Feb 8, 2011

Sweeteners: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Here is some information on sweeteners. Keep in mind when you're cooking and substituting between sweeteners that not all substitute at the same ratios--we've included some tips for a few of them (ex: maple syrup is super sweet and needs about 3/4 cup to 1 cup white sugar, and it's also a liquid so you'd maybe need to subtract some liquid in the recipe...etc.) Enjoy the info and feel free to comment on what has worked for you.

Now on to the classifications of sweeteners...

These can be defined as sweet foods in which the nutrients have not been removed, or may even be more concentrated due to boiling down and evaporation. They are minimally processed or naturally made. I have found that these are the best sweeteners to consume because they do us the least amount of harm and actually benefit our bodies in a natural way.

Raw Honey: the original natural sweetener, this is made by bees from flower nectars. Honey comes in hundreds of types and colors. Flavors of honey depend on the kind of blossoms that the bees visited. You can get honey on the comb, as a liquid, as natural crystals, or as a whipped, spreadable mixture. The best choice of honey is RAW in which the honey comes right from the hive and comb and has not been heated. The problem with heat is that many nutrients are very sensitive to it and die. It's the beneficial enzymes found in raw honey that make it so digestible to humans. Raw honey is filtered, but very minimally and in a manor not to destroy the health promoting enzymes and other nutrients.

You'll also notice raw honey is solid at room temperature (like honey should be) and it also looks almost milky. It is not a golden and perfectly clear liquid. Let that be a sign to you - the mirky look to your honey is assurance that it still contains it bee pollen granules, vitamins, minerals, enzymes and whatever else raw honey contains that we haven't figured out yet!

Also, when cooking with honey things tend to brown faster than those made with granulated sugar. Use 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon honey in place of 1 cup sugar, and reduce the other liquid ingredients by 2 tablespoons. Unless the recipe includes sour cream or buttermilk, add a pinch of baking soda to neutralize the acidity.

Rapadura (Organic Whole Cane Sugar-Rapunzel brand): is a dried sugarcane juice that is common in Latin American countries, that comes in the form of a brick, or sold in granulated form. It is simply processed by evaporating the water from the Organic Sugar Cane Juice. It is the perfect unbleached, unrefined sweetener to use in place of refined sugars. And the unique processing of Rapadura gives it a mild, caramel-like flavor which is superb for baking and sweetening food and drinks. Be careful not to overdo it because in large amounts, Rapadura can upset the body chemistry just as much as sugar.

Malted Grain Syrups: Made with malted grains, usually barley, these syrups have been used for thousands of years, especially in the Orient. Sprouted grains are kiln-dried and the rootlets removed. The grains are then ground up, dipped briefly in an acid solution and heated with water to form malt syrup. Malt syrup is about 65% maltose, as disaccharide composed of two glucose molecules. (Sucrolose is a disaccharide, composed of glucose and fructose). Malted syrups contain small amounts of nutrients; but their real value is in the fact that they contain little fructose, which in large amounts is far more harmful than glucose.

Barley Malt has a flavored sweetness somewhere between dark molasses and honey. Barley malt works well in baking and making smoothies. The bonus in this natural sweetener is that it has several vitamins and minerals. There are two distinct advantages to the use of barley malt. First, the product tends to cause lower spikes in blood glucose levels. This helps to make the product a viable option in the preparation of foods for people who are attempting to monitor their blood sugar levels. While the malt does contain a significant amount of carbohydrates, they are considered to be the good kind, similar to those found in oatmeal and other whole grains. Because of the high fiber content, this type of malt is sometimes processed into a product known as barley malt extract. The extract can be consumed to add bulk to the stool, which in turn helps with general colon health and lowering bad cholesterol in the body. Along with the powder form, it is also possible to purchase barley malt extract tablets for this purpose.

Rice Syrup is also called brown rice syrup, it is made from brown rice starch that has been converted into maltose. Milder than most honey, rice syrup can be used in cooking, drinks, and as a spread on breads. Since rice syrup will cause an elevation in blood sugar, it is not suitable for diabetics; diabetics and people with dietary issues should talk to their doctors about alternatives to sugar which will be healthy for them.

