Sugar is one of the oldest commodities, and has at times been so valued that it was kept under lock and key in a sugar safe! The domestication of sugar cane occurred around 8,000BC in New Guinea. Nautical trade routes were responsible for the expansion of sugar throughout Southeast Asia, China, and India. Eventually, sugar cane cultivation made its way to Europe and westward to the New World. Today, sugar production exceeds 190 million metric tons each year – that’s one sweet industry!1
In modern culinary application, sugar is responsible for much more than adding sweetness. It is used to facilitate the caramelization processes, balance acidity in foods, and contributes to the appearance, flavor, and viscosity of liquid food items like glazes, sauces, and marinades. There are many types of sugar and sweeteners. Choosing the right one is important in achieving the desired end product. When it comes to sugar and other sweeteners, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Consumption of sugar, particularly in excess, is linked to development of a number of chronic degenerative health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and cancer.2 The American Heart Association recommends no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) of added sugar per day for men and no more than 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) for women.3 Depending on energy expenditure, age and physical conditions, sugar consumption may be recommended at as close to zero as possible. The food market is home to a number of different sweetener options, each with different properties, strengths, and weaknesses.
Standard white table sugar is primarily made from sugarcane but sugar beets may also be used. This kind of sugar is highly refined and is often the type that comes to mind when people think of sugar. Sugarcane resembles bamboo and is a tropical plant that grows well in warm states like Louisiana, Texas, Florida, and Hawaii. The plant makes sugar in its large leaves then sends that sugar to the stalk/cane for storage.
Once the sugarcane is harvested it is transported to a factory where it undergoes a mastication process to extract the juice. Next, the juice is purified, filtered, and evaporated into golden brown, raw sugar crystals. The golden color is due to the presence of a thin layer of molasses. The raw sugar is then sent to a refinery where the molasses and sucrose are separated resulting in white sugar. The most common form of white sugar is the granulated form but other types such as turbinado, brown, and confectioners are also available.
Although refined sugar is considered a nutritive sweetener due to its 4 calories per gram caloric content, it is highly processed and does not provide any additional benefits such as antioxidants or minerals. However, the darker varieties such as brown sugar and turbinado sugar do retain some nutrients such as iron, potassium, and magnesium due to their molasses content.
Brown sugar is a moist, packable granulated cane sugar that has molasses added back to it. It can be purchased in both light and dark forms. Dark brown sugar has a stronger flavor and more molasses.
Turbinado sugar, also called “raw” sugar, is the result of the first pressing of the sugar cane. The syrup derived from the first pressing of the sugarcane is boiled to form crystals that are then spun to remove any remaining liquid. Turbinado sugar crystals are coarser, darker, and more well-rounded in flavor than granulated or brown sugar because they are less refined. Because it is less refined, turbinado retains more of the natural flavors and molasses than refined sugar does.
Tips for Use
White sugar can be used in baking and as a sweetener for drinks, though standard granulated sugar may be challenging to dissolve in cold drinks. Because turbinado sugar contains more molasses, it can lead to a more grainy and crumbly texture so it may not be the best substitution in baked goods. Brown sugar contains a greater liquid fraction so recipes may need to have the liquid input adjusted to compensate.
Also known as “confectioners sugar,” powdered sugar is simply white sugar that has been ground into a fine powder with a bit of corn starch added to prevent clumping. Powdered sugar can be found in various levels of fineness that range from an XX to a 14X with 14X being the finest. The type most commonly found in supermarkets is the 10X grind.
Although powdered sugar is considered a nutritive sweetener due to its 4 calories per gram caloric content, it is highly processed and does not provide any additional benefits such as antioxidants or minerals.
Tips for Use
The 10X variety is commonly used to make frosting, whipped cream, candy, and as a dusting powder for finishing cakes, pastries, and other desserts. The superfine 14X variety is the most dissolvable and is frequently used in cocktails, particularly rum-based beverages like mojitos. It is also used as a sweetener for non-alcoholic drinks like iced tea and coffee as well as in baking.
