A Spoonful of Sugar
If you prefer sugar in your coffee or oatmeal just isn’t right without a dash of brown sugar in your book, then so be it. No, you shouldn’t get more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day for women and 9 for men, and yes many of us get more than this through processed foods without even picking up a spoon or cracking open a packet. But we're not here to judge where your sugar calories come from, we’d just like to inform you of some of the natural sweeteners you may or may not have noticed in ingredient lists. We’re not talking artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet N’ Low or Nutrisweet, we’re focusing on the sweeteners that are derived from plants and processed for us to spoon into our favorite foods. Here are some natural options to sweetness and how they stack up against sugar.
Sugar by a Different Name
No matter how you slice it, sugar is sugar. But if you check the many names it goes by, you’d think some didn’t come from the same source: sugar cane juice. The sugar most familiar to many is white granulated sugar. But a slightly less processed sugar, brown sugar seems like a healthier choice. Unrefined brown sugar goes by more obscure names such as muscavado, turbinado, piloncillo, or demerara. These have a richer taste, and while they do retain some of the minerals lost during regular sugar processing, any nutritional benefits are minuscule given that their use is in very small amounts. What’s more, unrefined brown sugar is still processed. Calorie wise, sugar has 15 calories per teaspoon and 45 per tablespoon. So you know molasses is a by-product of sugar processing, so despite it being less sweet, the calorie count is slightly higher than regular sugar at 60 calories a tablespoon.
You may have seen beet sugar listed on some products from health food stores, but it’s processing is similar to the way sugar cane is processed and when it comes to buying a bag of sugar, whether its from sugar cane or sugar beets source may not be discernable. The reason is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require sugar manufacturers to disclose whether sugar is from beets or sugar cane. Their website treats the two interchangeably saying, “Sucrose is obtained by crystallization from sugar cane or sugar beet juice that has been extracted by pressing or diffusion, then clarified and evaporated.”
Honey packs 60 calories a tablespoon, but because it’s thicker and sweeter than regular sugar, it may go a little further in the way of adding flavor. A result of the difference of plants bees feed on, there are many flavors of honey such as clover, chestnut, orange blossom, wildflower, alfalfa, blueberry, and tupelo.
Maple syrup is one of the most expensive of sweeteners due to the limited availability of the maple tree sap, of which 80% comes from Canada, while the remaining is produced in the U.S. mostly in Vermont. The trees are tapped during a short two-month season and each gallon of pure maple syrup requires between 40 and 50 gallons of sap. On a separate note, you may be surprised to find out the syrup you use on your pancakes is nothing more than maple flavor and high fructose corn syrup. The calorie count of one teaspoon is 11 calories. Like honey, it is sweeter than regular sugar and because it is less refined, it does have small amounts of minerals and antioxidants that sugar does not.
Another sweetener is derived from the agave cactus plant and has a similar calorie count and appearance to honey. It’s said to be sweeter and more flavorful than regular sugar, but there’s not much else to this sweetener. While there is a general notion that it is healthier because of its lower glycemic index, this is due to the fact that it by nature is mostly fructose, not sucrose, and is thus metabolized differently than sucrose.
What sweeteners, if any, do you use or not use? Why or why not?