There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding sweeteners, both natural and otherwise. With all the options currently available and new ones showing up on our shelves each year, it can be hard to keep up. Mass media probably doesn’t help the issue either. However, this is a topic I’ve spent some time with. Being a person who NEEDS “a little something sweet” just about every day, I’ve had to figure out which sweeteners are the healthiest and which work best for me.
I wanted to clear up any confusion about sweeteners, so below is a run-down of the ones you’re most likely to run into so you can make the best choices for you.
White Sugar: Also known as cane sugar or white table sugar. Has a high glycemic index value of 100, therefore causes crazy spikes in blood sugar. I rarely use this as a sweetener because it gives me a bad sugar-hangover afterwards.
Brown Sugar: Regular white sugar with molasses added. Light brown just has a little, dark brown has more. Mostly has the same properties and nutritional value as white sugar.
Raw Sugar: Similar to white sugar, but processed less so it maintains some of its nutritional content. It’s marketed as being much better for you than white sugar, but in my book, it’s nearly the same. There are healthier choices.
Agave: A low glycemic sweetener made from the agave plant and is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar. There’s some debate on the subject of whether or not it is good for you. Some people swear by it and others don’t recommend it. I think it’s a better option than white sugar. I choose products that contain agave over those containing high fructose corn syrup and use it sparingly when cooking and baking.
Maple Syrup: A less refined, natural sweetener made from the sap of a maple tree. Similar to coconut sugar, it contains some minerals, notably zinc and manganese. Since it’s a pretty natural sweetener, I use it often.
Honey: A natural sweetener made from bees. Full-on vegans avoid this completely since it is a product made with the aid of an animal. I use it quite sparingly, usually just when I feel a cold coming on, and I need a healing drink.
Coconut Sugar: A less refined, more natural sweetener made from the sap of the coconut tree. It is a lower glycemic sweetener (only 35!) containing vitamins and minerals. It is similar to brown sugar with a hint of caramel in taste and the crystallized form can be used 1:1 like sugar in recipes. My sweetener of choice.
Brown Rice Syrup: A less refined sweetener made from brown rice. It contains some vitamins and minerals, but has a high glycemic value. I like to use it in conjunction with some fat, protein, and another carb such as a rice cake with nut butter or granola bars with nuts and protein powder in order to negate the glycemic value.
Molasses: A by-product of refining sugarcane. It contains up to 20% of your daily value of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. Not a real bad option, but I only use this if a recipe needs it (like gingerbread).
Stevia: A natural sweetener made from the leaves of the stevia plant. It doesn’t mess with blood sugar and is a guilt-free, zero-calorie sweetener. It’s 30 times sweeter than sugar though, so you can use a lot less. I haven’t found a liquid version that I like just yet; some taste like licorice. Truvia is a well-accessible brand. Check the ingredient labels on these. You want “rebiana extract” or “Stevia rebaudiana” to be the first or second ingredient.
High Fructose Corn Syrup: A highly processed product made from corn. When HFCS is consumed, our body’s natural “I’m full” mechanisms don’t get turned off as easily. Therefore, you think you’re still hungry and continue to eat. This stuff is in seemingly EVERYTHING nowadays. Not only is it in things you would expect, like soda and energy drinks, but it’s also included in the ingredient list things like ketchup, bread, cereal, salad dressings, and any lattes made with a sauce (mocha, white mocha, caramel, Sbux pumpkin, hot chocolate, etc). Small amounts are okay, but be conscious and check labels when you can.
Splenda, Equal, Sweet & Low: Artificial sweeteners. Man made in a laboratory. What to say? They’re known to cause cancer. Personally, I’d rather you have the sugar than these things. PLEASE don’t use them.
So, I hope this helps. What’s also important here besides the sweetener you choose is about how much you use. As I always say, all things in moderation. Choosing to use regular sugar is fine as long as you don’t put a tablespoon in your coffee every morning. Also, a little white sugar or HFCS every now and then won’t kill you, but if you choose something like stevia instead, you can get a whole lot more sweetness much more frequently. Think about it.