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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sugar

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sugar

It just so happens that I have a wretched sweet tooth, I love to bake, and I have to watch my blood sugar—a challenging combination on the best of days. Many people are in the same boat, and there’s a lot of confusion out there about the different kinds of sweeteners available today, how to use them, and whether they are healthy and safe to use.

Here is everything you ever wanted to know about sugar, plus the lowdown on all the many different types of sweeteners on the market today.

Caveat Emptor

How did we ever get to a place where there are so many types of sweeteners on the market that there might be genuine confusion? Just 100 years ago, there was only cane sugar, sorghum, honey and maple syrup, and Americans each ate less than two pounds a year of them, total.

But today, whether from soda, snacks, cereal, pasta, bread or other packaged foods, Americans each eat the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of sugar a day, adding up to about 160 pounds of sugar per person, per year. And in just 32 ounces of soda, you (or your teen) can easily consume at least a quarter pound of sugar a day!

According to Rachel K. Johnson, lead author of a paper published in the American Heart Association (AHA) journal Circulation, too much sugar not only makes Americans fat, but also is a key culprit in diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. The typical American high-sugar diet is also a major factor in the development of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease too.

Sugar raises blood glucose, triggers abnormal insulin surges, and makes us hungry and fat. It also reduces HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind), skyrockets triglycerides, converts the less-harmful large LDL particles to the much more harmful small LDL particles, and contributes greatly to inflammation in the body. Some scientists even think that sugar is a slow-acting poison.

So How Much is Too Much?

The Heart Association report recommends that most women should be getting no more than 6 teaspoons a day, or 24 grams of added sugar—the sweeteners and syrups that are added to foods during processing, preparation or at the table. For most men, the recommended limit is 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams.

This means that one 6-ounce cup of store-bought, flavored yogurt, with the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar, would put you over your sugar limit for the whole day!

Worldwide consumption of sugar has tripled during the past 50 years, and commensurate with it, the incidence of obesity and chronic disease has become epidemic. In fact, sugar has recently been found to be so toxic to the body, that some scientists have argued for its regulation, like alcohol or tobacco.

Regulation on food processors, taxation, removal of farm subsidies, and/or public health education might not be bad ideas, given that the high-sugar, Standard American Diet contributes to more disease and death than alcohol and tobacco combined.

So this summary of sweeteners comes with a warning:

Added sugar in any form is not good for you, so please use it sparingly.

An Inside Look at Sugar

There are various types of sugar, chemically speaking. Sucrose comes primarily from sugar cane or sugar beets; fructose, maltose and dextrose come from fruits and starchy plants; lactose comes from dairy products, etc.—basically, if it ends in -ose, its a type of sugar.

Sucrose, like all complex sugars, breaks down during digestion into two simple sugars: glucose and fructose. Glucose is transported by insulin to the cells for energy, which, unless burned, gets stored away as fat. Yep, you read that right: Sugar, unused, makes you fat.

Glucose is the foundation for the Glycemic Index (GI), which ranks foods on how they affect our blood glucose levels. This index measures how much your blood glucose increases in the two or three hours after eating certain foods. Table sugar, or sucrose, has a GI of 60. Eating low (below 50) on the glycemic index can help you control your blood sugar naturally.

In addition to glucose, complex sugars like sucrose or lactose also break down into fructose. People tend to think that fructose is a benign sugar because it is found naturally in fruit. But, despite the name “fructose,” whole fruit actually has a relatively low concentration of fructose compared to processed foods like agave syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, or cane sugar.

Fructose does not raise blood glucose levels immediately the way glucose does, and is therefore considered low on the glycemic index. But don’t be fooled into thinking that’s a good thing.

Fructose travels to the liver where it gets converted to triglycerides—the fats in the blood that are associated with heart disease. Like excess blood glucose, blood triglycerides made from fructose are stored as fat, which increases the size of your fat cells, contributing to weight gain and obesity.

The excess triglycerides created when you eat fructose increase insulin resistance, thereby boosting insulin production to very high levels, which fosters the development of diabetes in a “back door” fashion. Fructose also interferes with the absorption of minerals and impairs the immune system.

(Related: See The Skinny on Fat, Part 2 for more information on how sugar can make you fat)

So, now that you know how sugar affects the body generally, let’s break down 25 different kinds of sugar and sweetener, how they effect your health compared to others, and how best to use them in your cooking.

White Sugars

“Regular” or white table sugar, from coarse to powdered granulations
There are many different types of refined, granulated sugar derived from sugar cane or sugar beets. Cane and beet sugars are mainly made of sucrose and come in varying crystal sizes that provide unique functional characteristics appropriate for a specific food’s special need.

Refined white sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, and is highly processed using multiple fossil-fuel- and chemical-intensive processes. It provides empty calories and zero nutritional value. Additionally, the fact that over 65% of commercial sugar is made from genetically engineered (GMO) sugar beets makes white sugar something to be avoided at all costs.

“Fruit Sugar” or Crystalline Fructose
Crystalline fructose is slightly finer than “regular” sugar and is used in dry mixes such as flavored gelatin and pudding desserts, and powdered drinks. Crystalline fructose has a more uniform small crystal size than “regular” sugar which prevents separation or settling of larger crystals to the bottom of the box—an important quality in dry mixes. Since it is made totally from fructose, it is definitely harmful to your health.

Brown Sugars

Brown sugars range in the amount of processing they receive, but they are brown because, unlike white sugar, they have not had all of the molasses chemically and physically removed. The least processed of the brown sugars—Rapadura or panela—often still has the minerals and enzymes intact.

Brown palm sugars differ in texture and taste from brown cane sugars, but are often minimally processed as to still contain trace minerals too. Brown sugars can be used in cup-for-cup substitution with white refined sugars.

