A beginner's guide to sugars and natural sweeteners

A beginner's guide to sugars and natural sweeteners

Author: Canadian Living


A beginner's guide to sugars and natural sweeteners

A sweet tooth is a common affliction, and for better or for worse, sugar is a reliable cure. "Carbohydrates, both simple and complex, are actually a main energy source for our body," says Lucia Weiler, a Toronto-based nutritionist. "In fact, 50 per cent of our caloric intake comes from carbohydrates."

But it's not all sweetness and light. "The concern lies with added sugar and food or drinks with a high sugar content," Weiler explains. As a leading contributor to our ever-expanding waistlines, sugar has a bad rap. What's more, since consumers are becoming increasingly weary of calorie-free chemical sweeteners, more people are seeking healthier alternatives to get that same great taste. So, does sugar by any other name still taste as sweet? Read on for the truth about seven sugars and alternatives.

What type of sugar or sweetener do you use? Share you answer with fellow readers in our comment section on the next page.

1. Cane sugar
As the name suggests, it's derived from the tropical sugarcane plant and is used to make refined white and brown table sugar. (Brown sugar is white sugar dyed with molasses to give it its unique colour and taste, making it slightly higher in calories at 51 cal/tbsp.) Refined, it is the most commonly used sugar for baking, preserving and prepackaged foods, and for giving most things that much-loved sweet taste. Contrary to popular belief, pure sucrose is naturally white, so there are no added dyes or chemicals in the making of table sugar (45 cal/tbsp). Raw sugar is a product of the early refining stages, before the molasses has been extracted, which is why its large, chunky crystals have a brownish tinge.

2. Beet sugar
While the end product is nearly identical to the different varieties of cane sugar, the processing is quite different. Thriving in colder climates, the sugar beat is grown in Canada, but subsequently has a shorter growing season.

3. Molasses
A byproduct from the sugar-refining process, this dark, viscous, sweet substance is most often used for baking cookies and making sauces. It's calorically similar to refined sugar (47 cal/tbsp) and contains nominal amounts of beneficial nutrients such as iron and calcium, though due to its physical appearance, it can’t be as easily incorporated into everyday meals.

Page 1 of 2 - find out about natural alternative sweetners on page 2.

4. Honey
Taken straight from the beehive, honey is the sustainable sweetener, as it's produced and harvested locally, using minimal energy and processing. Relatively high in calories (64 cal/tbsp), this centuries-old syrup is used in baking, cooking, salad dressings and drinks for its signature warm, strong sweetness. Honey is also touted for its medicinal properties, and is often key to home remedies for sore throats and wounds.

5. Agave Syrup
Extracted from the same Mexican perennial that also produces tequila, this syrup (or "nectar") is actually 84 per cent fructose — the same type of sugar found largely in fruits and vegetables — and there are hotly contested claims that agave syrup is not only healthier than regular sugar, but also diabetic-safe due to its low glycemic index. Agave syrup is similar to honey, only less thick, and can be used as such in beverages and baking. It is higher in calories than regular sugar (60 cal/tbsp), but because it's extremely sweet, you might not require as much of it.

6. Stevia
Belonging to the sunflower family, this plant's sweet leaves are sought after because they're a low-carbohydrate, no-calorie, all-natural alternative to sugar. Only a small amount is needed, as extracts from the tropical plant measure 200 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose.

Currently only the leaves themselves (fresh, dried or powdered) have been approved for sale in Canada. Because it's not suitable for baking at temperatures above 390ËšF (200ËšC), it's best added it to drinks or prepared food.

7. Fruit
The most nutritionally beneficial way to sweeten food and drink is by adding a sweet, ripe fruit or 100 per cent fruit juice. (Though some sugars and alternatives have beneficial nutrients, they are negligible in such small doses.) Add sliced strawberry to cereals or use ripened bananas in baking for a vitamin-rich carbohydrate boost. Bonus: fruit is more filling than sugar and sweeteners, and it will help to get in those eight recommended daily servings.

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A beginner's guide to sugars and natural sweeteners