Blackstrap Molasses: comes from crushed and squeezed cane, which yields a thin,yellowish juice. The cane juice is boiled down and reduced to unsulphured molasses or the aptly-named blackstrap molasses. Dark molasses, especially blackstrap, has a distinctive buttery flavor and is loaded with zinc, calcium, iron, copper, chromium, and potassium.

When substituting molasses for sugar, use 1-1/3 cups molasses for 1 cup sugar, and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe by 5 tablespoons. Molasses is also more acidic than sugar; add 1/2 teaspoon baking soda for each cup of molasses used in substitution for sugar. Replace no more than 1/2 the sugar called for in a recipe with molasses.

Date Sugar: made from ground, dehydrated dates. It’s high tryptophan content makes it a good sweetner for hyperactive children as this amino acid has a calming effect as opposed to the white sugar in most products today. You can measure this in the same quantities you would use for refined sugar, when making baked goodies. Crumbly and textured, it won't dissolve in hot drinks, but lends a great taste to pie and cobbler toppings.

Pure Maple Syrup: collected from the rising sap of sugar maple trees, which is boiled down to drive off the water and thicken the syrup. Maple syrup comes in several grades, from dark to light, and like molasses, contains a good amount of calcium. You can use this wonderful sweetener on pancakes and in baking. Caution: many syrups are labeled "maple flavor" but contain just a little real maple syrup, or flavoring.

When cooking with maple syrup, use 3/4 cup for every cup of white sugar. Decrease the amount of liquid by 3 tablespoons.

Sorghum Syrup: A sweetener once popular in the Southern United States, sorghum syrup is made from sweet sorghum, a grain related to millet that grows on woody stalks to a height of 15 feet. The syrup is made by boiling the sorghum sap. The juice is boiled down to evaporate most of the water content, until it becomes syrup. Because sorghum cane is pest-resistant, is needs little pesticides, making it nearly organic, and very safe to consume. The syrup contains B vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium and phosphorus. It can be used in place of maple syrup.

Stevia Powder: Native to South America, stevia is a wonderful alternative for sweetening. Stevia is an herb that is a part of the sunflower family and is commonly known as sweetleaf, sweet leaf, sugarleaf, or simply stevia. It is widely grown for its sweet leaves. Its extracts have up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar and because it has a negligible effect on blood glucose and is known to enhance glucose tolerance, it is a much better choice than artificial sugars like Aspartame, Nutrasweet, Equal, Splenda, Sucralose, for people who are diabetic. Stevia in most forms, other than the white powered forms, gives a long even energy and works in the body like a complex carb. It is important to note that many of the extracts, are processed with alcohol and do not keep the plant properties intact; therefore it is important to pay close attention to how the stevia you may use is processed.

Here are my favorite choices and where you can find them...

• Rapadura- (also known as Organic Whole Cane Sugar-Unrefined & Unbleached) Don’t be fooled by other packages that say “Cane Sugar” or “Natural Cane Sugar”-look for the RAPUNZEL brand)- I bake with this and it actually enhances the flavor of baked goods. If your health food store does not carry it, ask them to order it for you and pretty soon, they may start carrying it now that someone is buying it. I used Sucanut all the time but now I am starting to LOVE Rapadura and now know that it is the best cane sugar you can buy! GOOD EARTH (a natural food store in my area) ordered it for me and will be keeping it on their shelves now! OR you can order it online...Amazon had some for $5/lb.

• RAW Honey- I asked a local Honey Farm near my house if they sold RAW honey and surprisingly they did and at the same price as the regular. Honey in the RAW has not been heated and therefore has natural enzymes that our bodies need to break this sugar down. This is how we were MEANT to eat our honey! Ask a local Honey Farm if they have RAW for sale…

• PURE Maple Syrup- I LOVE Pure Maple Syrup because it has a strong and robust flavor. It is quite expensive but I LOVE that Costco has it in a bigger container for about $16. It lasts a long time because you don’t need as much as the other fake maple syrups out there!


