Know Which Sweet is Which
An apple, brown rice, and a chicken breast all have a common ingredient: sugar. Sugars occur naturally in most whole foods, together with proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and other nutrients. In the 19th century, adding sugar to foods was a rare treat for all but the richest folks. Today nearly all processed foods—from hot dogs, turkey slices, and chicken nuggets, to breads, cereals and yogurts, to soft and sports drinks and juices—all have sweeteners as ingredients.
Excess sugar consumption has been linked to a number of health problems besides cavities: poor nutrition, diabetes, weight gain and obesity, inflammation, and elevated levels of triglycerides, a factor in heart disease. The basic problem with sugar is that it is high in calories and offers no nutrients. Unless you are burning more calories than you are consuming, the body stores these calories from added sugar as fat. An extreme example is a soft drink or sweetened juice drink, which offers only calories and no nutrient value at all, as opposed to sugar-containing whole foods without added sugar, such as a pear.
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume only 100 calories/day (about 6 teaspoons)—or less—from added sugar, and men no more than 150 calories/day (about 9 teaspoons). But the majority of Americans ingest more than 355 calories, or some 22 teaspoons a day. If you consider that a regular 12-ounce can of Coke or other soft drink contains about 8 teaspoons of sugar (which translates to about 130 sugar-added calories), it’s easy to understand how quickly it adds up. Remember that processed foods that we don’t normally think of as “sweet,” such as canned soup, breads, and fast food, have similarly high amounts. You have to count the sugar present in more foods than just sweets to get a real picture of how much sugar you are eating each day.
Everyone can benefit from becoming aware of the different names used for sugar on nutritional labels and cutting back on sugar consumption in general. Just what are all the sweeteners in the grocery store and on food labels? Are there any sweeteners that are better than others? What about these new “natural” sweeteners that have gained popularity, or at least shelf space? Is Agave syrup healthier than white sugar? Or high-fructose corn syrup? This guide explains the different kinds of sugars that are out there.
Guide to Common Sweeteners:
The word “sugar” is used informally to refer to a number of simple carbohydrates whose names end in -ose, including sucrose, lactose, fructose, maltose, glucose, and galactose, among others. Glucose (aka dextrose), fructose, and galactose are the simpler building blocks (monosaccharides) that form the larger sugars (disaccharides) sucrose, lactose, and maltose. All have similar caloric content, about 103-108 calories per ounce.
Sucrose is the classic table sugar, or white sugar, and is refined from either sugar cane or sugar beets. It is composed of one fructose and one glucose molecule. It is highly refined and has no nutritive value beyond calories. Sugars vary in their sweetness. Fructose is almost twice as sweet as sucrose, and so less is needed to sweeten. Lactose, found in milk, is only a fifth as sweet as sucrose. Glucose, the primary product of photosynthesis, is only 75% as sweet as sucrose.
Crystallized sugar was first made in India in the 4th century, and subsequently spread to China in the 7th century. Arab traders built the first sugar mills and brought the “sweet salt” west, where it reached Europe first on the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) after the Arab conquest in the 8th century. Crusaders also brought sugar back to Europe from Arab lands in the 12th century, where it remained a luxury item for hundreds of years, and a motivation for global colonialism (sugar cane needs a tropical climate to grow). The first beet sugar mill in the U.S. did not open until the 1830s.
Produced in Mexico from the root of the agave plant, refined Agave syrup production only began in the 1990s. It tends to have more fructose (70-90 percent) and much less glucose than table sugar, giving it a generally low glycemic index, which ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood glucose levels. Because of its high fructose content, Agave syrup is sweeter than table sugar so less is required to sweeten food. Agave syrup is produced in a refining process similar to that for high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Agave syrup is generally highly refined and adds no nutrients beyond the calories.
There are five artificial sweeteners approved for use in the U.S., including saccharin (Sweet 'n Low), aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet, and Canderel), sucralose (Splenda), neotame, and acesulfame potassium (Sunett and Sweet One). These are hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than sucrose, and are calorie-free. There have been health concerns about all of them, especially concerning cancer, but they are considered safe by the Food and Drug Administration at the levels currently consumed. Saccharin remains on the list even after it was found to cause bladder cancer in rats, because the cancer-causing pathway does not exist in humans. Because they are indigestible, artificial sweeteners may cause upset stomach, gas, and irritable bowel syndrome.
There are several sugar substitutes originally found in plants that are artificially synthesized for use as food additives. Xylitol and Sorbitol are the best known. They contain roughly two-thirds the caloric content of sucrose. Xylitol has the special quality of helping to prevent tooth decay, and is now widely used in chewing gums.