Stevia is an herbal extract from a plant that is a member of the chrysanthemum family. It has become a widely used calorie-free sweetener. There are a number of species of stevia, some of which are native to southwestern US, but the one most common sweetener is Stevia rebaudiana. This variety is native to Paraguay and Brazil and its leaves have been used to sweeten food for hundreds of years.
Despite its long history of use, in the US, the FDA has not approved whole stevia leaves nor “crude stevia extracts” for use in foods. However, an isolated chemical extract form stevia known as Rebaudioside A has been approved for use in food and beverages.4
Stevia has no calories, and it is 200 times sweeter than sugar in the same concentration. Because only the extract is used, there are no additional phytonutrients found in US products. There have been studies to suggest that stevia could have therapeutic benefits for a number health conditions including: anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, anti-diarrheal, diuretic, and immunomodulatory actions.5
Tips for Use
Though the stevia plant itself is associated with little aftertaste, Rebaudioside A extracts can have some. The level of aftertaste can vary significantly from one product to the next so trying multiple brands to find the most personally palatable may be necessary. Flavored (vanilla, orange, mint, berry, etc.) stevia extracts are also available.
The relationship between humans and honey can be traced back to cave paintings from 9,000 years ago. Honey was so valued by the ancient Romans that it was used instead of gold to pay taxes. Honey is familiar to most as the thick, golden, sweet liquid that bees make from flower nectar. Honey comes in a variety of colors and flavors both of which stem from the source of the nectar. As a general rule, the darker the color, the stronger the flavor. Liquid honey is the most popular way that honey is sold, but it can also be found still in the chewy and edible wax-like comb.
Natural honey is around 82% carbohydrate consisting of around 40% fructose, 30% glucose, and 12% other sugars. It also contains a number of bioactive compounds including, flavonoids, polyphenols, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and organic acids, all of which play an important role in its nutritional and medicinal qualities.6 It was used by ancient civilizations for its antibacterial, antioxidant, anti-tumor, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties.7 Honey was also used as a remedy for acute conditions such as ear infections, coughs, and sore throat.8 In particular, Manuka honey is treasured for its medicinal properties.
Note: Honey should never be fed to infants under the age of 12 months as their digestive systems are immature and more susceptible to infant botulism, an illness that may originate from spores found in honey that have no effect on older children or adults whose digestive and immune systems are more developed.
Tips for Use
Honey is considered a supersaturated sugar solution, and since the water in honey contains more sugar than it should naturally hold, it has a tendency to crystallize. It is natural for honey to crystallize and though many people incorrectly believe that the presence of crystals means that it is spoiled, the crystallization process has no effect on the honey other than color and texture. Although all raw honey will crystallize over time, there are several steps that can be taken to slow the crystallization process:
- Store honey at room temperature or warmer. Crystallization happens much faster at lower temperatures so not store it in the refrigerator or an unheated area.
- Store honey in a glass container. Plastic is more porous than glass and can allow excess moisture to seep in overtime which will increase the crystallization process.
- Honey that is higher in glucose such as lavender, clover, and dandelion crystallize faster. Acacia, sage, and tupelo honey are all higher in fructose and much less likely to crystallize.
If honey does crystallize, simply placing it in a container of warm water will melt the crystals and return it to its original consistency.
Agave is a succulent plant and member of the Amaryllis family whose native growth spans from regions of southwestern US all the way down to parts of South America. Agave grow in large rosettes of long, strong, fleshy leaves with sharp “teeth” down the sides. Agave take a very long time to reach maturity, and has been distilled to make tequila since the 1500s.
There are a number of subspecies of agave, but the one most commonly used to make agave syrup is Agave tequilana the Blue Agave plant. Once the plant reaches maturity (approximately 7-10 years), the leaves are removed from the plant and the central core (known as the “pina” because it resembles a pineapple) is all that remains. The discarded leaves are left behind to restore the soil and reduce erosion. The pina can be quite large, weighing between 50-150 pounds.9 Next, the sap is extracted from the pina. This sap is filtered then heated at a low temperature. The heating process helps break down the natural carbohydrates into sugars. The resulting nectar is then filtered and it is this filtering process that determines the color and flavor of the final agave syrup. Thus, the light Blue Agave syrup is simply more filtered than its raw and amber counterparts.
