So you’ve bought your coffee at the local coffee shop, you go to the little table with milk and sugar and you stare… Which one do you go for? And why? Or maybe you’re getting ready to bake delicious homemade cookies and open your sugar cabinet. Or heck, maybe you’re making a delicious craft cocktail and searching for the perfect cocktail sugar cubes to add … sugar is ALL around us and comes in SO many forms! Should you choose white sugar, light brown sugar, dark brown sugar, honey, dates, etc.? The options are overwhelming!
Our Ultimate Guide To Sugar will give you the information you need to get started on making the BEST decision for yourself!
But before you get into it, we have to mention that the following is NOT medical advice and was created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your doctor before changing your diet or supplement regimen and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read here!
WHITE TABLE SUGAR
Table sugar or granulated sugar comes from either sugarcane or sugar beets. Sugarcane has been cultivated in tropical climates in South Asia and Southeast Asia since ancient times and is commonly used to extract cane sugar. When we hear people referring to ‘cane sugar’ they’re are talking about the sugar that comes out of theis cane. Perhaps surprisingly, this cane can come in several varieties as “sugarcane” refers to any species of giant grass in the genus Saccharum. Sugar from sugar beets has only been used since the 19th century and is extracted from the root of the plant.
Table sugar is actually turbinado or “raw” sugar that has been processed, stripped of it’s minerals and natural yellow color to appear white. As a result, 99 percent of white sugar consists of nothing but calories. Any nutritional content it may have once had is destroyed during processing.
White table sugar is what you most often find in your sugar bowl at home and what you use to put in tea, coffee and when baking.
Table sugar is pure sucrose, which the body hydrolyses or breaks down before it’s metabolized into fructose and glucose. So what exactly is the difference between FRUTCOSE and GLUCOSE?
Glucose VS Fructose
- Glucose: Glucose occurs naturally in fruits and plant juices and is the body’s preferred energy source. Glucose is also referred to as blood sugar because it circulates in the blood, and uses enzymes to initiate metabolism. Most carbohydrates that we eat are converted into glucose during digestion. It can be manufactured from starch by adding enzymes or in the presence of acids. Glucose syrup is the liquid form of glucose and is widely used to manufacture foods.
- Fructose: Fructose is a fruit sugar that occurs naturally in fruits, some root vegetables, cane sugar and honey. It is the sweetest of the sugars and a component of sucrose or table sugar. Fructose is not the preferred energy source for our body’s muscles or our brains. It’s more fat-producing, than glucose and can be dangerous in large doses over time because it appears to behave more like fat in our body rather than like other carbohydrates.
INTERESTING FACT: Table sugar is NOT VEGAN! Why? Well, because during processing the sugar, bone char is used to produce the white color of the sugar.
TURBINADO “RAW” SUGAR
Turbinado or raw sugar is made during the first pressing of sugar cane. What exactly does that mean? It means that after the sugar cane has been cut, the stems are split open and the juice is extracted by slow boiling each of the layers. The end product is a completely natural and high quality sugar retaining the color and taste of molasses. Because turbinado sugar undergoes so little processing, it is considered a healthier alternative to that of white table sugar.
100 grams of turbinado sugar contains:
- 100 mg of potassium
- 85 mg of calcium
- 23 mg of magnesium
- 3.9 mg of phosphorus
- 1.3 mg of iron.
- 740 mg of mineral salt
INTERESTING FACT: Turbinado sugar has less calories than white table sugar when comparing equally weighted spoonfuls which is due to the fact that turbinado sugar has a soft texture that attracts moisture and adds weight to each crystal. One teaspoon of turbinado sugar has 20 calories, of which just 5 grams are actually complex carbohydrates.
BROWN SUGAR (LIGHT/ DARK)
Please note, we are referring to refined brown sugar here or what you most commonly purchase at the store as “brown sugar” to use in baking recipes. It’s soft and moist but what exactly is it? Brown sugar, light or dark, is actually white table sugar that has had molasses added back into it. The different shades of brown that you see on brown sugar is a direct result of how much molasses has been added to it: dark brown (6.5% molasses) and light brown or golden brown (3.5% molasses).
INTERESTING FACT: Some may think brown sugar is similar to turbinado sugar which goes through very little processing and retains the color and taste of molasses, however that is not the case. Brown sugar starts as white sugar, almost as if it’s going backwards in process.
Confectioner’s sugar or powdered sugar is actually made from sugarcane and sugar beets just like white table sugar. The only difference is that it is ground into a powder and there is usually a small amount of anti-caking agent added to it. It is generally used in baking or to top off desserts for aesthetic reasons (ooo, pretty!).