This section includes those sugars that are processed and/or have been chemically altered in a way that keeps our bodies from being able to easily break them down the way they were meant to be broken down. White sugar and foods with unnaturally high fructose content (like high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar) have been linked with a myriad of problems.

White Sugar: (Granulated Sugar, Powdered Sugar, Raw Sugar, Unbleached Sugar, Cane Sugar, and Beet Sugar, Florida Crystals, etc). White sugar is a crystalline substance comprised of 50% fructose and 50% glucose. Sugarcane and the sugar-beet are both sources of white sugar.

In cane sugar, the sugar is produced by extracting the sugarcane’s sweet juice, treating it with lime (calcium oxide, not the fruit!), boiling it, crystallizing it and then processing it further with phosphoric acid or calcium hydroxide. At that point, the sugar is filtered through activated carbon or bone char which helps to scrub the sugar “clean.” This process removes the molasses and its valuable trace minerals including manganese, copper, iron, selenium and others from the end-product, resulting in a product that is essentially devoid of nutrition.

In beet sugar, the sugar is produced by washing and slicing sugar beets, treating it with lime and carbon dioxide, filtering out impurities, crystallizing the sugar, centrifuging the mixture and then sorting the grains into different sizes. The majority of sugarbeet crops in the United States are now a product of genetic modification.

Brown Sugar: Brown sugar is manufactured using the same methods as white sugar, only the molasses is added back after manufacture at ratios of 3.5% for light brown sugar and 6.5% for dark brown sugar. As you see, it is no better than white sugar!

Coconut Palm Sugar: made from coconut sap, resembles cane sugar, but is very low on the glycemic index. Once collected, it is boiled and processed into a granule. Coconut palm sugars produce slow release energy, which sustains the human body through your daily activities without regular sugar “highs”, and “lows”.Coconut sugar contains sulfur, healthy micronutrients, potassium and magnesium. It is easiest to find in Asian countries, but is also available online. This sugar is fairly new on the market and not a lot is known about how good this sweetner is for our bodies. Once any liquid sugars are separated from the granules, it becomes a different product which in my opinion makes it harder on our bodies to break down in a natural and beneficial way. This is why I put Coconut Sugar in the Highly Processed Sweeteners section.

Turbinado Sugar: brown crystals, often called raw sugar, this is partially processed sugar that contains some molasses. Turbinado sugar is not bleached or refined to the extent that white table sugar is processed, and has fewer calories. You can find this kind of sugar in crystals that are a bit larger than white sugar.

High Fructose Corn Syrup: High fructose corn syrup is produced by processing corn to produce corn starch. Manufacturers then add a concoction of enzymes to the starch which transforms the glucose present in the corn starch into high fructose. This process can produce a variety of levels of fructose. Most often the corn syrups containing various levels are remixed to produce HFCS 55 which contains approximately 55% high fructose. The manufacture of high fructose corn syrup also makes heavy use of centrifuge and evaporation chambers similar to Agave nectar. The bulk of corn used in this manufacturing process is genetically modified. High fructose corn syrup was first synthesized in 1965 and since then has become the sweetener of choice among American processed food manufacturers.

Agave Nectar: Agave nectar, despite being heralded as a natural sweetener, is problematic. Agave nectar is manufactured by extracting the natural juice of the agave plant and subjecting that juice to an intense process! After extraction the juice is forced through a series of centrifuges that remove substances from the whole juice and further clarify the color of the liquid. At that point, the extraction is sent through a heated centrifuge which warms the liquid. Manufacturers then add enzymes to the juice which breaks down the agave’s natural sugars and transforms them into high fructose. Food producers began manufacturing agave nectar in the 1990s. It is a very new addition to the human diet. It's available as a fluid in light, medium, and amber. Extracted from the agave plant, this nectar is low on the glycemic index, and sweeter than refined sugar.

