You’ve seen the bags and bottles on the grocery shelves in the natural food section: coconut sugar, palm sugar, Sucanat, turbinado sugar, rapidura, date sugar, agave nectar, Stevia, rice syrup.
They’re in the health section, and some do promise health benefits and a lower glycemic index, but are they really better than regular table sugar?
Considering all the choices out there, Boston Baby Nurse compiled a guide on some popular natural sweeteners to help parents decide for themselves:
Coconut Sugar, Palm Sugar
When coconut sugar first hit the marketplace, many thought they had found sugar nirvana. It doesn’t spike blood sugar levels as much as table sugar – it offers vitamins and minerals – and it tastes great in morning coffee! A miracle, right?
The Big However – it’s still a sugar. And its data is sometimes conflicting, especially about just how much fructose it contains – some say as much as sugar, some say as little as 2%. But it also contains a trace amount of vitamins and minerals: iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. The low-down? You’d have to eat an awful lot of coconut sugar to receive any serious benefits, and more research needs to happen to learn its true fructose content, but the lower glycemic index of these sugars makes some people say that they don’t feel that same “low blood sugar feeling” after having coconut sugar.
What exactly is coconut sugar and palm sugar? Both are collected as sap, and, like North American maple syrup, the sap is then boiled in enormous vats to create either a sugar paste or rock-like chunks of sugar. Coconut sugar is often confused with palm sugar, which is similar but made from a different type of palm tree. Coconut Sugar is made from the coconut palm tree, the same tree that grows coconuts for other purposes (the “cocos nucifera” tree). Just plain palm sugar may be made from the same coconut tree, or it may be made from one of two other varieties of palm trees that also make a sweet nectar (the Palmyra/Borassus palm tree or Aren palm tree).
The other thing that makes people so pleased with both palm sugar and coconut sugar is the prebiotic fiber called inulin, which may slow glucose absorption and explains why these sugars have a lower glycemic index than table sugar.
However, if your children have gotten used to regular table sugar in baking, it’s a tough sell. Both sugars have a subtle, molasses-y taste that may or may not appeal to the younger set.
Sucanat is a brand name for whole cane sugar that retains the molasses content. The name is actually a contraction: Sucre de canne naturel (sugar cane natural). It is essentially pure dried sugar cane juice. The juice is extracted by mechanical processes, heated and cooled. It forms small (fine) brown grainy crystals that are crystalized. They crunch between your teeth.
The sugar itself comes in different names depending on what country it was grown in. Latin America has Panela, Brazil has Rapadura, the Philippines has Muscovado, and Jaggery can be found in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. These products contain much of the molasses that would otherwise be removed in the refining process, giving them a strong flavor and keeping the vitamins and minerals intact, unlike traditional brown sugar.
Turbinado is similar to Sucanat in that it retains a molasses flavor. Turbinado (raw) sugar is made from the initial pressing of sugar cane and its crystals comes out as beige. Since it’s pulled out before the processing is complete, more of the natural molasses remains in the crystals. (Whereas in regular brown sugar, a thin layer of molasses is added back after processing.) If you’re wondering about calories, brown sugar and Turbinado sugar do rank a little lower than white cane sugar, but this is largely because they carry more moisture.
For baked goods, both Turbinado and Sucanat can be used in place of white sugar. However, you might not want to sprinkle Turbinado as a garnish, say on a sugar cookie; the crystals are too crunchy. You can use both as a sweetener with teas and coffees, but Turbinado needs more time to dissolve. Keep stirring.
Add this information to your Sugar Cane IQ: In the U.K., Turbinado is often referred to as demerara. And rapadura is occasionally confused with these types, but has its own nutritional profile and flavor. Unlike the others, rapadura is dehydrated at a low heat and is not separated from molasses. Sucanat, for example, is later recombined with molasses.
Some bakers really love date sugar and will use it in place of brown sugar. Date sugar is dehydrated dates ground into crystals. The crystals resemble a dry version of brown sugar (no moisture in date sugar). It adds a rich sweetness to recipes, although it will not dissolve when added to drinks. It also does not melt like granulated sugar, which can limit its use.
