Thursday, April 28, 2011

Natural Sweeteners Explained (and How to Substitute for Sugar with Them)

The term “Natural Sweetener” gets thrown around a lot, but there’s no clear cut definition of what this really means. When I first started to eat healthier, I thought that as long as I wasn’t using white sugar, I was okay. So I started substituting brown sugar for everything. Somehow I got the idea that because it was brown it was less processed and therefore natural. But as I got more into healthy eating, and specifically Clean Eating, I found out this wasn’t the case. So I asked my wonderful and brilliant friend, Barb, (who is almost singlehandedly responsible for the way I eat now) to do a little research into the whole Natural Sweetener debate and give us a little clarity

Here's a list of sweeteners that are generally considered natural and are Clean Eating approved:

Sweetener
To Substitute for Sugar
Honey: A sweet, sticky, yellowish-brown fluid made by bees from nectar collected from flowers; minimally processed, especially if you get raw honey.Honey has a stronger and slightly sweeter flavor than sugar so use ¾ cup honey for each 1 cup sugar. Reduce the rest of the liquid by 2 Tbsp per cup of honey used and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Agave nectar: Sap extracted form the core of the agave plant; minimally processed. It’s mild flavor and thin consistency make it a great choice for cold liquids, like iced tea. In baking and recipes, use 2/3 cup agave nectar for each 1 cup of sugar, reduce the other liquids in the recipe slightly, and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Pure Maple Syrup: Concentrated sap from maple trees; minimally processed. Maple syrup has a stronger and slightly sweeter flavor than sugar so use ¾ cup maple syrup for each 1 cup sugar. Reduce the rest of the liquid by 2 Tbsp per cup of maple syrup used and reduce the oven temperature by 25 degrees.
Rapadura/Sucanat (Sugar Cane Natural): Unrefined dried sugar cane juice. Cane sugar that retains its molasses content. Has a slight molasses flavor and a dark color. Works very well in baked goods and hot drinks, like coffee, but not in cold drinks, like lemonade. Replaces sugar and brown sugar 1:1.
Brown Rice Syrup: A sweetener derived by culturing cooked rice with enzymes (usually from dried barley sprouts) to break down the starches, then straining off the liquid and reducing it through heating.Not as sweet as sugar so use 1 1/3 cups brown rice syrup for each 1 cup of sugar. In baking, for each cup used, reduce the other liquids in the recipe by ¼ cup and add ¼ tsp baking soda. For soft baked goods, do not use all brown rice syrup as it tends to make the finished product harder and crispier. On the other hand, it’s a great option in things like crispy cookies and granola.
Molasses: Thick, dark brown, uncrystallized juice obtained from raw sugar during the refining process. Basically what is removed from the sugar cane juice when white sugar is madeMolasses has a strong, distinctive flavor so only replace a small amount of the sugar in a recipe with it
Blackstrap Molasses: Same as molasses except it is more concentrated and therefore contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of minerals per serving. Blackstrap molasses has a VERY strong flavor so only replace a small amount of the sugar in a recipe with it
Stevia: A sweet compound obtained from the leaves of a South American shrub (Stevia rebaudiana) of the daisy family. Stevia comes in several forms from powder to liquid. Use this chart


Not Clean Eating Approved But Less Refined than White Sugar:
Turbinado Sugar: The most popular brand is Sugar in the Raw. Basically rapadura/sucanat granules that are washed in a centrifuge to remove impurities and surface molasses. The result is lighter in color and contains less molasses.Replaces sugar 1:1.
Evaporated Cane Juice: More refined version of turbinado sugar. Replaces sugar 1:1.

Here’s what Barb's research uncovered:

When I first set out to do research for this article, I was hoping to provide complete facts about how sweeteners are produced, how they benefit us nutritionally, and when they are most commonly used. However, I found the deeper I dug to discover answers, the more questions arose about the processing of the sweeteners.

I researched independent sources like Wikipedia, company websites like the one for Sugar in the Raw, and even read information on the Corn Refiner’s website (who are pro High Fructose Corn syrup). Many of the personal sites I read hosted a variety of opinions and shocking realizations about how our food is treated, but some of these sites do not list references, and it is hard to know if there is any truth behind their passionate claims. In the paragraphs to follow, I will attempt to help you understand more about the plethora of products on the store shelves and to provide unbiased information about the way the raw ingredients are grown and processed. Originally, I did not want to include information about Organic and non-Organic differences, but after doing the research, I felt this was an important piece of the puzzle in understanding how crops are treated and processed.

The word “natural” to describe sugars could be argued several different ways. Some might say that a particular sweetener is made from corn, and corn grows in nature, so therefore it’s natural. Likewise, one might argue that since sugar cane grows in the ground, its derivatives are also natural ways to sweeten foods. However, the worlds of health enthusiasts and Clean Eaters have different opinions on what is considered “natural”.