Brown Sugar (common light and dark)
sugarbrowndarkCommon brown sugar is really highly processed and refined white sugar that has had the surface molasses syrup added back in, which imparts its characteristic flavor.

Dark brown sugar has a deeper color and stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar. Lighter types are generally used in baking and making butterscotch, condiments and glazes. The rich, full flavor of dark brown sugar makes it good for gingerbread, mincemeat, baked beans, and other full flavored foods.

Brown sugar tends to clump because it contains more moisture than white sugar, but putting a piece of bread in your sugar box is said to help prevent this. Common brown sugar is a highly refined pseudo-food best replaced by one of the naturally brown sugars below.

Evaporated Cane Juice and Sucanat™
sucanat-1
Evaporated Cane Juice is the common name for the sugar produced directly from milled cane using a single-crystallization process. The filtered, clarified juice is simply heated to remove water and then allowed to cool, forming granular crystals of what is basically dried sugar cane juice. The crystals retain their molasses, creating a very distinctive and quite strong flavor, along with other impurities which may be present in the cane.

Unlike more refined sugar, Sucanat™ is grainy, rather than blocky and crystalline. It also contains less sucrose, because it is has not been purified.

Sucanat™ is a contraction of “Sugar Cane Natural.” It can be difficult to bake with, because it behaves very differently from more processed forms of sugar. The lower sucrose content makes Sucanat™ less sweet, which can be confusing for bakers who want to replace regular sugar with Sucanat™ on a one-to-one basis. The granular texture can also manifest in finished baked goods, causing a disappointing texture, and the strong flavor can be unpleasant, especially when mixed with other intense flavors like citrus or chocolate. (Where to buy Sucanat online)

Turbinado, Muscovado, Demerara and Rapadura
rapadura2
Turbinado sugar is raw sugar which has been partially processed, where only the surface molasses has been washed off. It has a blond color and mild brown sugar flavor, and is often used in tea and other beverages. Sugar in the Raw™ is the most commonly known brand of raw, turbinado sugar. (Where to buy turbinado sugar online)

Muscovado sugar, a British specialty brown sugar, is very dark brown and has a particularly strong molasses flavor. The minimally processed crystals are slightly coarser and stickier in texture than “regular” brown sugar. (Where to buy muscovado sugar online)

Popular in England, Demerara sugar is a light brown raw sugar with large golden crystals, which are slightly sticky from the adhering molasses. It is often used in tea, coffee, or on top of hot cereals, and it has a taste and texture that some people adore. (Where to buy Demerara sugar online)

Rapadura is the Portuguese name for a form of sugarcane juice common in Latin American countries such as Brazil and Venezuela (where it is known as papelón or panela), and the Caribbean. Made from dried sugarcane juice in the form of a brick, rapadura is largely produced on site at sugarcane plantations in very warm, tropical regions.

In Venezuela, Rapadura is an essential ingredient for many typical recipes, and in some parts of the country, it is used in place of refined sugar as a more accessible, cheaper and healthier sweetener. Rapadura is the least processed of all the cane sugars, and is rich in dietary iron. (Where to buy Rapadura sugar online)

Palm Sugar
Palm Sugar
Palm sugar is a traditional sweetener that has been used for thousands of years. Because it comes from tapping trees that require little water and help build agroforest ecosystems, it is also the most sustainably produced granulated sugar in the world.

Palm sugar was originally made from the sugary sap of the Palmyra palm, as well as the date palm or Sugar date palm. Now it is also made from the sap of the sago and coconut palms and may be sold as “coconut sugar.” Date sugar can also be made with the fruit of the palm by pulverizing very dry dates, but note that sugar made this way will not dissolve well in liquid.

Palm sugar varies in color from a light golden color to a rich dark brown. It tends to be extremely grainy, with dried forms being highly crumbly, and it is typically minimally processed.

Many people like to use palm sugar in cooking because it is so coarse and unprocessed, and many Southeast Asian recipes call specifically for palm sugar. The light processing leaves much of the flavor of the sugar intact, creating an almost molasses-like flavor. Palm sugar is lower on the glycemic index than cane or beet sugar.

You will often see palm sugar sold as “coconut sugar,” which can be a bit confusing, since coconut fruits themselves are not actually involved. It is also sometimes marketed as “coconut nectar,” “palm honey” or jaggery. Asian markets are a good resource for palm sugar, and it can also be ordered through specialty retailers.

Many companies sell palm sugar in jars or tins which make it easy to ship and store, so if you purchase a block or cone of palm sugar (as opposed to a bag), be aware that blocks are often coated in wax for shipping. Check for wax before shaving off the desired amount of palm sugar. (Where to buy coconut palm sugar online)

Liquid Sugars

Corn Syrup
There was a time when manufacturers of processed foods used common table sugar, or sucrose, as their default sweetener. In the 1970s, however, Japanese scientists discovered a process which could convert cornstarch into an alternative sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose and 45% glucose, which makes it virtually as sweet as sucrose or natural honey. When imported sugar became prohibitively expensive, many processed food and beverage manufacturers began using high fructose corn syrup exclusively.

Today, high fructose corn syrup has replaced pure sugar as the main sweetener in most carbonated beverages, including Coca Cola and Pepsi products. High fructose corn syrup is also hiding in products like salad dressing, spaghetti sauce, and whole wheat bread, and it is often one of the first ingredients in cake mixes, cookies, sauces, breakfast cereals and commercial baked goods.

High fructose corn syrup is made through a highly industrialized, chemical fermentation and distillation process that uses tremendous amounts of energy to produce. Many health experts and environmentalists are concerned over the level of genetic modification, environmental pollution and toxic processing used to create high fructose corn syrup. Others point out the association between processed foods containing high fructose corn syrup, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

In fact, according to a Princeton University study, high-fructose corn syrup caused significantly more weight gain in rats who consumed it than in those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same. Says Professor Hoebel, “Some people have claimed that high-fructose corn syrup is no different than other sweeteners when it comes to weight gain and obesity, but our results make it clear that this just isn’t true…”

All around, high fructose corn syrup is nasty, industrially-made pseudo-food to be avoided at all costs.

