Saturday, 22 February 2014

Sugars and Sweeteners: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know, but Were Afraid to Ask

Sugar! Sugar! Da da da da da da... Photo source Wikipedia, used under creative commons

Sugars and Sweeteners: 

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know, but Were Afraid to Ask

Many people have a sweet tooth and the kitchen pixies are definitely among them! But what effect do different sugars have on our bodies and what is the best way to get a sweet fix without damaging our health?


The Usual Suspects

These are the sweeteners most commonly used in household baking. 

White Sugar  
White sugar generally refers to the refined sugar that is extracted from sugarcane and sugar beet plants. Both plants must undergo a number of processes to remove the sugar and give it its snow-white appearance. Sugar provides tenderness to baked goods as well as the “golden brown” colour that we associate with our goodies. Sometimes we want to swap out regular white sugar with another sweetener for either taste or convenience. We’ve included some conversions here for your use. 

Molasses is a byproduct of making refined white sugar. It has a much lower sugar content than white sugar and a rich, distinctive flavour. Blackstrap molasses is a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. By far the most beneficial of the “traditional” sweeteners.

  • In small amounts, you can substitute measure for measure — 1/4 cup sugar for 1/4 cup molasses. For amounts over 1 cup, you would use 1-1/3 cups of molasses for every cup of white sugar and you would reduce the other liquids in the recipe by 5 Tablespoons for every cup of replaced sugar. Molasses is also quite acidic so if you are using amounts of 1 cup or over, you should add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the dry ingredients.
Brown Sugar
Most varieties of brown sugar are made by adding molasses back to already refined white sugar. Brown sugar has a soft, moist texture and a richer flavour than white sugar. Despite the fact that it has molasses added to it, brown sugar does not contain any significant amount of beneficial minerals and nutrients.

  • If your recipe calls for brown sugar and you’re out of it, you can substitute 1 cup of light brown sugar with 1 cup of white sugar plus 2 Tablespoons of molasses. For dark brown sugar, double the amount of molasses to 4 Tablespoons.

Natural Sugar Alternatives

There are a variety of sweeteners that can be used instead of regular table sugar. In addition to often being far less processed, these sweeteners can contain beneficial nutrients. But be careful, sugar is sugar no matter the source. It is still important to use these in moderation. 

Maple Syrup
Sweeter tasting with slightly fewer calories than regular white sugar. Maple syrup also contains beneficial minerals such as zinc and magnesium. Unfortunately, pure maple syrup also tends to be more expensive. Note: Pure maple syrup should not be confused for table syrup or pancake syrup as these are different products that are usually derived from corn syrup and then flavoured. 

Raw Honey
Another natural sweetener that actually tastes sweeter than white sugar. Unpasteurized honey contains B vitamins and antioxidants. Both pasteurized and unpasteurized honeys have been found to give cough syrup a run for its money when mixed with tea or hot lemon water to treat a sore throat.

  • When substituting honey for sugar in a bread recipe, use it measure for measure up to 1 cup. For example, 3 Tablespoons of sugar can be replaced with 3 Tablespoons of honey without any further adjustments. Add a pinch of baking soda with the dry ingredients because honey is naturally acidic which reduces gluten development. 
  • For amounts of sugar over 1 cup (hard to imagine in a bread recipe), you use less than a measure for measure replacement because honey is 25-50% sweeter to our tongues than white sugar. Each cup of sugar would be replaced with 2/3 to 3/4 of a cup of honey.  
  • If you are using more than 1 cup of honey, you will need to reduce the other liquids by 1/4 of a cup per cup of honey. 
  • If your recipe has a large amount of honey in it, lower the baking temperature by 25°F and watch the bread carefully. The sugars in honey will cause your baked good to brown faster.
Fruit Juices From Concentrate and Unsweetened Apple Sauce
Add not only sweetness and a unique flavour, but also provide vitamins, minerals, and a bit of fiber. Check nutritional labels to avoid varieties that add extra sugar when buying or make your own at home.