INTERESTING FACT: You can make confectioner’s sugar yourself by putting regular granulated sugar in a coffee grinder or by hand with a mortar and pestle!
Honey is collected from a bee hive and is made from the nectar of flowers. However, all honey is NOT created equal – Gasp! You may have noticed while shopping at the store that there are generally two type of honey. The “regular” honey which is light in color and goopy as well as raw and organic honey.
What exactly is the difference and does it matter? Yes! The difference between the two are how they are processed. While raw honey is completely unprocessed, regular honey is pasteurized, which means that it is heated to high temperatures. Pasteurization aids in killing bacteria and filtering out bee pollen and other debris. As a result, it leaves “regular” honey virtually nutrition-less while giving it an extremely long shelf life.
Turns out bee pollen, only present in raw honey is actually has many health benefits which is why raw honey has become so popular. It is considered one of nature’s best and most nourishing foods packed with protein and used to improve unbalanced nutrition, vitality, longevity, energy, and also used for weight control, health, beauty, allergies, anti-aging and more. Raw honey is great for your immune system, full of vitamins and can also help with allergies. The darker the honey the higher the antioxidant levels.
INTERESTING FACT: “3 out of 4 bottles of “honey” are fake. 76% of all honey in our stores are pollen-free. That makes most of the honey sold in United States fake.” – Read the fascinating history of US honey on Organics.com
Agave comes from the agave plant which grows in the Southwest US and South America; it actually comes from the same plant as tequila! While in it’s natural state, Agave contains healthy compounds such as fructans (linked to positive effects on metabolism and insulin) due to the manufacturing process (similar to the process used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, eeek!) required to turn it into the refined Agave sweetener or syrup that you see in stores, all of the health promoting properties of the Agave plant are destroyed.
Why? Because after the plant is cut and pressed to extract the sugary fluid, it is exposed to heat and/or enzymes which breaks the fructans down into fructose. As you have already read (in the table sugar section), fructose is not used for energy by the body and instead behaves just like fat. Because agave is made up of 85% fructose, eating agave is like consuming pure fat! Yikes!
INTERESTING FACT: There are many claims that Agave is “healthy” or “diabetic friendly.” Beware, as you now know, that is not the case! These “sneaky” claims stem from the fact that Agave has a very low Glycemic Index. However, this is due to the very small amount of glucose (compared to white table sugar). We now know that glucose is actually an important part of the sugar equation as it’s the preferred method of energy in the body.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes that may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. They are often referred to as intense sweeteners because they are much sweeter than regular white sugar. There is a lot of controversy and suspicion around artificial sweeteners and the concept in general of putting anything chemical or artificially manufactured into our bodies. As a result, artificial sweeteners have had a very long history of overly publicized and poorly executed animal studies have linked them to cancer – The FDA has since declared the link to be false. However, more recent studies in mice have raised concern that daily consumption of diet soda, for example, can lead to a higher risk for metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes, among others.
There are only five artificial sweeteners that have been approved by the FDA: Acesulfame potassium (Sunett and Sweet One), Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet and Sugar Twin), Neotame (Newtame), Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sweet Twin and Necta Sweet) and Sucralose (Splenda).
The FDA states that these five sweeteners are safe to consume in moderation which more specifically means no more than:
- 23 packets/day of Splenda, Sweet One or Newtame
- 45 packets/day of Sweet’N Low
- 75 packets/day of Equal
INTERESTING FACT: In Canada Sweet’N Low is made from sodium cyclamate because saccharin was deemed illegal in food in 1977 due to its connection to cancer. Since then, the saccharin ban has been lifted in other countries due to controversy about its ties to the illness. Cyclamate is widely used in more than 100 countries, however, it has been banned in the United States.
Maple syrup is made by boiling the sap of maple trees. It contains calcium, zinc and riboflavin, which assist your body in getting energy from the food you eat! In the US, maple syrup is given a grade of either A (Light Amber, Medium Amber and Dark Amber) or B (Darkest). The main difference between between the two grades is that the darker syrups are made from sap that is extracted later in the harvesting season.