Agave Syrup
agaveplantAgave syrup is very high in fructose. Depending on the brand, agave can contain as much as 92% fructose. Nowhere in nature does this ratio of fructose to glucose occur naturally. The amount of fructose in agave is much, much higher than the 55% fructose in high-fructose corn syrup or the 50% fructose in refined table sugar, making agave “nectar” worse for you than either table sugar or corn syrup. Yikes! Perhaps it should be called High-Fructose Agave Syrup (HFAS)!

The fact that agave syrup is high in low-glycemic fructose is often hailed as a benefit of using it. What many people don’t realize is that concentrated fructose is probably worse for you than high amounts of glucose. In fact, agave syrup has been banned by the Glycemic Index Institute for the harm it caused to study participants.

Agave is not naturally sweet like sugar cane, honey or fruit. Whether heavily processed with heat and chemicals or minimally processed with enzymes, agave syrup requires an industrial process to extract its sweetness. As such, agave syrup is not a whole or traditional food. It is a factory-made, modern product, and like all processed foods, agave syrup is missing many of the enzymes and nutrients that the original plant had to begin with.

And like many processed foods, it contains very high amounts of fructose that the human body simply wasn’t designed to handle. (See Agave Syrup is Bad for You for more information.)

Yacon Syrup
yaconsyrup23Yacon syrup is a sugar substitute native to the Andean region of South America. It is glucose-free, and does not increase blood sugar levels. Because of this, yacon syrup is often recommended as a sweetener to those suffering from diabetes or at risk for becoming diabetic.

The syrup is derived from the roots of the yacon plant, and according to some studies is a good source of antioxidants. The syrup also contains up to 50% of FOS (fructooligosacharides). The consumption of FOS does not increase blood glucose. However, since any inulin-derived sweetener has large amounts of fructose, the same concerns about the health effects of fructose apply.

Yacon syrup is usually made with minimal processing in an evaporator, like the ones used to make maple syrup. Yacon syrup is often compared to molasses, caramel, or honey in taste, with a deep and rich, mildly sweet flavor. It easily substitutes for maple syrup or molasses in recipes, and can be used to sweeten beverages. It is typically sold in jars like honey, and can be purchased online or at specialty food stores. (Where to buy yacon syrup online)

Rice Syrup
Rice syrup is a natural sweetener which is made from cooked brown rice which is specially fermented to turn the starches in the rice into sugars. Along with other alternatives to sugar, rice syrup can usually be found in natural foods stores and in some large markets. Since rice syrup will cause an elevation in blood sugar, it is not suitable for diabetics.

Individuals with gluten intolerance should read rice syrup labels carefully. Many producers culture the enzymes needed to make rice syrup on grains which contain gluten. Unless the label clearly specifies that the product is gluten free, it should be assumed that the food contains gluten.

The thick, sweet syrup can be used one for one like honey, molasses, and other liquid sweeteners, and with some planning it can also replace granulated sugar. Rice syrup has a faintly nutty flavor which is not always appropriate for all foods. You should taste it before using it extensively, and you may want to experiment with small batches before committing. Since rice syrup is less sweet, your dish will obviously be less sweet as well.

Update: Because recent testing has shown that the U.S. rice crop is contaminated with arsenic from decades of toxic pesticide usage, it is generally a good idea to reduce your consumption of rice and rice products, like rice syrup.

Molasses
molassesMolasses is a thick, brown to deep black, honey-like substance made as a byproduct of processing cane or beet sugar. It is enjoyed as a sweetener in many countries, and most particularly in England where it is called treacle. Today, molasses is used primarily in baking. No gingerbread would be quite the same without the addition of molasses.

Molasses has somewhat more nutritional value than does white or brown sugar. The process by which it is extracted and treated with sulfur results in fortification of iron, calcium and magnesium. Calories in molasses are approximately the same as sugar, about 16 calories per teaspoon (5 ml), however it only contains about half the sucrose as sugar. It is also made up of both glucose and fructose. Though it is high in iron, it is also high in calcium, which tends to prevent iron from being absorbed by the body, thus its benefits as a mineral supplement may be a bit overrated. (Where to buy molasses online)

Maple Syrup
Syruping
Maple syrup is one of the many wonders of the world. This sustainably-produced, viscous amber liquid with its characteristic earthy sweet taste is made from the sap of the sugar, black or red maple tree. Maple syrup contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals than honey, and is an excellent source of manganese, and a good source of zinc.

The process of creating maple syrup begins with tapping (piercing) 40 year old trees, which allows the sap to run out freely. The sap is clear and almost tasteless and very low in sugar content when it is first tapped. It is then boiled to evaporate the water, producing syrup with a sugar content of 60%. This maple syrup may be further reduced to create thicker delicacies, such as maple butter, maple cream, and maple sugar.

Maple syrup is, by law, graded according to color in the United States and Canada—although the grading systems differ between the countries. In the U.S., there are Grade A and Grade B maple syrups, with three sub-divisions of Grade A: light amber, medium amber, and dark amber. Grade B is even darker than Grade A dark amber.

Many people assume that the grading system is also indicative of quality, but in reality, it only helps to differentiate the color and taste of the maple syrup, which is a matter of personal preference. The tastes are different, but to say one is objectively “better” than another would be incorrect.

Honey
rawhoney1
Honey is a mixture of sugars and other compounds, mainly fructose and glucose. Honey contains trace amounts of several vitamins and minerals and also contains tiny amounts of several compounds thought to function as antioxidants and anti-microbials.