Types of Sugars and Glycemic Index

Before we discuss the sweeteners themselves, let’s do a brief biology review of the classification of sugars. There are two types of sugar: monosaccharides and disaccharides. The most abundant monos are Glucose and Fructose. Glucose is the building block of carbohydrates and is made by the photosynthesis process in plants. All forms of sugar are converted to glucose in our bodies. Fructose is naturally found in fruits and in honey. Many fructose based sweeteners undergo minimal processing and are therefore prized by health food enthusiasts. The most common disaccharide is Sucrose, which is comprised of Fructose and Glucose molecules linked together.


For added interest and a deeper understanding of the dietary implication of the sweeteners in this article, I am providing the glycemic index number in parenthesis following the first mention of the sweetener’s name, followed by the calorie content of one tablespoon.* The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food is converted into glucose in your body’s bloodstream. The higher the GI, the faster the food is converted to energy, and the quicker your blood glucose levels rise. A rapid increase of glucose levels will, in time, present a rapid drop of “sugar” levels and can cause fatigue, lethargy and the desire to eat more.

Typically, the more refined the food, the higher the glycemic level. Have you ever eaten a meal consisting of white pasta, white bread topped off with a super sweet dessert, only to feel exhausted and hungry later? Such a super-refined meal would cause your glucose levels to spike and then crash. Had you consumed a different meal of low glycemic index foods, but with the same caloric intake, you would have felt full, satisfied and energized.


Glucose (Corn) Based Sweeteners


Corn syrup (100 60) has been around since the early 1900s. It is made when the starch from corn kernels is mixed with water and combined with an enzyme which converts the starch into glucose, leaving a syrupy substance behind. Corn syrup retains its moisture after heating, which makes for moist, commercially-produced baked goods. In household uses, it is most commonly found in pecan pies, candied apples, and pancake toppings. It may be important to note that the United States is the number one producer of corn in the world, and most of the non-organic crops are grown from genetically modified seeds. If organic foods are important to you, organic (non-GMO) forms of corn syrup are available on the market today.


I’m sure you’re familiar with the name for the most widely used sugar substitute: high fructose corn syrup or HFCS (65-80). For decades, this product has been added to many pre-packaged foods and drinks and it is recently receiving a lot of attention. Without going into gross detail, HFCS is made from corn syrup, which is mostly comprised of glucose. When the glucose is combined with enzymes (more than one), it converts into fructose. The ratio of the simple sugars dramatically shifts, altering the corn syrup into a “high fructose” version. HFCS is cheap, has a long shelf life, and is sweeter than other types of sugar (so companies can use less). As the commercials on television imply, the basic structure of HFCS is similar to that of table sugar, but there are still controversies about how our body reacts to this man made sweetener. While you can buy hundreds of products containing HFCS (from ketchup to soda to yogurt), you can not purchase bottles of it at your grocery store.


Fructose (Plant) Based Sweeteners


Sugar cane, which is considered to be a grass, has been cultivated by man for thousands of years. Through the processing of extracting the sugar for consumption, consumers are provided with a variety of products. Sucanat (65 60) is a contraction for the phrase "sugar cane natural". It is produced when the cane stalks are heated and filtered, and the resulting sugar crystals are hand collected so that they retain their naturally high content of molasses.

Raw sugar and Turbinado sugar (65 60) are made similarly to Sucanat, but they are not treated with the same gentleness. The cane is spun at a very high speed, causing part of the molasses content to be lost. The resulting crystals are dried into the form you see it in when you purchase it at the store. If the processing of sugar continues past the raw sugar stage, common table sugar (65 60) is produced. The raw sugar is washed of all the molasses, heated, and in most instances bleached to produce the pearly white crystals we are familiar with as white sugar.

Brown sugar (65 60) is, in most cases, table sugar with molasses added back to the crystals. In some instance, brown sugar can be made by washing less of the molasses from the raw sugar. In common grocery store boxes of brown sugar, this is not the case. Often the white sugar is also colored with an artificial caramel coloring, so the product has a better appearance. So, not only is the sugar bleached, but then color is added back in.

Molasses (65 58) processed for sale is “leftover” from when the sugar cane is spun to make white sugar. Most of these types of molasses have a higher sugar content than Blackstrap molasses (55 47) which is made when the cane has been spun a third time. Due to the deeper concentration, blackstrap contains trace amounts of vitamins and significant amounts of minerals per serving and is therefore considered to be preferable among health food enthusiasts.

