If you are an avid food shopper, you may have noticed that the selection of sweeteners in the baking aisle seems to have multiplied in leaps and bounds. These sweeteners tend to have exotic-sounding names, each claiming to be tastier, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly than plain old table sugar. But are they really any better? Whether you choose natural, artificial or conventional sweeteners is up to you, but this article gives you the scoop on the most common types of “natural” sweeteners to help you decide. Regardless of the type of sweetener you choose, be sure to keep in mind that published recommendations say to limit added sugars from all sources to no more than 10%-15% of total calorie intake, which is 120 calories (7.5 tsp) of sugar for a 1,200-calorie diet.
Making what we know as table sugar from sugarcane can range from a relatively simple to a multistep process, and the final result varies depending on the specific steps in the process. The sweeteners listed below are made with fewer steps on the processing chain meaning less environmental impact and more of the vitamins and minerals.
• Blackstrap molasses is the dark liquid byproduct from the third boiling of sugar cane syrup and is the most nutritious molasses, containing calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Just 2 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses will sweetly provide you with 13.3% of the daily recommended value for iron, 11.8% of the daily recommended value for calcium, and 9.7% of the daily recommended value for potassium.
• Evaporated cane juice can be used just like sugar for sweetening foods and beverages as well as in cooking. It may also be known by a variety of other names including dried cane juice, crystallized cane juice, milled cane sugar, and in Europe as “unrefined sugar”. Evaporated cane juice contains some trace nutrients (that regular sugar does not), including vitamin B2 (riboflavin). Evaporated cane juice is available in a variety of forms that vary in texture and flavor:
o Milled Cane: small grained crystals.
o Demerara: coarser grained, slightly sticky crystals.
o Muscovado: very fine crystal sugar.
Here is the scoop on some of the most common natural sweeteners that are not made from sugarcane.
• Agave nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the agave, a plant native to Mexico. It contains trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium, but has a higher calorie count than sugar (60 calories per tbsp vs 46 calories per tbsp, respectively). The fructose content of agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup, which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. Despite this, it has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content, which means it won’t cause a spike in your blood sugar levels the way sugar does.
• Brown rice syrup- When combined with sprouted rice or barley, cooked brown rice yields this sweet liquid that contains about 13 calories per teaspoon and is less sweet than sugar. The syrup breaks down relatively slowly, providing more of a time-release energy flow than sugar does and contains some magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
• Date Sugar- Though it’s called “date sugar,” this sweetener is not a form of sugar. It’s actually an extract taken from dehydrated dates. It contains some essential minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and selenium.
• Honey, made by bees from the nectar of flowers, is a ready-made sweetener that contains traces of nutrients. Some research suggests that consumption of honey raises blood levels of protective antioxidant compounds in humans. However, when raw honey is extensively processed and heated, the benefits of certain phytonutrients are largely eliminated. Please Note-Do not feed honey-containing products or use honey as a flavoring for infants under one year of age; honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores and toxins that can cause infant botulism, a life-threatening paralytic disease. Honey is safe for children older than 12 months and adults.
• Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, which is filtered and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup. It contains fewer calories and a higher concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. “Maple-flavored syrups” are imitations of real maple syrup. To easily tell the difference, read the ingredients list on the nutrition label. True maple syrup contains nothing but “maple syrup.” Imitation syrups are primarily made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and/or artificial sweeteners.
Remember, even sweeteners touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed, don’t typically add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to your diet. However, there’s nothing wrong with the sweetness that a little sugar or other natural sweeteners add to life, so long as it’s done in moderation.
About This Author
Joanna Dolgoff, M.D. is a Pediatrician, Child Obesity Expert, and Author of Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right (Rodale, 2009). Dr. Dolgoff’s child and adolescent weight loss program (http://www.DrDolgoff.com) has been featured on WABC News, WNBC News, Fox 5 Morning Show, My9 News, and WPIX News. She has also filmed pieces with The Today Show and Extra, is an official blogger for the Huffington Post, and is the official doctor for Camp Shane, the nation’s largest weight loss camp. Children from 45 different states are losing weight with Dr. Dolgoff’s online weight loss program (http://www.DrDolgoff.com).
Dr. Dolgoff attended Princeton University and the NYU School of Medicine and completed her Pediatric Residency at the Columbia Presbyterian Children’s Hospital of New York. She is a Board-Certified Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a former certified fitness instructor. Dr. Dolgoff resides in Roslyn, NY with her husband and two children, ages 4 and 7.