The specific composition of any batch of honey depends on the flowers available to the bees that produced the honey. If those flowers happened to be heavily sprayed with pesticides, then those poisons will be in the honey too, so make sure you can trust your source before buying.

Pasteurized honey is honey that has been heated in a pasteurization process. Pasteurization in honey reduces the moisture level, destroys yeast cells, and liquefies crystals in the honey. While this process sterilizes the honey and improves shelf-life, it has some disadvantages. Excessive heat-exposure also deteriorates the honey and destroys vitamins and enzymes. The heat also affects appearance, taste, and fragrance and can also darken the natural honey color.

Raw honey is honey as it exists in the beehive or as obtained by extraction, settling or straining without adding heat (although some honey that has been “minimally processed” is often labeled as raw honey). Raw honey contains some pollen and may contain small particles of wax.

Local raw honey is sought after by allergy sufferers as the pollen impurities are thought to lessen the sensitivity to hay fever. Raw honey is mildly antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral, and can be used to treat small cuts. A spoonful of raw honey is also excellent for settling a nauseous stomach.

Manuka honey, made from Manuka flowers in New Zealand, is thought to be the honey with the highest nutrition and greatest healing power.  (Where to get raw Manuka honey online)

Sorghum
Produced from sorghum canes grown across much of the South, sorghum syrup used to be one of the only affordable sweeteners produced locally in the U.S. Sorghum is a labor intensive crop, so it fell out of use during World War II, when there was a shortage of farm labor to produce it. After the war, industrial farming and food processing techniques made sugar cane and later, corn syrup much cheaper than sorghum to produce, and it fell into obscurity.

Sorghum syrup is making a comeback in Real Food circles because sorghum is a highly-nutritious, gluten-free, ancient cereal grain that is minimally processed into syrup, and still contains a lot of antioxidant vitamins and trace minerals. Sorghum syrup has a mild, unique flavor that is a little like molasses, and can be used anywhere you would use molasses, honey or maple syrup. (Where to buy sorghum syrup online)

Coconut Nectar
Coconut nectar is simply coconut palm sugar that hasn’t had the water completely evaporated out of it. It is a syrup you can use like any other sugar syrup, though it is slightly less sweet than others. See Palm Sugar, above.

Sugar Alcohols

Xylitol, Erythritol, Mannitol, Sorbitol and Glycerine (Glycerol)
xylitol
Sugar alcohols (which end in -ol) occur naturally in plants. Some of them are chemically or biologically extracted from plants (sorbitol from corn syrup and mannitol from seaweed), but they are mostly manufactured in a highly-intensive industrial process from sugars and starches.

Sugar alcohols are like sugar in some ways, but they are not completely absorbed by the body. Because of this, they affect blood sugar levels less, and they provide fewer calories per gram. Additionally, sugar alcohols don’t promote tooth decay as sugars do, so are often used to sweeten “sugar-free” chewing gum.

Xylitol and erythritol can often be swapped one for one with sugar, but you will have to read the package and experiment with each type to see how it best substitutes for sugar in your recipes. Sugar alcohols do not brown or caramelize like sugars do.

Though sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, most of them aren’t as sweet, so more must be used to get the same sweetening effect. Still, there is a range of sweetness and impact on blood sugar among the sugar alcohols.

For example, Maltitol has 75% of the blood sugar impact of sugar, but only 75% of the sweetness, so they end up being equal in the end. Xylitol is just as sweet as cane sugar, but has a low glycemic index of 13, and also helps prevent tooth decay by inhibiting bacterial growth in the mouth. Erythritol is only 70% as sweet as cane sugar, but it has zero glycemic index, and is sometimes recommended for people fighting candida. Food-grade glycerine/glycerol is a liquid derived from vegetable oils, but it is only 60% as sweet as cane sugar, and can be hard to use.

Because they are not completely absorbed, sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol can ferment in the intestines and cause bloating, gas, or diarrhea, and they are not recommended for people with IBS or other digestive issues.

People can have different reactions to different sugar alcohols, so careful experimentation is advised. Sugar alcohols can be made from corn and other allergens, (including GMO corn) so always check the label or call the producer to make sure the product won’t give you a reaction. Sugar alcohols like xylitol are highly toxic to dogs.

Swerve®
Swerve is the latest “natural sweetener” to hit the market. Swerve is made from a combination of erythritol, oligosaccharides and natural flavors that give it excellent baking and cooking functionality. Unlike other sugar alcohols, Swerve even has the ability to brown and caramelize!

Unfortunately, while preferable to artificial sweeteners like Equal, Sweet’N Low, and Splenda, Swerve is still a highly-refined sweetening agent made from a sugar alcohol. Even though it is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), erythritol has been known to cause stomach pains, headaches, and even diarrhea in some individuals.

However, erythritol is non-glycemic and non-carcinogenic. The company that produces Swerve claims it is non-allergenic and much less likely than other sugar alcohols to cause gastrointestinal distress. Even so, it is still a sugar alcohol, which means it is not completely absorbed by the body, and therefore has no nutritional benefits.

Sugar-Free Sweeteners

Stevia
stevialeafStevia is a South American herb that has been used as a sweetener by the Guarani Indians of Paraguay for hundreds of years. The leaves of the small, green Stevia rebaudiana plant have a delicious and refreshing taste that can be 30 times sweeter than sugar, but it has no calories, and consuming it does not raise blood glucose levels at all, nor does it feed candida infections.

In the 1930s, chemists in France isolated stevioside, the compound in the leaves which is responsible for their sweetness. This extremely sweet compound is often sold isolated from the leaves in a highly refined powder or liquid form, under brand names like Truvia and Sweetleaf. In contrast, stevia can also be made simply by crushing or distilling the leaves of the plant to form a powder or a syrup with an intensely sweet flavor.