However, dates contain fiber, vitamins like B-complex and A and C, and 15 minerals including potassium, magnesium and iron. (Kid-friendly sweet snack or what?) None of the nutrition is lost during the dehydration and grinding into sugar. Interestingly, date sugar doesn’t offer a particular flavor, as in molasses, just a natural sweetness. For baking, substitute 1 cup of granulated white sugar for 2/3 cup of date sugar.
This thick syrup is actually 25 percent sweeter than table sugar, so use less of it. Most varieties are made from the core of the blue agave plant and, like most sweeteners, it contains fructose. This alone makes some leery of agave, but if you need a sweetener for liquids that dissolves well, and aren’t a fan of honey, then agave is the way to go. According to American Diabetes Association, agave nectar has about the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as sugar but is lower on the glycemic index. Agave nectar won’t spike your blood sugar as much as white sugar.
Like coconut sugar, it came out of the gate with a bit of a halo in the natural food community, and it has since lost some of that sparkle due to the spotlight on all its fructose. But it’s supposed to contain a type of dietary fiber, a prebiotic, that nourishes intestinal bacteria. Note that many agave nectar recipes contain 70 to 80 percent fructose, which is more than what’s in high-fructose corn syrup. A little goes a long way here.
When cooking, remember that 3/4 cup adds the same sweetness as 1 cup sugar, and you’ll have to adjust the oven temperature by 25 degrees to avoid overbrowning.
Who doesn’t love honey? It’s actually a go-to sweetener for coffee in South American countries and can be substituted in a recipe that calls for agave (though the finished product may not be “as sweet.”) This familiar kitchen staple offers antioxidants and some say it is good for the heart and lowers cholesterol. But even with all this good stuff, honey is still considered a refined sugar. Unheated and unfiltered (raw) honey contains propolis and pollen as well as B vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Honey is wonderful in baking but should not be eaten by children under two.
In all, honey comes in about 300 different kinds, from clover to wildflower to blueberry to buckwheat. Obviously, the darker honeys will have more nutrients and will be more flavorful. It’s great to sweeten a green smoothie (as are plain dates), and can be used to make a quick-in-a-hurry salad dressing: 1/3 cup honey, 1/3 cup yellow mustard, 1/3 cup grapeseed oil (or another kind of oil). Mix well with a whisk, and offer it on the side for chicken nuggets, too! Keep in mind, if baking with honey, the same advice goes as for agave and molasses: lower the oven temp by 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning.
Molasses is a by-product of sugarcane processing and offers about 15 percent of the daily iron requirement for premenopausal women, as well as vitamin B6, magnesium, calcium, and more antioxidants than any other natural sweetener. Have you ever made a spice cookie? Spice cookies, or spice breads, often use molasses, as well as old-fashioned recipes for Boston Baked Beans. Because of its strong flavor, which some people love, it’s not a clean swap for table sugar, but keep on hand the organic kind and you’ll find yourself using it more and more. It’s heavy on the calorie content, but blackstrap molasses is rich in iron, potassium and calcium, making it a healthier choice.
Barley Malt and Rice Syrup
Barley Malt is made from soaked and sprouted barley, which is dried and cooked down to make a thick syrup. Barley malt is a low-grade sweetener that’s slowly digested and gentler on blood sugar levels than other sweeteners. Rice syrup is made in almost the same way, and is usually a combination of rice and barley. Some of the yummiest Chai teas are sweetened with rice syrup, with deep and earthy results.
Stevia, the best for last?
The big scoop on Stevia is that it offers zero calories and offers no fructose, no sucrose. It comes from the South American stevia plant and is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, so use much less. It does not cause a spike in glucose levels. Hands down, this makes the grade in terms of what’s best for our bodies.
The downside: Some people really can’t get used to stevia when in a liquid especially, for example, morning coffee, and some brands do have a licorice aftertaste. However, if mixed with another natural sweetener, say coconut sugar, its flavor is satisfyingly sweet in baking. Baking note: for each ½ cup of sugar removed, use 3½ Tablespoons of stevia. Trying to get pregnant? Talk with your doctor about stevia and see what she has to say.