugar but has lower calories and a much smaller glycemic index. It has been used as a sweetener for over 50 years and has been proven to have some beneficial and medicinal effects. It has a reported glycemic index of 10.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Xylitol at the moment. Personally, I avoid it. However, there is research that does support its benefits. I suggest that you do your research before deciding whether or not to use this product. Here is an article outlining some major concerns with Xylitol.
The typical benefits and concerns are:
Benefits: It has fewer calories than sugar. (62% for the same sweetness) It has an excellent taste, comparable to sugar, and very little aftertaste. It is safe as part of a diabetic diet. Like all sugar alcohols it is not metabolized by bacteria in the mouth and so it does not contribute to tooth decay. In fact clinical trials have shown that xylitol is very beneficial in dental hygiene, it tends to reduce plaque and delay the onset of tooth decay. It has also been shown to have other benefits, particularly with regard to the formation of calcium in the bones.
Concerns: As with most sugar alcohols it has a slightly laxative effect if taken in large quantities. This is more so if it is introduced suddenly into the diet, without giving the body time to get used to it. Moderation is the keyword. 50 gm per day should cause no problems at all and still allow the benefits of Xylitol to be achieved.
Barley Malt Syrup is a natural sweetener produced by soaking and sprouting barley to make malt, then combining it with more barley and cooking this mixture until the starch is converted to sugar. The mash is then strained and cooked down to syrup or dried into powder. It is a dark brown syrup, with a pleasant malty taste. It is about half as sweet as honey. Barley malt syrup is considered to be one of the healthiest sweeteners in the natural food industry. It has a reported glycemic index of 45.
Benefits: It contains some minerals and vitamins. It is a natural product and does not contain any chemicals. The enzymes that turn the carbohydrates to sugar occur naturally in the sprouted grains. It is also a good source of soluble fiber and is useful as a treatment for constipation in infants and for treating irritable bowel syndrome.
Concerns: It is high in maltose (glycemic index of 105) so should be taken in moderation. Although it has a lower glycemic index than sugar it is far less sweet. Consequently, if it is used as a sweetener, more will be needed, so care needs to be taken. Like all sugars it is harmful to teeth if taken to excess. Care needs to be taken to ensure a genuine article. Some products have been fraudulently labeled as barley malt syrup when in fact they were mostly High Fructose Corn Syrup with flavoring added.
Cooking Notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-2/3 cups barley malt syrup, and for each cup of barley malt syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Barley malt syrup has the tendency to make food harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies. You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet breads.
Brown Rice Syrup is a natural sweetener produced by fermenting cooked brown rice. In appearance it is usually a thick syrup, light brown in color, having a pleasant mildly sweet flavor, with a hint of caramel and butter. It is about half as sweet as honey. It has a reported glycemic index of 25.
Benefits: It contains minerals such as magnesium and potassium and some B vitamins. It is a natural product and does not contain any chemicals. Fermentation is traditionally done with natural enzymes derived from sprouted barley.
Concerns: It mostly consists of two sugars, maltotriose and maltose and should be taken in moderation. Although it has a lower glycemic index than sugar it is far less sweet. Consequently, if it is used as a sweetener, more will be required, with a resultant glycemic load close to sugar, and a greater calorie count. Like all sugars it is harmful to teeth if taken to excess. However it contains about 40% maltose (by dry weight) which has a glycemic index of 105. This may be a cause to question it’s reported glycemic index of 25. It is not recommended for diabetics, since its sweetness comes from maltose, which is known to cause spikes in blood sugar. Brown rice syrup is a natural product, and is not refined in any way. However it is usually filtered at the end of the process which probably removes fiber and other valuable nutrients contained in the grain. In addition artificial enzymes are sometimes used in certain products sold on the market, in which case it cannot really be considered natural. Check the label carefully. Try to source from a reputable supplier that guarantees a natural or organic product.
Cooking notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-1/3 cups brown rice syrup, and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup has the tendency to make food harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies. You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet breads.
Honey is the oldest sweetener known to man. It is a natural substance produced by bees and it comes in many different varieties and flavors. It is a syrup made up mainly of fructose and glucose, with smaller quantities of other sugars and water. It is slightly sweeter than ordinary sugar and can be either in a solid or liquid state depending on the temperature and the amount of moisture it contains. It can be used as a sweetener on its own or as an ingredient in cooking. It also has medicinal qualities and can be used as an antiseptic. It has a reported glycemic index of 50.