Refined stevia can be 30-200 times sweeter than other sugars, meaning that only a small amount needs to be used. It is challenging to bake and cook with stevia for this reason. Some types of stevia can have a bit of a bitter aftertaste that some people do not like. See Stevia: Traditional Medicinal or Modern Pseudo-Food? for more information. (Where to buy stevia online)

Lo Han Guo
Lo Han Guo—also called Monkfruit—is the fruit of the Momordica grosvenorii, a plant cultivated in the mountains of southern China for thousands of years. The Chinese call Lo Han  the “longevity fruit” because in the steep mountain fields in Guangxi Province where it is grown there are an unusual number of residents that live to be 100 years old or more.

Although the locals that reach this ripe old age proclaim a tranquil lifestyle, regular exercise and simple diet to be their secret (no doubt!), many studies are underway which are confirming the nutritional and healing properties of Lo Han Guo.

Mogrosides extracted from the Lo Han fruit taste 300 times sweeter than sugar, but without affecting blood glucose levels, making this sweetener an excellent choice for diabetics or people fighting candida infections. Lo Han Guo is available as a pure extract and as a powder that is easier to bake with than stevia, and it has no aftertaste. The downside? It’s pricey and a bit hard to find. (Where to buy Lo Han Guo online)

Saccharin, Aspartame & Sucralose
Saccharin, most often known by the brand name Sweet ‘N Low®, is the oldest artificial sweetener. It comes in the pink packet, and is commonly used to sweeten diet soft drinks and candies or to improve the flavor of medicine and toothpaste.

Aspartame is sold under a number of different product names, including Equal® (in the blue packet), NutraSweet®, Tropicana Slim®, and Canderel®. Like saccharin, it is used to sweet diet soft drinks and candies. Although it is 180 times as sweet as sugar, it is not suitable for baking because it loses much of its sweetness when heated. Many people consider this aftertaste to be a significant drawback to using aspartame.

Sucralose, sold under the name Splenda® in the yellow packet, is an artificial sweetener that is heat stable. Splenda® is made from refined sugar which has a molecule of chlorine artificially added to it so it is not properly absorbed by the body.

All three are completely artificial, chemical sweeteners made by highly-industrial, fossil-fuel-guzzling processes. None of them have any calories or glycemic index, and each of them has been linked to cancer, digestive distress, and chronic illnesses in numerous studies. None of them are Real Food and each should be avoided at all costs.

The Sweet Surrender

While no sugar or sweetener is without its health risks, in moderation, minimally processed, traditional sweeteners like rapadura, palm sugar, maple syrup, sorghum, raw honey, lo han guo, or stevia leaf can be delicious additions to a healthy, real food diet.

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: I may receive monetary compensation or other types of remuneration for my recommendation, testimonial and/or link to any products or services from this blog, including Amazon.com links. These small earnings make it possible for me to continue writing this blog for you. That said, I only recommend products I genuinely love, and that I believe would be of value to my readers.
Thank you for your support!

MEDICAL DISCLOSURE: Your health is between you and your health care practitioner. Nothing in this blog is intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations is at the choice and risk of the reader.





78 Comments

  1. Hello,
    I am doing a presentation in nursing class about sugar, may I use some of the information that you have listed here?
    Jennifer

    • Sure, but be sure to cite sources, especially the primary sources of information linked within the article. :)

  2. Appreciate the article – very informative; however I would really love to see folks who write articles that involve ‘diabetes’ using the term Type 2 (as it applies to this article) so as not to confuse the general public even further that Type 1 is not a sugar-induced disease. It is entirely an auto-immune disease. Noting this difference is incredibly important; especially when providing folks with information regarding their medical health and suggestions for disease prevention.

    Thank-you!

  3. Very informative article. Literally everything I could ever want or need to know about sugars and sweeteners. Thanks! :)

  4. Comment: Wow..this is the investigation more complete and easy to understand that I never see on my life….WAS INCREDIBLE FIND THE PLACE WHERE YOU CAN BUY THE PRODUCTS…I REALLY APPRECIATE YOUR INFORMATION AND I PROMISE TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH

  5. I appreciate this article a lot. It has great insights about the different types of sugars, their availability and if we should use them or not. I was a bit surprised that it did not talk more about the footprint of using these various sugars though. It would be great to see a post regarding this. For instance palm sugar cultivating is highly devastating and kills hundreds of species every year for cultivation and derogation or destruction of environments.

    Again, I would love to see a post on this so we know which ones are safe for us and the environment. :)

    • Actually, palm sugar is widely noted as the most sustainable form of granulated sugar humans produce. Evaporated palm sugars are not produced from the same palm species as is used for the production of palm oil. Palm sugar is a byproduct mainly of coconut palms, which are plentiful throughout Asia, although sometimes Palmyra palms are used as well. Palm oil on the other hand is detrimental to the environment and results in deforestation and habitat destruction.

      The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the World Bank has reported that palm sugar is the single most sustainable sweetener in the world, because tropical palms harvested for sugar are an ecologically beneficial tree crop that grows in diverse, wildlife-supportive agro-ecosystems that restore damaged soils and require very little water. Furthermore, a palm tree can only be tapped for sugar after it has grown for about 20 years, and then the trees are maintained for their sap for decades instead of being cut down like oil palms.

      A major advantage with palm sugar is that palm trees can be tapped all year round, and require no soil tillage, fertilizing, cutting, or major energy inputs, which is significantly more sustainable compared to the seasonal harvesting of cane or beet sugar.

      Harvesting palm sugar is traditionally done by small, local sugar tappers that climb to the top of the palms to collect the sap from the palm flowers. The sap is collected in bamboo containers and then cooked for several days to remove the water. Palm sugar is very labor intensive and it simply cannot be mechanically harvested on large plantations the way palm oil is.

      http://www.ipsnews.net/2006/01/indonesia-palm-sugar-can-sweeten-economy-and-environment/

  6. what about raw coconut nectar????
    it’s freaken DELECTABLE!!!