Organic varieties of sugar cane products can be purchased and are held to a zero chemical standard. This means that not only are the sugar cane plants not treated with pesticides, but the sugar crystals are also not subjected to harsh chemicals during the refining process.

Agave nectar (30 60) comes from the core of a succulent plant with the same name. Most premium types of Agave come from Blue Agave plants. The sap is extracted and filtered, then heated at a very low temperature (less than 120 degrees). Because Agave nectar is processed minimally and with such low heat, it is considered a “pure sweetener”. It has a subtle, sweet flavor that is very mild and is often used as an alternative to honey. However, it does have a relatively high fructose content, depending on the particular batch of agave plant used. I have noticed that most Agave nectars available on the market are Organic.


Unless you’ve lived under a bee hive for your entire life :-), you know what honey is and where it comes from. However, you may not be familiar with the different ways it is processed. Raw honey (30 64) is the most pure form of honey, as it is unheated (therefore unpasteurized) and is high in antioxidants. Purchasing local raw honey has been praised as a remedy for seasonal allergies, a benefit that is lost once the nectar is heated and packaged for commercial grocery stores. Pasteurized honey is a great option for baking or for other recipes where the nectar will be heated during the cooking process. Producers of organic honey do what they can to insure that their bees do not transport pesticides back to the hives, and they are prohibited from giving their bees antibiotics.


Maple syrup (54 52) is the sap of maple trees, which is collected and boiled down to produce pure syrup. It contains trace amounts of minerals and amino acids (proteins). When you purchase maple syrup at the grocery store, be certain the label says “100% pure” as there are many imitation products out there. For a syrup farm to be considered "Organic", it must refrain from using chemicals on the trees themselves and during the tapping process (formaldehyde, although illegal, is sometimes used on non Organic farms).


Other Types of Sweeteners


Brown rice syrup (25 75) is made much in the same way that corn syrup is manufactured. An enzyme is added to the brown rice and left to change the starch in the rice grains into sugar. However, the resulting syrup has a different make-up from corn syrup in that the sugar is mostly a polysaccharide (a combination of mono and disaccharides), which make for a slower absorption into the bloodstream. The syrup is known for its buttery flavor and is less sweet than corn syrup. Because most brown rice syrups are consumed by health food enthusiasts, most brands available for purchase are Organic.


Stevia (less than 1) can be purchased in two ways; either in powder form or as a liquid extract. It is made from the leaf of a plant, and because it is considered to be more like a herb, Stevia is touted as zero-calorie sweetener (although some trace calories will exist if you eat it in excess!). Its popularity is growing, and it may be pertinent to note that some brands found in grocery stores may have additives in them which act as fillers and may be highly processed. Some people state that inexpensive brands of Stevia have a funny aftertaste, while higher-quality versions do not.


Whatever your choice of sweetener, please keep in mind that all sugars should be enjoyed in moderation; some possibly in less moderation than others. All of the above sweeteners have pros and cons, and it is important to weigh them out when making your decision on which one to use. Take into account how often you consume the food you sweeten. Consuming too much sugar of any kind has known side effects. Table sugar can cause peaks and valleys in blood sugar levels, which in excess can lead to weight gain. Fructose sweeteners are processed in the liver, which can cause a rise in triglyceride levels. Stevia is under review for a possible link to cancer when consumed in excess.


** In order from highest to lowest
Glycemic Index
Calories
Processing (hard to estimate)
Corn SyrupHFCSHFCS
HFCS, Cane Sugar, MolassesBrown Rice SyrupTable Sugar, Brown Sugar
Agave Nectar, HoneyHoneyMolasses, Black Strap Molasses
Blackstrap MolassesCorn Syrup, Cane Sugar, Agave NectarCorn Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup
Maple SyrupMolassesStevia
Brown Rice SyrupMaple SyrupSucanat
SteviaBlackstrap MolassesMaple Syrup, Honey
SteviaAgave Nectar, Raw Honey

*The Glycemic Index and calorie measurements may vary depending on the type of crop and the way a particular manufacture processes the resulting product. In some instances, I have taken multiple numbers for the same sweetener and used an average.


Please note: there are some sweeteners on the market that are not listed in this article. Namely: Equal, Splenda and Sweet n’Low. These are artificial sweeteners and should not be confused with natural sweeteners.

3 comments:

  1. I'm confused. On the back of the bag of Sucanat the ingredients lists: Evaporated Cane Juice... so is something different about the sucanat or is it just the same as other brands listed as evaporated cane juice?

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  2. Hmmmmm..... good question. Sucanat is evaporated cane juice but technically so it turbinado sugar and it's more processed. I usually only buy it labeled as sucanat to know for sure.

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  3. I've been playing with Clean Eating for some time now but not fully committed until today. I love to bake and this will be extememly helpful. Thanks so much!

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