Agave syrup contains small amounts of vitamin C, B vitamins, and several common minerals. It is quite similar in color and flavor to honey and is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar (which means less can be used to achieve the same level of sweetness) but it is often thinner in texture. Agave contains more fructose than glucose which means it is less likely to cause a spike in blood sugar, but more likely to negatively impact metabolism and insulin sensitivity.10 Certain bioactive compounds in agave have been shown in research to serve important antioxidant and protective roles in the brain.11
Tips for Use
Agave syrup is a very free flowing and fast dissolving sweetener making it a great choice for cold drinks like cocktails or iced tea. Darker varieties are also used directly from the bottle as a syrup for pancakes, French toast, or waffles. Agave is sold in several varieties including light, amber, dark, and raw. Both the light and raw types have a mild, nearly neutral flavor, the amber variety provides a medium-intensity, caramel flavor, and the dark types have the strongest caramel flavor.
Coconut sugar, also called coconut palm sugar, is the traditional natural sweetener in South and Southeast Asia. It is made from the sap of the coconut palm tree via a natural two-step process. First, a cut is made in the flower bud through which the liquid sap is collected. The sap is a sugary fluid that circulates inside the plant.
Next, the sap is retained under low heat conditions until the liquid fraction has evaporated leaving behind a light brown, granulated substance that appears similar to raw sugar but with a smaller and more varied particle size. It is often mistaken for palm sugar (a similar sugar product made from a different type of palm tree). During the evaporation phase, the sap is stored at temperatures around 100F for a couple of hours, allowing the natural enzymes to remain intact as well. Other manufacturers boil the sap to crystallize the sugar which destroys the natural enzymes found in the plant. Because the coconut palm tree can continue to produce enough sap to harvest for about 20 years and does not require a lot of resources compared to other types of sweetener like cane sugar, coconut sugar has been named the most sustainable sweetener in the world.12
Coconut sugar is considered a nutritive sweetener containing about 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon (the same as table sugar). Because the production of coconut sugar does not include any refining processes it retains many of its vital nutrients. Coconut sugar contains small, but measurable amounts of potassium, calcium, zinc, magnesium, B-vitamins, polyphenols, and boasts a good amino acid profile as well as short chain fatty acids and a special prebiotic fiber known as inulin. Inulin is rather unique in that it is not digested in your upper intestinal tract, but rather serves as a source of nourishment for the bacteria in the lower digestive tract. Clinical research has shown that prebiotics like inulin can yield many health benefits including, gastrointestinal health, colon cancer prevention, blood sugar and lipid metabolism, bone mineralization, fatty liver disease, obesity, and immunity.13 Coming in at around 45% fructose, coconut sugar is also lower in fructose than other sweeteners such as agave (90% fructose) and high fructose corn syrup (55% fructose). Fructose has a striking tendency to be converted directly to fat so consuming lower amounts can have significant health benefits.
Tips for Use
Coconut sugar has an earthy flavor profile similar to brown sugar. It is gaining popularity and is easy to use in baking because it does not impact the flavor or texture of the food (but it does turn the batter/dough brown so that may not always be ideal).
Monk fruit known in Chinese culture as “luo han guo” or the “Buddha Fruit” is a small round fruit native to Southeast Asia. It was first used by Buddhist monks in the 13th century and has been used as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for hundreds of years, but only became approved by the FDA in 2010.13,14 The sweetener is made from the dehydrated juice of the monk fruit.
To begin the process, the seeds and skin of the fruit are removed, then the fruit is crushed, releasing the juice. The juice is collected and dried to form a concentrated powder. Monk Fruit sweetener is also called “monk fruit extract” and is up to 250 times as sweet as sugar.14 It is often mixed with other compounds like inulin or erythritol (a sugar alcohol) to balance the intensity of the sweetness.