    • Coconut nectar is just palm sugar that hasn’t had the water evaporated out yet! It is quite delicious!

  7. I realize this is an old post but I would like to add that I avoid rice syrup due to high arsenic levels. Have you heard of or researched this at all? It is a fairly recent discovery about rice containing high amounts of arsenic. It is recommended to only eat rice once or twice a week. Imagine in concentrated form how high it would be.

  8. Wonderful summary. I’ve seen agave mentioned in may an article and wondered why it was so popular. You answered the question and gave me an excellent reason to stay away from it – fructose. Thanks for posting!

  9. Hi Dawn,
    This is a wonderful article! I was looking online for different types of sugar that can be used instead of table sugar, and I came across your page. It is the most comprehensive article out there! Great work! I am sharing your article on my blog and linking back to your website: http://vegetarian-delights.blogspot.in/2013/07/glossary-sugar.html I suppose it is alright to do so. However, let me know if you want me to take it off. Thanks and again, great work! :)

  10. From what I’ve been reading in my research into different sugars, Sucanat and Rapadura are both “dehydrated” over low heat, while turbinado, washed sugar, Sugar in the Raw, and evaporated cane juice are all boiled to remove the sugar, which also removes much of the naturally occurring vitamins and minerals in the sugar cane juice.

    Is this information correct? I would prefer to keep my sugar as least-processed as possible. I’ve tried Stevia, but it is awful in large quantities, so I am looking more at a naturally processed sugar cane sugar.

    • Rapadura is the least processed of all the cane sugars, and still retains many of its minerals. Palm sugar (from coconuts) is also minimally processed, relatively nutritious, and less glycemic than cane sugar.

  11. Love all the info on sugar….trying to stop curb the sweets ….you help me out in so many ways ….thank you!

  12. Can you explain to me why gmo sugar is bad, other than the typical horrible environmental reasons? I know that it is, but trying to convince my dad is another thing. He reasons that since sugar is stripped down to a molecular compound of hydrogen, oxygen, etc with no DNA, then there is no GMO DNA hanging around to make it “bad”.

    • The environmental reasons are extremely compelling. GMO beet sugar is contaminating the organic beet sugar stock, as well as relatives like table beets and Swiss chard, decreasing biodiversity, greatly increasing pesticide usage, and creating superweeds. While there is no definitive science that GMOs cause health harm, the reason we don’t know for sure is that no one is allowed to do any independent long term studies on humans. In essence we are all guinea pigs for this technology.

      Meanwhile what few independent small studies are being done don’t look good at all. It appears GMOs and their pesticides can contribute to all sorts of health problems in livestock as well as in migrant farmworkers. Many people believe the precautionary principle should apply, and we should know exactly what the risks and effects are before releasing any technology into the wild. Especially when our very food and lives are at stake.

    • GMO foods are bad because, for the most part, the plant is genetically modified to resist pesticides so that the grower can now use 30 to 50 times more pesticides on the plant, which is absorbed into the plant and the fruit it bears.

      In addition, there is NO research on how genetically modified plants (and animals! – they are trying to introduce a GMO salmon) will interact with the non-modified species. Malaria-resistant mosquitoes have been released in San Diego, CA with NO input from the FDA, USDA, WHO or the general population. The same with beets, corn, wheat, soybeans, and many other products.

  13. I had no idea there is so much to know about sugar before reading this article, thanks.

  14. Hi, Good article, wondering what you think of dextrose as recommended by David Gillespie? Thanks

    • Thanks for commenting! Dextrose is a highly processed, glucose-based sugar made from corn, so it is not recommended for people on GAPS, Paleo, grain-free or sugar-free diets. It has a glycemic index of 100, making it worse than table sugar for diabetics.

      I would stick with natural, whole sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, palm sugar or Rapadura, in moderation.

  15. This is a great article. I am researching to teach my high school students (mostly what they drink) and this seems easy to read and has a lot of useful information. Thank you.

    • Glad to help, especially for high school kids. I used to teach high school myself!

  16. Always knew eating lots of sugar isn’t such a good idea and really appreciate the depth and knowledge of your article in explaining why.

    It inspires me to make healthier food choices for feeling/being more alive, light and free!

    Thank you for such an excellent article.

  17. Help! I need a glycemic index chart on all of the above sugars! :-)

  18. I was hoping to find some information on what is called Gul ( sometimes called jaggery, but not sure if that is a correct translation for it ) in India ( made from sugar-cane, is a product before sugar, it is very commonly used ). It would be great if you could post any information on that product

    • I’ve listed jaggery. It is also known as palm sugar. There are also several types of cane sugar listed as well. Thanks for commenting!

      • From my own research (and experience), jaggery can be made from palm sugar, cane sugar or both – locally, I have purchased jaggery (coming from S. India) and it was 100% cane sugar (you can taste the molasses) and I have purchased 100% palm sugar (coming from Thailand) – I have also seen palm sugar in the store that contains refined sugar, so you have to carefully read the label.

  19. ONe more that you missed is vegetable glycerin. Those on the candida free diet and those with diabetes can use this. I use it in conjunction with stevia in my baked goods. Just sub it when a recipe calls for honey or other liquid sweetener.

    • Indeed, I did miss vegetable glycerin. It is a very untraditional sweetener, and seldom used for cooking. It also coats the teeth in a way that prevents their remineralization, so it’s important to brush that stuff off! Personally, if I were diabetic, I’d rather use stevia or lo han guo than use glycerin.

  20. I am confused because I thought the darker the maple syrup the better. Stanley Burroughs recommends Grade B for the Master Cleanse because of its higher mineral content.

