by Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Co-op Food and Nutrition Educator
Added sugars in the foods we eat supply simple, quickly digested carbohydrates which the body transforms into energy. Ask any long distance runner or cyclist how they would fare without them! But in excess, they can add empty calories to our eating plan. As in all things nutritional, it is important to know what you are eating and to balance small servings of sugary fun foods with the greater emphasis on the foods that support good health. Sugar can be even enjoyed by people with diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, the key to keeping your blood glucose levels on target is to substitute small portions of sweets and sweeteners for other carbohydrate-containing foods in your meals and snacks.
Studies have found that the main contributors of added sugars in our diet are soda and energy/sports drinks, baked desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, and candy. In an average 2,000 calorie diet, the usual added sugars intake for adults is 20 teaspoons a day (about 80 grams). Compare this with the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommendation of no more than eight teaspoons of added sugars a day (about 30 grams).
Moderation and awareness is the key. Did you know that a 12-ounce can of regular soda contains 35 grams of sugar? That’s nine teaspoons– just about all of the added sugar you should have in a day. So having one can as your daily treat could fit into a healthy diet, but having it as your beverage of choice, several times a day, will bust your sugar budget.
Of course, one could totally avoid added sugars and fare very well. Added sugars are not a necessary nutrient. But most of us enjoy an occasional or even daily treat and in small amounts this adds a lot of fun and flavor into our day.
Is one kind of sugar better than another? Nutritionally, all sugars provide simple carbohydrates, but molasses also contains an appreciable amount of iron. Regular molasses has about one milligram of iron per tablespoon; blackstrap has about three milligrams. The Daily Value for iron is 18 milligrams. Fructose would be ok for someone with diabetes because it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels, but in excess it can raise triglycerides levels, with is unhealthy for your heart. The rest of the sugars, even in raw form, have such negligible amounts of trace minerals that it is not worth considering them as a nutrient source.
The best sweet treat you can eat- fruit! Loaded with vitamin C and other nutrients, and providing fiber as well, getting your sugar from whole fruit is the best choice.
Here are some facts you may not have known about these popular sugars and sweeteners. One thing they all have in common is that they contain simple carbohydrates and have no other appreciable nutrients, except for molasses.
Agave nectar is a highly processed type of sugar from the Agave tequiliana (tequila) plant. It is mostly made up of glucose and fructose sugars. Agave nectar is about one and a half times sweeter than regular sugar. Agave nectar or syrup ranges from 90% to as little as 55% fructose (similar to high-fructose corn syrup), depending on the processing.
Barley malt syrup is grain syrup processed from sprouted barley. People who must avoid gluten must avoid products made with wheat, barley and rye, so barley malt syrup is off limits.
Brown sugar is made from the sugar crystals from molasses syrup. Dark brown sugar has a deeper color and stronger molasses flavor than light brown sugar. Brown sugar tends to clump because it contains more moisture than white sugar.
Caster sugar/castor sugar very finely granulated sugar that was formerly sprinkled from a castor (a bottle with a perforated top for sprinkling sugar, etc., or a stand containing such bottles)
Confectioner’s sugar (powdered sugar) is granulated sugar that has been ground to a smooth powder and then sifted. It contains about 3% cornstarch to prevent caking.
Corn syrup is a processed sweetener made from corn. Corn syrup is about 80 to 85% maltose, dextrin, dextrose, and other polysaccharides and 15% to 20% glucose.
Demerara sugar is a light brown sugar with large golden crystals, which are slightly sticky from the adhering molasses. It is popular in England, often used in tea, coffee, or on top of hot cereals.
Evaporated Cane Juice is the common name for the cane-based sweetener produced directly from milled cane using a single-crystallization process. The filtered, clarified juice is evaporated into syrup, crystallized and cured. This free flowing sweetener has a light golden color and retains a hint of molasses flavor because there is no further processing.
Fructose (fruit sugar) is the naturally occurring sugar in all fruits. It is also called levulose. Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, which also contain other sugars. Modest amounts of fructose do not boost blood glucose levels, making the sweetener attractive to diabetics. However, large amounts increase triglyceride levels in the blood, along with the risk for heart disease.
High fructose corn syrup- a highly refined sugar made from corn.
The name “high-fructose corn syrup” is not very accurate. It is high only in relation to regular corn syrup, not to sugar: Table sugar is 50% fructose and 50% glucose High-fructose corn syrup has roughly the same make-up as table sugar. Most HFCS is 42 percent or 55 percent fructose, the remainder is glucose.
Honey is a combination of fructose, glucose, and water, which bees produce from plant nectar. On average, honey is nearly 20% water, and contains about 40% fructose, 30% glucose and 1% sucrose. The remainder is a mixture of other sugars and minute traces of naturally present acids, vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Honey’s flavor depends on the source (clover, orange blossom, sage, etc) of nectar. (Warning: Don’t feed honey to babies who are less than one year old—it may cause infant botulism.