The monk fruit itself contains calories and sugars in the form of fructose and glucose. However, monk fruit extract does not contain any calories nor any actual sugars. The intensity of the sweetness of monk fruit is due to the presence of a unique group of antioxidant molecules known as mogrosides. During processing of the monk fruit, the mogrosides are separated from pressed juice leaving the natural fruit sugars in the juice and making monk fruit extract calorie and sugar free. Mogrosides have been classified as GRAS or “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA.14 Monk fruit extracts have been shown to have various biological activities including antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic action.15 Monk fruit extracts are also known to benefit a number of health conditions such as hypertension, constipation, and aiding in relief of cough.15
Tips for Use
Monk fruit extract is available in liquid, granule, and powder forms. It is regarded as safe for all people including children, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.14 Because monk fruit is often combined with other sweeteners, this may impact the nature of the end product as well as the nutritional profile. Monk fruit has a somewhat fruity taste that may not be appreciated by everyone and has been reported by some as having an unpleasant aftertaste. Because of the intensity of sweetness in Monk fruit extract, for use in cooking and baking, substantially less volume is required to achieve the same level of sweetness. The sweetness of an entire cup of white sugar can be replaced by less than a teaspoon of Monk fruit extract.16 it is important to note that because of the considerable reduction in volume between the amount of sugar and the amount of Monk fruit extract needed in recipes, the consistency, number of servings, and size of the finished product may be impacted by making the substitution.
Maple syrup is made from the xylem sap of several types of maple trees, chiefly the sugar, red, or black varieties. In northern latitudes, these trees store starches in their roots and trunks before winter which are then converted to sugars that form in the late winter and early spring months. The basic process of producing maple syrup involves drilling a hole into the tree trunk and collecting the sap that drips out then processing that sap by boiling it to evaporate off much of the water content leaving behind the sweet syrup we all know and love. The origins of maple syrup date back well before the settling of North America by Europeans. However, it is not known which tribe first discovered it since a number of tribes pass down a similar legend surrounding its use and availability.17
Many legends center around the theme that a God or demigod discovered that people were becoming lazy from drinking the syrup directly from the tree rather than working and hunting and foraging for their food. As such, legend has it that the deity then added water to the syrup necessitating its processing by boiling before consumption. Other legends involve the use of the sap in cooking as the means to the first discovery.18 Indigenous tribes collected maple sap through a v-shaped incision into the bark of the tree and placement of a wedge at the bottom that lead the sap to drip into a wooden bucket placed at the base of the tree. When European colonists arrived, they learned about tapping maple trees from the Native Americans but they used a hole drilled with an auger that was plugged with a wooden spout. A bucket was hung from the spout to catch the sap as it poured out the spout. During the 1800s, many technological innovations, such as flat pans (instead of the formerly used iron kettles), improved the ease of processing maple sap. In modern times, there are many further innovations that make the process faster, easier, and cheaper including the use of tubing that transports the sap directly from the tree to the sugar shack where the processing takes place. If the sap is over boiled and most of the water is removed, all that is left is a solid sugar known as maple sugar. Maple sugar was actually the preferred form for Native Americans because it had a long shelf life and could easily be transported.
The source of maple syrup is of course the sap of several varieties for maple trees. The sap does not contain fat or protein, consisting mainly of sucrose (a disaccharide molecule that is also the chief component of white table sugar containing one molecule of glucose and one molecule of fructose) along with smaller amounts of free glucose and fructose that are created during the boiling process. The free glucose and fructose are responsible for the varying degrees of darkness seen in maple syrup varieties. Nutritionally, maple syrup has about 52 calories per tablespoon. Maple syrup contains significant amounts of manganese and vitamin B2 (riboflavin) as well as moderate amounts of zinc. It is a moderate antioxidant, rivaling the protective capabilities of carrots. It also contains trace amounts of magnesium, calcium, and potassium.18 Maple has a very distinct flavor and although it is unknown exactly what compounds are responsible for creating it, it is believed that the primary contributors are furanone, strawberry furanone and maltol.19 Maple syrup contains a wide variety of phytochemicals which may impart benefits to human health.20 It has a much lower glycemic index (meaning it causes a slower rise in blood sugar) than honey and is also slightly lower than white sugar.