    • This is actually urban legend. Maple syrup is an agricultural product and as such it changes with the seasons. The varying color and flavor of different grades of maple syrup represent differences in the tree sap across the tapping season. The quality of the sap changes with temperature, varying amounts of rainfall, etc.

      Maple syrup is a whole food made by a very simple process that hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. All grades are made the same exact way on the same equipment. Tap tree, collect sap, boil sap, filter sap through a basic filter to remove solid particles, bottle it. It is then graded based on its color so you know what you’re buying. Syrup produced at the beginning of the season is typically lighter in color and sweeter tasting. That maple flavor is not very strong, but is present. This syrup is called ‘light’ or light amber. As the season progresses, the syrup becomes darker in color and the maple flavor becomes stronger. It first becomes medium amber, then dark amber. After dark amber it becomes ‘Grade B’ syrup, so called because it is not top quality in color.

      All maple syrup is a great source of manganese and a good source of zinc. Maple syrup also contains calcium, B vitamins and iron in smaller amounts.

      • Thank you!

  21. Very good and interresting.

    Kind Regards

    Ron Plagens

  22. Great information, thank you very much for sharing. I didn’t know about the impact on digestive issues of the alcohol sugars, so that is very interesting information indeed – that would explain a lot. Now I just need to find me some Lo Han Guo!

    • I had a sweet tooth that was out of control, and cdulon’t imagine that I could ever stop eating sugar. About a year ago I did, though, and it’s such a relief to be free of the constant cravings for sweets. I still make sweet things for myself occasionally, using Truvia, stevia, erythritol, and other alternatives. I don’t use fruit juice, honey, agave nectar, etc. because they are still sugar they all turn to sugar in the body. I eat very few sweets now, though, because the things I make without sugar don’t set off my sweet tooth. They satisfy me without inducing cravings. I will have the occasional snack-size Twix or Kit-Kat (2 of my favorites, also) but now I can stop at one. Or two. I lost about 20 lbs, my blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels all normalized, but really, the best part is no more craving sweets.

      • Yes, I agree. I gave up processed sweeteners and wheat Jan. 2011, and while I was relatively uncomfortable for a little while, I pulled through, and in the process lost my sugar cravings, and that was huge! Thank you so much for such a great article on sweeteners!

  23. What a well thought out post! Thanks so much for sharing :-)

  24. Thank u for this! So informative and written for the average person to understand! I have High Cholesterol and I am Gluten Intolerant so My diet has been the best its EVER been in my life and I am 33yrs old. But Yet my Cholesterol is High and I still have issues with bloating and digestive problems, and I ve cut all gluten out of my diet. But I get bored and eat sugars, I freaking love sugar and am a huge addict and Ive been trying to find info on how to deal with it and understand sugar and this is perfect!!! Thank thank thank u! Ive been sharing this with so many people!!!

    • Thanks for sharing the article! It’s inspiring how you are taking charge of your health and happiness; you deserve the best of both!

  25. Many thanks for this very informative piece. I was hoping to find the good or bad news on malt though, as barley malt is used so heavily in brewing. I also remember my mother using malt as a pacifier on my baby sisters dummy, (50 something years ago). Do you have any information on Malt, I am guessing though that it would be somewhat similar to the “Rice Syrup” that you refer to.
    Thanks again for a great article.
    Best regards
    Peter

    • From Wikipedia: Barley malt syrup is a sweetener produced from sprouted barley, containing approximately 65 percent maltose, 30 percent complex carbohydrate, 3% protein. Malt syrup is dark brown, thick and sticky; and possesses a strong distinctive flavor that can only be described as “malty.” It is about half as sweet as white sugar. Barley malt syrup is best used in combination with other natural sweeteners. It is commonly used in beer brewing, but it is less commonly used in commercial baked goods.

      Barley malt can be made using high-energy, intensive industrial processes, or it can be traditionally produced from organic, sprouted grain using a slow cooking process, it all depends on the brand you buy. Eden Foods makes it organically with traditional processes.

  26. Hi There Dawn,

    I featured your awesome post this week on Allergy-Free Wednesdays. Your post and other highlights can be seen here:

    http://www.thetastyalternative.com/2012/02/allergy-free-wednesdays-blog-hop-week-5.html.

    Please join us again this week for more allergy-free fun and inspiration.

    Be Well,
    –Amber

  27. I wandered over here from Pennywise Platter Thursday. Thanks for sharing this great summary! It’s wonderful to have all this information in one place. I’ve bookmarked your page!

    • Thanks so much! I hope you’ll subscribe or stop by again soon!

  28. Girl, you are awesome! Great information here! Thanks for sharing on FF. I am posting this to Pinterest under real food activism!

  29. Thanks so much for submitting this to Wellness Weekend. You’ve covered virtually every sweetener here! While I normally require a recipe for the submissions, I’m happy to leave this one up as I think it’s comprehensive (and on one of my favorite topics–ha ha!) . While I don’t agree with your assessment of agave, I do think that any sweetener–natural or not–can be dangerous in excessive amounts. Sometimes we are so keen to find a new “free” sweetener that many of us forget that point.

    • Thanks! I had hoped you would keep the post since it is so related to real food and cooking. Indeed most Americans are consuming excessive amounts of all sweeteners. It’s pretty easy to do since it is added to a huge number of packaged and prepared foods that wouldn’t ordinarily have any.

      FYI: The Glycemic Research Institute has halted and banned all future clinical trials of agave, and legally “de-listed” and placed a ban on agave for use in foods, beverages, chocolate and any other products, due to results of 5 years of human in-vivo clinical trials on agave. Additionally, they have warned that manufacturers who produce and use agave in products can be held legally liable for negative health incidents related to ingestion of agave.