Benefits: It is a natural unprocessed product. Unlike refined sugar no chemicals are used in its manufacture. It can have an excellent flavor and is very useful in cooking. It is considered a very good antiseptic, and seems to work very well as relief for a sore throat. It also contains small amounts of antioxidants and other substances which are considered beneficial to health.
Concerns: If taken in excess, it has all of the same problems as sugar, i.e. tooth decay, diabetes, and obesity. For this reason it should be counted as part of the daily intake of sugar and moderation exercised.
Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baked goods, use about 3/4 cup of honey and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce liquids by about 2 Tablespoons for each cup of honey.
Maple Syrup is a natural sweetener obtained from the sap of maple trees. It comes in different varieties and grades, from light golden color to a darker amber. It is a syrup made that up mainly of sucrose and water, with some minerals and vitamins. It is about as sweet as ordinary sugar and is usually in a liquid state that has a lower viscosity than honey. It can also be made into maple sugar. It can be used as a sweetener on its own or as an ingredient in cooking. It has a reported glycemic index of 54.
Benefits: It is a natural unprocessed product. Unlike refined sugar no chemicals are used in its manufacturing. It can have an excellent flavor and is very useful in cooking. It is a very good source of certain minerals including magnesium, manganese, potassium and zinc. It also contains B vitamins.
Concerns: It is mostly sugar and water. Therefore, if taken in excess, it can cause all of the same problems as sugar, i.e. tooth decay, diabetes, and obesity. For this reason it should be counted as part of the daily intake of sugar and moderation exercised.
Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baking, use about 3/4 cup of maple syrup and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit. For each cup of maple syrup, reduce liquids by about 2 tablespoons.
Molasses is the thick syrup byproduct of sugar cane juice that has been boiled 1-3 times, separating the crystals from the syrupy juice. It is still mostly sucrose by calories, but contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals, unlike the crystals. Blackstrap molasses (the darkest, most rich) is the result of white sugar that has been processed to its fullest extent, leaving almost all of the available vitamins and minerals behind in the molasses. Sulphured molasses is made from young sugar cane, which requires sulphur dioxide to preserve it. Unsulphured molasses is made of mature sugar cane which does not require the help of sulphur dioxide to preserve it. Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses. When buying, consider choosing organic blackstrap molasses, as pesticides are more likely to be concentrated due to the production of molasses. It has a reported glycemic index of 55.
Benefits: It is high in minerals and B vitamins. In particular it is a useful source of Magnesium, Iron, Calcium, Copper, Zinc and Potassium. Molasses is metabolized slightly faster than Rapadura, because it has been heated and somewhat processed (it’s the byproduct of the processed white sugar crystals).
Concerns: Like sugar, it is harmful to teeth and calorie rich. It has a high glycemic index and is not suitable for diabetics. Some grades are sulfered, meaning sulfer dioxide is added as a preservative. In addition it can contain up to 20% free fructose, and this is in addition to the sucrose content. Therefore they should be counted as part of the refined sugar in the diet and taken in moderation. Although often sold in health food shops it is really a form of refined sugar as it does not exist in nature. It contains no fiber, is almost pure carbohydrate and is high glycemic. Moderation is the key word, a spoon or two per day substituting for other refined sugars.
Cooking Notes: Molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses.
Agave Nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. Far from a whole food, agave juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into agave syrup. Vegans often use agave as a honey substitute, although it’s even sweeter and a little thinner than honey. It contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. It has a reported glycemic index between 15-30.
Concerns: Like sugar it is harmful to teeth and contains calories. It is not suitable for diabetics. Of much greater concern however, is the fructose content of the syrup. It can vary from 55% to 92% depending on the source. Fructose is metabolized by the liver. Any large quantities of refined fructose put a strain on this organ and can lead to a whole host of problems including metabolic syndrome. Fructose consumption does not cause an insulin response, as other types of sugars would. This may have a profound effect on appetite and may lead to overeating. Agave has been delisted and banned by the Glycemic Research Institute of Washington DC because serious side effects were observed in clinical trials.
There are so many other sweeteners out there that I could blabber on for another week. But I will stop here. This should give you food for thought!
One last note – When looking for added or hidden sugars on labels (for those emergency prepackaged foods you purchase because of course you make everything from scratch J ) be aware of the various names sugar can go by:
Dehydrated Cane Juice
Fruit Juice Concentrate
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Curious about substituting with various sweeteners? Check out this post which outlines what sweeteners you can substitute with and what the conversion is. A great resource!