Simple Guide to Sugar & Sweeteners
This time of year, it feels like everything is sweet and we are baking non-stop. Pies, cakes, holiday cookies, it is part of the fun of the season, and a great activity to do with the kids as the days get shorter and the snowflakes fall from the sky. But, how do you decipher which type of sugar or sweetener to use- and who knew there were so many, for that matter? We will try to simplify it here, so that you can make the most educated choice for you coffee, eggnog or almond cookie recipe. The good news is, that some of the varieties are not only more nutritious than white sugar, but also more flavorful!
So, let's get this out of the way first- sugar isn't necessarily always bad. Many of the healthiest foods that you consume everyday such as vegetables, fruits and diary products are high in sugar, which is a carbohydrate that your body burns for energy. But, these are natural sugars. What you want the be weary of, is the total amount of sugar (balanced with you overall food consumption), the amount of added sugar, and the type of sugar that you consume in order to live a healthy lifestyle.
Be prepared to be shocked- on average, Americans consume a whopping 130 grams of added refined sugar each day, although experts recommend about 25 grams a day for women and 25 grams a day for men. Most of us would obviously greatly benefit from a reduction in overall sugar consumption in addition to making some changes in the kinds of sugar that we consume. For example, researchers have found that some natural sugars such as maple syrup, molasses and honey add antioxidants to your diet; however, they should still be used within reason. Also, as we have stated before, steer away from high fructose corn syrup (a highly processed form of sugar), as well as artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or saccharin, both of which have been linked to obesity, diabetes, several types of cancers as well as other chronic ailments.
Types of Sugar
Most sugar is processed from sugar cane or sugar beets. The vast majority of sugar consumed in the US, comes from genetically modified sugar beets grown in Florida or Louisiana; the heavily debated "Farm Bill" of 1990, allows for these farmers to be subsidized by the USDA, guarantees price as well as quotas to the farmers, and restricts the domestic marketplace with heavy tariffs for importers. There are a lot of politics around sugar in the US, which we will not address, just wanted to make you aware so that if you are interested, you can continue to learn more.
Anyway, granulated white sugar is the highly refined all-purpose sugar that we all know. Organic varieties skip the chemicals and bleaches and are non-GMO. GMO beets are one of the largest crops grown in the US due to the inordinate amount of refined sugar that we consume.
Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with added molasses..
Confectioners' sugar, or powdered sugar, is granulated white sugar that has been crushed into a white powder and is often used in icings and decorations. A great way modernize your plating and to reduce the amount of sugar consumed during the holidays, is to stop sprinkling everything with confectioners' sugar. Not only does it add unnecessary calories, it can change the flavor of you beautiful dessert- and, lucky for us the look is now old fashioned.
Sucanat, which is short for sugar, cane, and natural has become quite popular. It is unrefined dehydrated can juice, brown in color, and a less-processed table sugar with a slightly stronger molasses flavor.
Unrefined sugar or raw sugar is slightly purified, evaporated cane juice that comes in a variety of flavors (the straight organic version is my go-to sugar for most baking), including demerara (caramel notes), dark muscovado (deep rich taste that holds up well to cooking), and turbinado (moist, so a great option for caramelizing).
Whichever of these types of sugar you choose, look for the labels that say organic, non-GMO, and Fair Trade Certified, which ensures that the sugar cane or beet farmers were paid fair living wages, work in safe conditions, and use sustainable practices.
Agave nectar is about 25% sweeter than sugar, and most varieties come from the blue agave (best know for its fine tequila). Although it is a popular sweetener, researchers are studying a link to sweet addiction (much like aspartame is known for among other things). Also recent theories have raised questions about agave nectar's impact on your metabolism. So use with caution. Darker nectar has more robust flavor with a hint of molasses. Hint: sub 2/3 cup for each 1 cup sugar.
Brown rice syrup is sweet and earthy with a hint of butterscotch. Chai teas are often sweetened with rice syrup. Hint: sub ¾ cup for each 1 cup sugar.
Maple syrup is twice as sweet as sugar, with caramel tones. Flavors vary based on the harvest, and the thick stickiness and New England fall aroma make this a household must. Be sure to read labels when purchasing maple syrup to avoid "maple-flavored" syrup, which is an imposter, and to be aware that some are made with the use of a touch of butter (used to prevent boiling over during reduction process). Hint: sub ¾ cup for 1 cup sugar.
Honey is the best known unrefined sweetener; the nectar of the gods in Greek mythology. There are so many varieties of honey, that we could write (and likely will in the future) an entire article about honey. Darker varieties generally have stronger flavor, and the flavor is developed based on the type of plants that the bees pollinated, such as clover, lavender or roses. Check labels for 100% pure honey- say no to imposters. A great benefit is that honey will never go bad at room temperature; if it crystallizes, just warm it up in a water bath (never a microwave!) to restore the silky smoothness. Hint: sub ¾ cup for 1 cup sugar.
Stevia is the extract of an herb that's about 200 times sweeter than sugar, yet has no calories. Its high concentration makes it better to use for beverages than for baking. It comes in powder or liquid (dropper) form. Some people say that it has a metallic aftertaste, however I have never noticed it. Hint: sub 1 teaspoon for 1 cup of sugar.
Molasses is about 65 percent as sweet as sugar and has a rich deep flavor. Unsulfured is best. Hint: sub 1 ¼ cup for 1 cup sugar.
Coconut Sugar is similar in color, flavor and taste to brown sugar. Hint: sub equal amount for sugar.
The "So What"
So why use alternative sweeteners instead of refined sugar? Aside from the fact that most listed above have fewer calories than sugar, they also have some added health benefits!
Some examples include:
Disease Fighter. Pure maple syrup contains up to 54 different types of antioxidants, which may protect against different forms of cancer.
Cold Remedy. Honey has strong antimicrobial properties and may be effective for fighting cold symptoms.
Gentle on the Gut. Brown rice syrup is a fructose-free sweetener so it's good for those who suffer from IBS and can't handle fructose.
Full of Fiber. Coconut sugar contains small amounts of inulin- a type of fiber that acts as a prebiotic.
Vitamin Power. Blackstrap molasses is higher in vitamins and minerals, including vitamin B and iron, than most sweeteners.
Outsmart Diabetes. Because stevia is not metabolized, it has no impact on blood sugar (meaning not ups and no downs).
Hopefully we inspired you to try a new alternative to the refined sugar you have been using the next time you bake a batch of cookies. And maybe take the time, while you have their attention while whisking to explain to you kids why it might be time to reduce the added sugar.