Invert sugar is a sugar that is made by dividing sucrose into its two parts: glucose and fructose in a process called inversion. Invert sugar is used mainly by food manufacturers to retard the crystallization of sugar and to retain moisture in the packaged food. Home cooks make invert sugar whenever a recipe calls for a sugar to be boiled gently in a mixture of water and lemon juice.
Jaggery is a tan, unrefined sugar that is common in India. It’s made from the sap of palm trees or sugar cane. It’s often sold in solid cakes.
Maple syrup is the mixture of sugars formed when the sap of sugar maple trees is boiled down to thick syrup. Maple sugar contains about 33% water and 60% sucrose. The remainder is a mixture of glucose, other sugars and minute traces of naturally present acids, minerals and some B-vitamins.
Molasses is the thick, dark brown, uncrystallized juice obtained from raw sugar during the refining process. It is a by-product of the processing of sugar cane or sugar beets into sugar. After the juice is extracted it is boiled until the water evaporates and the syrup remains. This substance is then put into a centrifuge in order to separate the raw sugar crystals from the syrup, and what is left is the molasses.
The results of this first boiling and removal of sugar crystals is called light molasses, this type has the highest sugar content (since comparatively little sugar has been extracted from the juice).
Dark molasses comes from the second boiling and sugar extraction and is used to flavor sweets (such as shoofly pie and gingerbread) and baked beans and sauces, like barbecue sauce. Light and dark molasses can generally be used interchangeably.
The third boiling of the sugar syrup creates blackstrap molasses, which is very dark and thick and has a strong, bitter flavor. Blackstrap is also used in the manufacture of livestock feed.
Sulfured molasses is made from young green sugar cane and is treated with sulfur dioxide fumes, which act as a preservative during the sugar extraction process. Unsulfured varieties can be made from more mature raw materials, and the juice is clarified as it is processed.
Muscovado sugar is a British specialty brown sugar. It is very dark brown and has a particularly strong molasses flavor. The crystals are slightly coarser and stickier in texture than “regular” brown sugar.
Raw sugar is the nearly pure sugar crystals covered by a thin film of molasses. Raw sugar is granulated, solid, or coarse, and is brown in color. It forms when the moisture from the juice of the sugar cane evaporates. It has been clarified to remove non-sugar plant materials like wax, fats, and gums from the juice, and then concentrated by removing water to protect the sugar from caramelization. It is then crystallized-by evaporating the last portion of water under very tight controls in a vacuum pan. The mixture is spun and dried; yielding raw sugar that is approximately 96-98% sucrose.
Rice syrup is composed mainly of simple sugars, glucose, maltose and maltotriose. It tastes about half as sweet as table sugar. There is some concern for those who regularly consume large quantities of rice products that the naturally occurring arsenic in some of these products may be problematic. For more information, see links at end of this article.
Sucanat (Sugar Cane Natural) is a brand name for organic evaporated sugar cane juice. According to the producer, it is made by extracting the juice and heating it in a large vat. Once the juice is reduced to rich, dark syrup, it is hand-paddled. Hand paddling cools and dries the syrup, creating the dry porous granules.
Sucrose (table sugar) also known as cane sugar, granulated sugar, sugar, white sugar, sucrose, and refined sugar. It is made up of glucose and fructose and is extracted from either sugar beets or sugar cane. Cane sugar and beet sugar are identical in chemistry and quality. Some cane sugar is processed using a by-product of animal bones, so some vegetarians prefer beet sugar to cane. Manufacturers don’t always specify whether their product is beet sugar or cane sugar.
Turbinado sugar This sugar is raw sugar which has been partially processed, where only the surface molasses has been washed off.
Zucker hut (sugar hat) is a traditional German treat. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, Germans pour rum over these sugar cones and ignite them to make feuerzangebowle, or fire tong punch.
The Cook’s Thesaurus. Sugars. http://www.foodsubs.com/Sweeten.html Accessed 6/25/12
MedlinePlus. Sweeteners – sugars. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002444.htm Accessed 6/25/12
WebMD. Is Agave Healthier Than Sugar? www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-truth-about-agave Accessed 6/25/12
The Sugar Association. Types of Sugar http://www.sugar.org/sugar-basics/types-of-sugar.html Accessed 6/25/12
Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. An Overview of Florida Sugarcane SS-AGR-232, http://hendry.ifas.ufl.edu/pdfs/overview_of_florida_sugarcane.pdf Accessed 6/25/12
New World Encyclopedia Molasses. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Molasses&oldid=956697. Accessed 6/25/12