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The Truth about ''Natural'' Sweeteners

Does Sugar by Any Other Name Still Taste as Sweet?

-- By Liza Barnes & Nicole Nichols, Health Educators

If you’ve wandered into a natural food store lately, you might have noticed that the selection of sweeteners seems to have multiplied. Powders, syrups, and liquids with exotic-sounding names catch your eye, each claiming to be tastier, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly than plain old table sugar. But are they really any better? Is it worth the extra expense and hassle of deviating from the mainstream to try “natural” sweeteners? Whether you choose natural, artificial or conventional sweeteners is up to you. This article provides a rundown of the most common types of “natural” sweeteners you’ll find on the market to help you decide.

Sugarcane Sweeteners
Sugarcane is a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Making what we know as table sugar from sugarcane can range from a relatively simple to a multistep process, and the final result varies depending on the specific steps in the process. Light and dark brown, powdered, and granulated white sugars are all highly refined, while others, like those listed below, are made with fewer steps on the processing chain. Fewer steps benefit the environment, because less processing means less environmental impact. It also means that more of the vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in sugarcane remain in the end product. All of these sugarcane sweeteners can be found in the baking aisle and/or bulk bins of natural foods stores.

  • Blackstrap molasses, unlike other sugarcane sweeteners, contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. “First” molasses is left over when sugarcane juice is boiled, cooled, and removed of its crystals. If this product is boiled again, the result is called second molasses. Blackstrap molasses is made from the third boiling of the sugar syrup and is the most nutritious molasses, containing substantial amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. When buying, consider choosing organic blackstrap molasses, as pesticides are more likely to be concentrated due to the production of molasses. Cooking notes: Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses.
     
  • Rapadura is the Portuguese name for unrefined dried sugarcane juice. Probably the least refined of all sugarcane products, rapadura is made simply by cooking juice that has been pressed from sugarcane until it is very concentrated, and then drying and granulating it or, traditionally, pouring it into a mold to dry in brick form, which is then shaved. Because the only thing that has been removed from the original sugarcane juice is the water, rapadura contains all of the vitamins and minerals that are normally found in sugarcane juice, namely iron. A German company called Rapunzel is the main company that markets pure, organic rapadura in the U.S. Cooking notes: Rapadura replaces sugar 1:1 and adds a molasses flavor and dark color, so it’s great in baked goods like brownies, coffee and black tea, but it may not be desirable in something like lemonade.
     
  • Sucanat stands for sugar-cane-natural, and is very similar to rapadura. It is made by mechanically extracting sugarcane juice, which is then heated and cooled until tiny brown (thanks to the molasses content) crystals form. It contains less sucrose than table sugar (88 percent and 99 percent, respectively). Cooking notes: Sucanat replaces sugar 1:1 and is also an accepted substitute for traditional brown sugar. Use it as you would rapadura (see above).
     
  • Turbinado sugar is often confused with sucanat, but the two are different. After the sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, the juice is then boiled, cooled, and allowed to crystallize into granules (like sucanat, above). Next, these granules are refined to a light tan color by washing them in a centrifuge to remove impurities and surface molasses. Turbinado is lighter in color and contains less molasses than both rapadura and sucanat. A popular brand-name of turbinado sugar is Sugar in the Raw, which can be found in most natural food stores, and even in single-serve packets at coffee shops. Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Turbinado is a great substitute for brown sugar, too.
     
  • Evaporated cane juice is essentially a finer, lighter-colored version of turbinado sugar. Still less refined than table sugar, it also contains some trace nutrients (that regular sugar does not), including vitamin B2. In Europe, it’s known as “unrefined sugar.” Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Can be used in a wide variety of foods and recipes without adversely affecting color or flavor. <pagebreak>
Non-Sugarcane Sweeteners
Natural sweeteners are flooding the market these days. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ones that are not made from sugarcane.
  • Agave nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. Far from a whole food, agave juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into agave syrup. Vegans often use agave as a honey substitute, although it’s even sweeter and a little thinner than honey. It contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium. Agave nectar syrup is available in the baking aisle at most natural foods stores. The fructose content of agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup, which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. High fructose corn syrup contains 55% fructose while agave nectar syrup contains 90%. Despite this, it has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup of sugar, use 2/3 cup of agave nectar, reduce the quantity of liquids slightly, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees Fahrenheit. It also makes a good sweetener in cold liquids, such as iced tea.
     
  • Brown rice syrup is made when cooked rice is cultured with enzymes, which break down the starch in the rice. The resulting liquid is cooked down to a thick syrup, which is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild butterscotch flavor. It is composed of about 50% complex carbohydrates, which break down more slowly in the bloodstream than simple carbohydrates, resulting in a less dramatic spike in blood glucose levels. It’s worth noting that the name “brown rice syrup” describes the color of the syrup, not the rice it’s made from, which is white. Cooking notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-1/3 cups brown rice syrup, and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup has the tendency to make food harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies. You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet breads.
     
  • Honey, made by bees from the nectar of flowers, is a ready-made sweetener that contains traces of nutrients. Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baked goods, use about 3/4 cup of honey and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce liquids by about 2 Tablespoons for each cup of honey.
     
  • Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, which is collected, filtered, and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup with a distinctive flavor. It contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. You can find it in bulk in some natural foods stores, but don’t be fooled by fake maple syrups, which are cheaper and more readily available at the grocery store. "Maple-flavored syrups" are imitations of real maple syrup. To easily tell the difference, read the ingredients list on the nutrition label. True maple syrup contains nothing but “maple syrup.” Imitation syrups are primarily made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and/or artificial sweeteners, and contain 3 percent maple syrup (or less). Cooking notes: To replace 1 cup sugar in baking, use about 3/4 cup of maple syrup and lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit. For each cup of maple syrup, reduce liquids by about 2 tablespoons. <pagebreak>
Here’s a chart of how these sweeteners compare with one another and with regular table sugar:

Sweetener Serving size Calories Carbs Other nutrients of note
White (table) sugar 2 tsp 33 8 g None*
Blackstrap molasses 2 tsp 32 8 g Manganese (18% DV), copper (14% DV), iron (13% DV), calcium (12% DV), potassium (10% DV), magnesium (7%DV), vitamin B6 (5% DV), selenium (4% DV)
Rapadura 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Sucanat 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Turbinado sugar 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Evaporated cane juice 2 tsp 30 8 g Riboflavin (3% DV), potassium (1% DV), manganese (1% DV), copper (1% DV), iron (1% DV)
Agave nectar syrup 2 tsp 40 8 g None*
Brown rice syrup 2 tsp 40 10 g None*
Honey 2 tsp 43 11 g None*
Maple syrup 2 tsp 45 9 g Manganese (22% DV), zinc (4% DV)

*Less than 0.5% DV of any vitamins or minerals

SparkPeople's Licensed and Registered Dietitian, Becky Hand, notes that published recommendations say to limit added sugars from all sources to no more than 10%-15% of total calorie intake, which is 120 calories (7.5 tsp) of sugar for a 1,200-calorie diet. 

The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Too much sugar—whether it’s marketed as “natural” or not—can harm your health.  Even sweeteners touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed here, don’t typically add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to your diet. But in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with the sweetness that a little sugar adds to life. So if you’re going to eat it, eat the good stuff...just not too much of it. (Need help figuring out where hidden sugar may be lurking in your food? Check out this helpful resource from the USDA.)

This article has been reviewed and approved by licensed and registered dietitian, Becky Hand, and Tanya Jolliffe, a SparkPeople healthy eating expert.
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