Tips for Use
Many of the top brands of pancake syrup in the US do not contain any actual maple syrup and rely solely on corn syrup as the main sweetening ingredient. It is important to look at the ingredient list when purchasing to make sure it is pure maple syrup. While maple syrup can be substituted one-to-one for liquid sweeteners like honey, agave, molasses, or corn syrup, some adjustments must be made if substituting for granular sugars like white or brown sugar. To use maple syrup as a white or brown sugar alternative, use 2/3 cup of maple syrup for every cup of granulated sugar, reduce the quantity of liquid ingredients in the recipe (water, milk, juice) by about 1/4 cup and lower the baking temperature by 25° F. Maple sugar can be reused just like cane sugar and has similar performance in baked goods. However, because maple sugar is about twice as sweet as white cane sugar, reducing the amount by a little less than half is recommended to avoid having an overly sweet finished product.
Although the term “alcohol” is in the name, sugar alcohols are chemically different from (through structurally similar to) alcoholic beverages. More importantly, they do not contain any ethanol. Sugar alcohols occur naturally in foods and come from plant products such as fruits and berries. They are also industrially produced form sugars. Sugar alcohols are sold as white, water-soluble granular solids and look similar to white table sugar. They are used widely in the commercial food industry as bulking agents, thickeners, and sweeteners in place of sugar. Additionally, you can also find them combined with other high-intensity sweeteners to moderate the sweetness level. Most people eat sugar alcohols every day and don’t even know it. Some of the most commonly used sugar alcohols include:21
Mannitol which is found in fruits and vegetables like pineapples, olives, asparagus, carrots, sweet potatoes and even seaweed! Mannitol is less sweet than sugar by about 50-70% meaning that more must be used to provide the same level of sweetness.
As a sugar substitute, sugar alcohols provide fewer calories (about a half to one-third less calories in most cases) than regular sugar.21 Additionally, they convert to glucose more slowly, have little to no insulin requirements, and are not known to cause spikes in blood sugar. Sugar alcohols have other health benefits as well. Regular use of xylitol for example results in around a 75% reduction in the number of streptococcus mutant bacteria (the main bacteria associated with the development of dental cavities) in the mouth.22 It may also be helpful in both the prevention and treatment of Type II Diabetes as well as reducing fat accumulation in the abdominal area.23 Erythritol has been shown to have potent antioxidant capacity and to have a favorable impact on the vasculature.24 Due to the fact that they are not well absorbed in the digestive tract, sugar alcohols have a tendency to cause gastric distress (nausea, rumbling, diarrhea, reflux, etc.), particularly when consumed in large quantities. Some sugar alcohols have a greater tendency to cause these effects over others.
NOTE: Some sugar alcohols, particularly xylitol, are toxic to dogs. It is important not to share foods containing xylitol with dogs.
Tips for Use
Most sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar and require a greater volume to be used to achieve the same level of sweetness. However, xylitol can be used in a one-to-one exchange with sugar. Sugar alcohols are sold in a variety of forms with granular versions being among the most popular. Sugar alcohols may change the taste of the finished product slightly so it may take some experimentation to determine appropriate amounts.
Artificial Sweeteners (i.e. sucralose, saccharin, aspartame and high fructose corn syrup)
Sold under trade names like Splenda, Nutri-Sweet, Equal, and Sweet-N-Low, these sweeteners are readily available in any restaurant, coffee shop, convenience store, or grocery store. High fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to sugar, but results in the addition of unnatural amounts of fructose to the system. The human body has limited capabilities for metabolizing fructose and when overloaded, the excess is converted to triglycerides which are then stored as body fat.25 All of them have been approved by the FDA but their use is controversial due to their potential for deleterious health effects. These products are synthetic, unnatural chemicals and their consumption can lead to a number of deleterious health effects. 26, 27 Their use should be avoided.
The food market is home to a number of different sweetener options, each with different properties, strengths, and weaknesses. With the information above you can make in an informed decision on which sweetener is best for your overall health and baking purposes.
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