  •  For every cup of white sugar, use 3/4 cup of juice concentrate and reduce other liquids by 3 Tablespoons. With orange juice concentrate, add 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda to the dry ingredients to combat the acidity.
Coconut Palm Sugar

This sweetener is extracted from the flowering stalks of coconut palm trees. It contains potassium, magnesium, zinc and iron and has a nutty taste to it. Coconut palm sugar can be used as a direct substitute for brown sugar. It is slightly less sweet tasting than white sugar. 

Date Sugar

Another good substitute for brown sugar. Date sugar comes from ground-up dehydrated dates and has a rich flavour. It also contains traces of fibre, potassium, vitamin C and iron and is less likely to cause your blood sugar to spike as long as you don't over indulge.

Agave Nectar

A sweet syrup that comes from the concentrated sap of the agave plant. Agave nectar is sweeter than table sugar, so you don't need as much. A good thing, too, since this sweetener tends to be a little pricey. Treat like honey when cooking and baking. Agave nectar is high in fructose, so once again, moderation is key.  


This sweetener is often sold as a powder or liquid and comes from a super- sweet shrub native to South America. Stevia extract is said to be approximately 300 times sweeter than table sugar and has almost no effect on blood sugar levels in the body. Stevia does not work well in baking and has a faint licorice-like aftertaste.


Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes meant to imitate the sweetness of sugar while having fewer or no calories. Many are made synthetically but may come from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. Artificial sweeteners are often sweeter tasting than regular white sugar, but may contain an after taste and often cannot be used in regular cooking and baking.

Over the past few decades, various sweeteners have drummed up controversy for potential health risks, but according to the Canadian Diabetes Associate, all sweeteners that are commercially available in Canada are safe for moderate consumption. That means checking labels and not exceeding your recommended daily intake. Going over your daily limit may be harmful. It is still a good idea to consult a doctor before using artificial sweeteners, especially if you are on a special or restricted diet.

Artificial sweeteners available in Canada include: saccharin, cyclamate, aspartame, sucralose and acesulfame potassium. As a general rule, we don’t use artificial sugars in Our Greener Kitchen, largely because they are very expensive. Additionally, while they taste sweet like sugar, they don’t have the same properties for browning, tenderizing or moisture retaining that real sugar provides. The exception to this is Sucralose which can be used measure for measure for white sugar and is approved for baked goods.

  • Aspartame (Brand name: NutraSweet, Equal) is not suitable for baked goods as it breaks down under heat. Completely bypass this one if it’s going in the oven.  
  • Saccharine (Brand name: Sweet & Low) can be used in baking but use only 1/2 the amount of sugar — 6 packets = 1/4 cup sugar.


Tips for Keeping Sugar in Check

Whether you're eating fruits and vegetables or cakes and candies, all foods containing carbohydrates are broken down into sugars before entering your bloodstream. However different foods will break down at different rates. Some foods will cause your blood sugar to suddenly spike and then “crash,” while others provide a gradual rise and fall. Balanced meals that contain protein as well as carbohydrates and a modest amount of fat along with some healthy snacks will help keep your blood sugar levels steady throughout the day. This will help prevent cravings and crashes.

When you feel your sweet tooth tingling, try the fruit bowl first. This will cut out the excess sugar you would get from a processed snack and keep you feeling more full. Herbal teas are a great substitute for sugary pops and juices. As an added bonus, they often contain beneficial vitamins and antioxidants. Good old fashioned water can also help keep you feeling full, hydrated and energized.

Finally, be careful when dressing up foods with condiments, jams, and jellies. You'd be surprised at the amount of sugar in a bottle of ketchup! Use condiments and spreads in moderation and try experimenting with herbs and spices for added – sugar free – flavour
It may seem like a lot of work, but the truth is that even making a few small changes (and sticking to them) can have a wonderful impact to your health, energy, and overall well being.

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