Barley Malt and Brown Rice Syrups
Syrups made from whole grains, like malt syrup, are primarily maltose (two glucose molecules) and more complex sugars, and are only half as sweet as sucrose. The body digests the different sugars at different rates, giving whole-grain syrups a much lower glycemic index than sucrose. Although there are traces of potassium, whole grain syrups basically offer only calories, and it takes more of them to sweeten foods.
Concentrated Fruit Juice
This is a widely used ingredient in drinks, jams, and some baked goods. Fruit juice is heated, concentrated, and filtered to concentrate the sugars. This nutrient-deficient sweetener is disguised by the word "juice" and has nothing to do with frozen orange juice or and other concentrated real juices in the grocery store.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has widely replaced sucrose in processed foods and Americans consume roughly equal amounts of HFCS and sucrose. HFCS contains the same building blocks as sucrose, fructose, and glucose but they are not bonded into sucrose. Recent studies claim it is no worse than other sugars despite a correlation between a high consumption of HFCS to health problems, especially obesity and even high blood pressure. HFCS has also been found to contain mercury, which comes from chemicals used in the refining process. HFCS is made from corn and comes in several formulations, with 55% fructose/45% glucose (HFCS-55) used in beverages, and 42% fructose/58% glucose (HFCS-42) used in foods. Despite the name, the amount of fructose in HFCS is only slightly higher or lower than sucrose, depending on the formulation, but it is more highly refined. The caloric content is similar to sucrose, and it is similarly devoid of nutrients.
Lastly, HFCS is widely used in the United States because it is cheaper than sucrose, mainly due to government subsidies to U.S. corn growers, $3,975,606,299 in 2009 alone. Some companies have switched from HFCS back to sugar and marketed it as a “natural” sweetener while HFCS processors are toying with changing the name to “corn sugar.”
Honey is the oldest sweetener known to man, and continued to be the only sweetener known in Europe until crystallized cane sugar arrived in the 12th century. Honey is about the same sweetness as white sugar and does not contain significant levels of nutrients. But honey has anti-bacterial properties, which reduce infection in wounds and burns, and helps them to heal faster. Honey is also an effective cough suppressor, more effective than medicated cough syrups. Infants up to 12 months and those with undeveloped immune systems should not be given raw honey because of the chance of contracting botulism.
Raw honey contains antioxidants and beneficial bacteria. Several studies have shown honey can modestly reduce total and LDL cholesterol plus triglyceride levels in the blood, all factors in heart disease. Honey raises blood sugar levels less than refined sugar, which can help diabetics control blood sugar levels. Honey also has slightly more calories than table sugar. Honey’s glycemic index (GI) ranges widely depending on the specific honey, ranging from half that of sucrose to only slightly less.
Derived from maple tree sap, maple syrup consists primarily of sucrose and water. Two teaspoons provide 20 percent of the daily value for manganese and almost 5 percent of zinc, both important trace minerals. Maple syrup has slightly more calories than table sugar, and less than honey, but the differences are minor. Maple sugar’s glycemic index of 54 is slightly less than table sugar’s 60.
Molasses and Brown Sugar
When sugar is refined from sugar cane, it goes through three boilings to remove as much sugar as possible. What is left after the extraction of sugar is molasses. Blackstrap molasses is what is left after the third boiling, and contains significant iron, calcium, manganese, and copper, as well as lesser amounts of other nutrients. Although sugars account for most of the calories, blackstrap molasses is one of the few sweeteners that does have nutrient value. Molasses has a lower glycemic index than sucrose.
Brown sugar is table sugar with a little molasses left in, or added (3.5% for light brown to 6.5% for dark brown sugar). It therefore contains a minimal but not significant amount of nutrients from the molasses.
Stevia is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, and is 300 times sweeter than sucrose, without any of the calories. South Americans have long used the leaves of the shrub to sweeten Yerba maté tea, but stevia was first commercialized in Japan in the 1970s as an alternative to artificial sweeteners. It remains an important sweetener in Japan, with 40 percent of the sweetener market, but is not widely used elsewhere due to health concerns. It is an not FDA approved additive, though Coca-Cola/Cargill-developed derivatives of stevia have been recently approved. These derivatives are not yet used in beverages. Stevia is sold widely in the U.S. as a supplement in many health food stores, as supplements are unregulated.
The best approach to sweeteners is to use them as little as possible, and to enjoy the sweetness in whole foods instead. Added sweeteners are added calories in most cases, and should be eaten as treats, not daily in meals. This means cooking more and buying processed foods carefully, after reading and understanding the ingredient label. Total sugars on labels include both naturally-occurring sugars from whole foods, plus any added sugars. Thus unsweetened apple sauce will still have a high sugar content, but less than a sweetened apple sauce. Enjoy your cake, but only occasionally!