      If you have any blood sugar issues at all, or are pre-diabetic or diabetic, agave is really bad for you. And even if you don’t have health issues, agave is a highly processed sweetener like corn syrup or white sugar, and is not considered a traditional or “real” food. Here’s my article on it: http://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/a-bittersweet-goodbye-to-agave/

  30. Thanks for sharing all your research with us – the world of sweeteners can be such a confusing place! Thanks for sharing at Healthy 2Day Wednesday, and don’t forget to come back next week and see if you were featured!

  31. Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic, informative post on Allergy-Free Wednesdays! What an incredible resource this is.

    Be sure to check back next week for recipe highlights (including the top 3 reader choice submissions and hostess favorites).

    Be Well!

  32. What great information! The many choices in sugar often leave me baffled, and this answered more questions than I knew to ask.

    • Thank you, Eileen! I hoped to make a difference with this article, and I’m so glad I did with you! –Dawn

    • Okay Ladies, I’m in too. My apologies for the sehowmat tardy posting, it was a busy weekend. Despite the busyness, yesterday marked my first no-sugar day. Here are my rules: No sugar, corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, agave, aspartame, splenda, or saccharin. I humbly retain the right to put stevia in my coffee every morning, take my prescribed calcium supplements and vitamins and I will eat fruit because I like it and because I need the fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. If you are looking for no sugar whole wheat bread, try Ezekiel Bread or Trader Joe’s Sprouted Grain whole wheat and rye breads they are all made without sugar, etc. I believe my major challenges will be going without my Kashi GoLean Cereal (6g sugar/serving) and its 10 grams of dietary fiber every morning, and doing without yogurt and the occasional diet soda. The diet soda will be exchanged for sparkling water as, for me at least, it is all about the fizz! Of course, my tendency towards an evening glass of red wine will have to be curbed as well. Do I anticipate being able to stick with it . . . honestly I have no idea, let’s find out together.

  33. Great post! I’ve linked it from the honey post on our newest project, Real Food Ryan Gosling :)

    • WOW! Now that is super cool. Real Food Ryan Gosling just KILLS me! Thanks so much!

  34. Excellent post! I have so many patients ask what is up with sugar choices! You said it beautifully! Thank you! 

    • You’re welcome! Please share freely! Thanks for visiting again, Dr. Lisa!

  35. THANK YOU!! I have been looking for a good summary of EVERYTHING and you have provided it. So, when you have to use sugar, what do YOU use? :)

    • You’re welcome! We do the GAPS diet, so we primarily use honey, and sometimes dates–when we use sweeteners at all. But for special occasions, or when I need a dry sweetener, I use coconut palm sugar, which I actually like much better than cane sugar. Thanks for commenting!

  36. What a great list of resources!

    What would you recommend using for baking?

  37. Dang that’s a long, wonderful list of sugars! Way to spell it out for everyone!

    • Yeah, I was thinking it was too long, but I learned a lot in researching this post, and I enjoyed creating a pretty comprehensive list for my own future reference. It’s amazing how many ways we have invented for making things sweet!

      Best!
      Dawn @ Small Footprint Family

    • Yay good for you! I gave up sugar about a month ago due to health prolbems and I feel so much better. No processed foods, no added fake sweeteners, 2 serves fruit per day. I include natural sweeteners- only low GI, and only minimal, perhaps 1 tablespoon a day or less. It’s wonderful and I will most def be raising my future family on this diet- the diet of my mother and her mother.

  38. Great post on sugar. Tons of information.

    I just wanted to let you know that someone has lied to you about brown sugar.

    Most conventional brown sugars have all of the molasses removed and then it is later added back in, so it’s really no better for you than white sugar.

    Also, something interesting about alcohol sugars; the body doesn’t recognize them as sugars so when a person eats them, they don’t feel satisfied like they would when eating a true sugar.

    We study sugars in school and some of the things I’ve learned have made me never ever want to eat white sugar again.

    • Thanks for your comments about sugar and sugar alcohols! As I noted in my article, common brown sugar is refined white sugar that has had the molasses added back in. It is not real food and is best replaced with a naturally brown sugar like Rapadura.

      • I’m sorry I read that completely opposite of what it says, I feel really silly for saying that now.

        Sorry again.

  39. I use SweetLeaf Stevia, and love that it has 0 claories, 0 carbs, and a 0 glycemic index!

  40. Thank you! This is a keeper – I’m going to print it out and keep with my cookbooks.

  41. We have a sweetener here in Tennessee called Sorghum. It works just like molasses in cooking, and has a similar flavor, but is from a grassy grain.

    I can’t believe I fell for the agave hype. Still kicking myself over that. We can’t tolerate the stomach distressed caused by the sugar alcohols (even xylitol-sweetened gum is out) but I use xylitol in homemade toothpaste because it offers some cavity protection.

    Thanks so much for all your research!

    • I like the trial run idea. I’ve been gradually mvinog toward the rules all month, so it doesn’t feel like we’re going cold turkey . (Of course, that would be a free-range, antibiotic-free turkey, not from a factory farm!) It’s been interesting to see a peek of what recipes I need to adjust. For me, the toughest part to make a long-term switch is that I love to bake, decorate cakes, and make candy. I may be able to make some cakes and breads as whole-grain and naturally sweetened, but not most things I like to make. So they will have to be for very special occasions. And I’m curious to see if I get to the point where I don’t like the taste of refined sugar. I hear that happens. I personally can’t imagine it!I would LOVE that recipe! Please share!

  42. Very informative post. Another post about sugar last week sparked me posting my own. I lived in Brazil for a while and became very familiar with mascavo (muscovado). Rapadura was less commonly used where we lived. I especially like your detailed report of agave. I’ve never jumped on that bandwagon due to what you’ve mentioned here. Glad to have this as a resource.

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