The MOST important factor to consider when purchasing maple syrup is to make sure you’re buying REAL maple syrup, not “maple-flavored” syrup (think: Aunt Jemima). Unlike real maple syrup which contains a decent amount of antioxidants (one study found 24 different antioxidant substances present), maple flavored syrups are loaded with refined sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup. Take a look at the ingredient list on Aunt Jemima’s “Original” Syrup:
Corn Syrup, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Water, Cellulose Gum, Caramel Color, Salt, Sodium Benzoate And Sorbic Acid (Preservatives), Artificial And Natural Flavors, Sodium Hexametaphosphate … Where’s the maple?
The take away here is that if you want maple syrup, make sure the packaging says MAPLE SYRUP or look at the ingredients for MAPLE SYRUP. And remember, moderation is still KEY as maple syrup is made up of approximately 66% sucrose (table sugar!)
INTERESTING FACT: Over 80% of the world’s supply is now produced in Canada.
Did you know that dates actually grow off the branches of palm trees? In recent years, people are RAVING about dates and their versatility in the kitchen! Swapping dates for sugar in cakes or energy bars, you can find loads of delicious dessert recipes using dates. However, there is also a lot controversy as even dates are packed with sugar. So what do you need to know? Dates contain approximately 30% fructose with a total sugar content of 60%-80% (which means 60%-80% is like eating white table sugar – then again, it’s not 100%). Because they are a dried fruit (at least at the time you use them in your kitchen), the water is removed which also means the sugars are concentrated so keep in mind that each date does pack a sweet punch.
The benefits however, as a sugar alternative include that dates are natural energy boosters and rich in vitamins B1, B2, B3, B5, A1 and C, proteins, dietary fiber, iron (11 percent), potassium (16 percent), calcium, manganese, copper, and magnesium.
Nutritional data for a serving size of 10 dates:
- Calories: 234
- Fat: <1 g
- Saturated Fat: na
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Carbohydrate: 61 g
- Protein: 2 g
- Dietary Fiber: 6 g
- Sodium: 2 mg
- Niacin: 1 mg
- Pantothenic Acid: <1 mg
- Vitamin B6: <1 mg
- Calcium: 32 mg
- Copper: <1 mg
- Iron: <1 mg
- Magnesium: 36 mg
- Potassium: 541 mg
- Vitamin K: 2.2 mcg
Ohh stevia, just google “stevia is dangerous” or “stevia is safe” and you’ll find advocates for both. The truth is, while it’s been used for centuries as a medicinal herb and sweetener in various cultures around the world, it has only been available to the US public since the 1990’s. That said, we will stick to the facts: The Stevia plant grows naturally in Brazil and Paraguay (though today it is primarily grown and produced in China) and is currently available in two forms:
- The plant itself: Dried leaves or in tincture form
- The packet version or refined stevia sweetener: (Truvia/PureVia) which is processed into a powder form and bleached. These stevia sweeteners contain added ingredients such as erythritol from corn, dextrose or other artificial sweeteners.
The difference is pretty substantial but in order to fully understand it, you have to know that the two main compounds of stevia that are responsible for it’s sweet taste are Stevioside and Rebaudioside A.
Rebaudioside A: This is the compound that is most often extracted from the plant and used in the refined packet version, however, it is not the only ingredient in the packet. (FDA approved and sold as sweetener packets – this is the refined sweetener version)
Stevioside: While it only makes up approximately 10% of the sweetness in stevia and is the most studied of the two and often referenced when talking about stevia health benefits. HOWEVER, while it is 100 to 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, it also has a bitter aftertaste which is why it is actually either NOT found in the packet version of stevia sweeteners or only in trace amounts. (Not FDA approved but can be sold as a supplement – these are the dried leaves and tinctures)
It’s hard to find any conclusive or extensive studies on human consumption, however, stevia, more specifically Stevioside has been studied and shown to lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels – you can find more information about these stevia studies and references here. Adversely, you can read that “Studies conducted with stevia leaf extract in people with diabetes have shown that these ingredients have little to no effect on blood sugar.” here. This stuff is NOT cut and dry!
As far as FDA approval here is what the FDA says: (Note GRAS = Generally recognized as safe)
FDA has not permitted the use of whole-leaf Stevia or crude Stevia extracts because these substances have not been approved for use as a food additive. FDA does not consider their use in food to be GRAS in light of reports in the literature that raise concerns about the use of these substances. Among these concerns are control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems. Food additives and GRAS affirmation petition or pre-petition submissions for the use of such substances that FDA has received in the past have not contained the data and information necessary to establish the safe use of these substances as ingredients in food.
INTERESTING FACT: Japan currently consumes more stevia than any other country, with stevia accounting for 40% of the sweetener market.
SO, what will it be?
Let us know your go-to sweet in the comments below!