For more information about Agave Nectar, visit the following website. It really opened my eyes! http://www.living-foods.com/articles/agave.html Now you can judge for yourself if this sweetener is as good as some people may think.

Maple Sugar:
made from the very last of the maple syrup, when all the liquids have boiled off. Maple sugar is crystalline and quite sticky. It can be used in baking and in hot drinks, and is often sold molded into candy.

Maltose: made from the starch of sprouted grains and rice. The plant starches are cooked and fermented until they convert into sugar. You may find this sold as crystals or as syrup.

Sucanat: I thought Sucanut and Rapadura were the same thing, but have researched more thoroughly and found out that Sucanat is manufactured in a way that the sugar stream and the molasses stream is separated from each other and then carefully re-blended to reach a consistent product. This process changes the chemistry and cannot be as good for our bodies. Unlike refined and processed white sugar, Sucanat retains its molasses content but the process in which it is made makes it not as healthy as Rapadura (listed under the Natural Sweetners section). Sucanat is generally accepted as a substitute for brown sugar, but is grainy and doesn't always fully dissolve. Sucanat (in common with all sugars) is not a significant source of any nutrient apart from simple carbohydrates. Sucanat may be confused with turbinado sugar; however, the two are fundamentally different. Turbinado sugar contains only a trace amount of its original molasses content, making it similar to refined sugar except with a golden color and a hint of molasses flavor. Sucanat, on the other hand, retains its full molasses content.

Fructose: made from fruit sugars, this is twice as sweet as refined sugar. Fructose is highly refined and causes deleterious effects, especially in children. I would stay completely away from this sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup. If you do insist on using it, remember to half the amount that you would normally put in cookies, cakes, and drinks.

Modern, processed sugars and their modern, chemical-based substitutes are a result of deep and complicated manufacturing processes that render the food less nutrient-dense and even dangerous. Many of these chemically-based sweeteners lack the body and clean flavor of sugar while leaving a nasty and often bitter aftertaste and most of them have been linked to the development of various cancers.

Cyclamate: This is not currently on the market, having been banned in 1970 after studies implicated it along with saccharain as a cause of cancer.

Sucralose: This is600 times sweeter than sugar and is a slightly altered form of sugar. Sucralose is produced when the sucrose molecule is modified by the introduction of chlorine atoms. This adjustment to sugar’s molecular structure renders the sweetener calorie-free. Sucralose is a fairly new artificial sugar substitute and it has not been thoroughly studied. Concerns of its possible carcinogenic effects stemming from the use of chlorine to molecularly modify the food.

Saccharin: One of the oldest sugar substitutes–having first been manufactured in the late 19th century. Its sweetness was found by accident and it leaves a remarkably bitter aftertaste which is why it’s often blended with other chemical sweeteners. The FDA threatened to ban this substance after it was linked to the development of bladder cancer. It is still banned in several countries.

Aspertame: First synthesized in 1965 by a company that was later purchased by Monsanto. Like saccharin, aspertame was discovered by accident when a chemist was researching an anti-ulcer drug. Aspertame has been linked to cancer–particularly brain cancer and there continues to be a controversy surrounding its use.

Here is a list of basic types of sweeteners by their GI level...

Natural Sweetener Glycemic Index (GI) Rating
Carbs, based on their GI rank, are categorized to three groups:

o Low GI foods are foods with a GI less than 55. They cause a slower and lower rise in blood glucose levels.
Examples are Porridge, Apple and Sweet Potato.

o Intermediate GI foods are foods with a GI between 55 and 70. They cause blood glucose levels to go up at a moderate rate.
Examples are Pineapple, New Potato and Mango.

o High GI foods are foods with a GI greater than 70. They cause a rapid rise in blood glucose levels.
Examples are Jasmine rice, Cornflakes and Watermelon.

Look for sweeteners closer to the 55 and below GI range, BUT that are also minimally processed. Here are some visuals to get an idea, whether or not the numbers are exact (snice I've seen charts vary a little on exact Index rating).

It's great to use fruit as a replacement too, but some are still pretty high on the glycemic index.

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