Refined commercial sweeteners = poorer choices
Origin: Agave is syrup extracted and purified from the sap of the agave plant.
Popularity: It has the lowest glycemic index rating of all the natural sweeteners 15! but read the cons.
Cons: It is about 75% fructose. The reason it ranks low on the glycemic index is because of this high content of fructose (see above). the fact that fructose does not raise blood sugar levels is because the body doesn’t metabolize it well (see the info about hfcs).
I’ve stopped using agave myself and no longer consider it to be a healthful sweetener because of its high fructose content.
Origin: This is simply white cane sugar that has had a portion of its original molasses mixed back in during the final stages of processing.
Popularity: Has a nice caramel flavour.
Cons: It is more or less identical, nutritionally speaking, to white sugar and, unless it is organic, it still contains the chemicals found in white sugar.
White granulated sugar
Origin: Highly refined from sugar cane or beets.
Popularity: The most common, least expensive sweetener allows for white baked goods.
Cons: It is 99.9% sucrose and is absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream with negative impacts on health; the pancreas and the heart, most notably. It has a glycemic index of 80. White sugar is also largely processed with phosphoric acid, formic acid, bleaching agents like sulphur dioxide, preservatives, flocculants, surfactants and viscosity modifiers.
Confectioner’s sugar (also known as icing or powdered sugar) is granulated white sugar that is crushed into a powder form, often with cornstarch added.
(Turbinado and Muscavado are similar, but vary by content of molasses)
Origin: Evaporated from sugar cane, all of these are boiled, dehydrated into crystals, then spun in a centrifuge so that the crystals are separated from the molasses. The clarifying process is either done with chemicals or
through pressure filtration. The crystals are then reunited with some of the molasses in varying proportions to produce sugars of differing colors of brown.
Popularity: Brown sugar that has a larger crystal, so it looks elegant.
Cons: This is still a refined sugar at 99% sucrose, albeit less processed than white sugar. These tend to be stickier and have higher water content than white or brown sugar. For this reason they may clump more during storage and need to be crushed or blended in a food processor before measuring.
High fructose corn syrup
(Called glucose-fructose in Canada)
Origin: HFCS is an industrial sweetener made from corn starch. it contains glucose and fructose. this might sound like sucrose, the double sugar above. However it is not the same. the ratio is generally 55 % fructose and 45 % glucose and these are unbound sugars. the fact that there is no chemical bond between these two sugars makes a big difference in how the body uses them; because no digestion is required, they are more rapidly absorbed into your bloodstream.
Popularity: The most common form of fructose is high fructose corn syrup (hfcs) which is now found in just about all processed foods and sweetened beverages.
Cons: Studies using refined fructose have found some important differences in the ways that our body metabolizes glucose and fructose, and indicate that fructose is unhealthy in its refined, or isolated, form. When too much fructose enters the liver at once, it cannot process fructose as a sugar. Instead, the liver turns excess fructose into fats-triglycerides. When we incorporate these fats into our bodies, these cells become insulin resistant.
Unrefined natural sugars = better options
Origin: bees make it using the nectar from flowers. It is a combination of fructose and glucose.
Popularity: It is the sole source of nutrition for a very active and industrious animal – the bee. Research has shown that it helps replenish energy levels and stabilize blood sugar. In its raw form, it contains a number of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, amino acids, and good bacteria. It is naturally anti-microbial and has many traditional uses and health benefits confirmed by studies in recent years.
Cons: Many of its beneficial qualities are removed during processing and pasteurization. Make sure to look for pure, raw, local honey.
Caution: babies may lack stomach acid and defensive gut bacteria, so do not give raw honey to children less than 1 year old.
Tip: To substitute in baking, use 3/4 cup honey in place of 1 cup of refined sugar. Decrease liquid contents by 1/4 cup or increase dry ingredients by 1/4 cup. Lower oven temperature by 25of as honey makes baked goods brown faster than sugar does.
(Rapadura is the same, but with smaller granules)
Origin: true dehydrated sugarcane juice. The word sucanat stands for sugar-cane-natural. Rapadura, identical to sucanat but ground smaller, has been used for thousands of years in India. The juice is extracted from the sugarcane using a press and low heat, not boiled at high heats (like all other sugars), nor spun to change it into crystals, and the molasses has not been separated from the sugar.
Popularity: this is less processed and refined than regular sugar (although not completely un-refined), is 88% sucrose, and has a lower glycemic rating of 47. Because sucanat is dehydrated at low heat, and not separated from the molasses, the natural balance of vitamins and minerals present in the sugarcane are retained, helping you digest it. Produced organically, it does not contain chemicals or anti-caking agents.
Cons: It is a brown, moist sugar with a distinctive molasses-y taste. Like turbinado it is sticky and may clump with storage.
Origin: The sap of coconut palm tree blossoms, it is a brown sugar with a granular texture and a rich caramel-like flavour.
Popularity: It is 85% sucrose so it is one of the few natural sweeteners that can be substituted 1:1 in baking recipes that call for cane sugar. Coconut sugar has a low glycemic rating of 35?(same as lentils!) and is dry and granular just like regular cane sugar.
Cons: It is more expensive, and darker, than cane sugar and so will turn a white cake browner, and can taste a bit burnt, so it’s best in chocolate, and spiced baked goods.
Origin: This is an extract that comes from the leaf of the stevia plant.
Popularity: This is a natural herb that is considered 100 times sweeter than sugar! It comes in powdered or liquid form, has zero calories, and does not affect blood sugar levels. It is also often used as a coffee/tea/beverage sweetener.
Cons: It has a slight licorice or bitter aftertaste and, as it is so much sweeter than sugar, it does not substitute well in recipes. It can be used in baking if the recipe has been modified for stevia.
Origin: The sap of the sugar maple tree, it is about 65% sucrose.
Popularity: It has 54 anti-oxidants and a higher vitamin and mineral profile than any other sweetener, along with a distinctive, earthy, irreplaceable flavour!
Cons: Some larger producers use formaldehyde in the extraction of the sap, although this does not tend to be a problem in Canada. As wholesome and all-Canadian as it is, it should be consumed in moderation to prevent over-consumption of sugar and calories. like honey, it cannot be directly substituted in recipes.
Origin: A by-product of the refining process of white sugar from cane or beet.
Popularity: molasses is about 50% sucrose. It contains nutrients removed during sugar refining such as iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and chromium. Unsulphured molasses is safest (no sulphites) and the blackstrap version has the highest nutrient content.
Cons: has a strong flavour that can be overpowering. It is most well-suited to gingery cakes and rye breads.
From the Winter issue of Ecoparent Magazine (www.ecoparent.ca) available in hard copy at Chapters/Indigo, Nature’s Fare Markets, Whole Foods, and other independent newsstands and baby stores. Dr. Heidi is a regular food and health contributor to Ecoparent.