Sugar is probably the most addictive (legal) substance known to man, an earthly product craved by early Europeans and raved about by anyone who’s had a Coca Cola, candy bar or Krispy Krème Donut. And that is, regardless of how you feel about it, nearly everyone.
And while we’ve all heard the expression that too much of a good thing (like sugar) isn’t so good, we’ve also been told that not all sugars are equal.
So what are your choices? Which are the (kind of) good guys, which are the devil’s own delight? And hey, what about these new sweeteners we’ve all been hearing so much about lately?
First, in full disclosure, I’m neither a scientist, nutritionist, doctor nor holistic practitioner. I’m a chef.
That said, from an entirely different perspective, I also know that not all sugars are equal when it comes to their culinary uses either. This is something anyone who has switched out brown sugar for white granulated sugar in a cookie recipe can attest to.
My focus here will be on sugars you use to cook and bake with, not the ones you might use to sweeten your coffee.
Which ones are the sweetest, the tastiest and the healthiest?
I’ll break them down into three categories: Granulated (or Dry), Liquid, and The Rest.
Granulated (Dry) Sugars-The Cane Versus Beet Argument
While it’s true that both of these sugars are 99.95-percent sucrose, that minuscule extra 0.05 percent is made up of trace minerals and proteins that very subtly create differences between the two. Many professional bakers and pastry chefs swear by cane sugar for its low melting point, its ability to absorb fewer undesirable odors, its ability to blend easily into recipes, and its lower potential for foaming up when making candies and syrups. Some even say it tastes better. (They must have VERY sensitive palates!)
Whether made from sugar cane or beets, the choices include rock, coarse crystal and granulated. From there, anything finer is milled into caster (also known as superfine) and powdered (also known as 10x, confectioner’s or icing sugar). In addition to sugar, when the granules are milled, a non-caking additive (like cornstarch) is used to prevent clumping.
Generally speaking, refined white sugar is up there near the top of the list of sugars that you should avoid consuming. Unfortunately, its properties, which cream well into cake, cookie and bakery recipes, make eliminating this sugar from your diet nearly impossible, unless you’re a purist.
This is a form of partially refined brown sugar that comes with a large granular crystal structure. Demerara has natural caramel-like flavor, is a slightly healthier alternative to mill white sugar and can be used interchangeably if it is fine enough.
The trade name for this product stands for SUgar CAne NATural and is made from evaporated sugar cane juice. It is then milled into granules much the same size as white sugar, and it looks tan. Sucanat® is about 88% sucrose but retains more vitamins, minerals and other trace nutrients than those found in white, refined sugar cane. Sucanat® has a very mild molasses flavor and can be substituted 1-to-1 as a replacement for white sugar.
Brown Sugar (Light and Dark):
Because of its molasses content (which give it its color and taste), brown sugars are popular in baking and candies and are a healthier choice than refined white sugar in anything you use it for. Swapping out 100% brown sugar for white sugar in a Toll House Cookie recipe, for example, will create a chewier, thicker cookie of equal sweetness. If you like crispy edges on your cookies, you’ll need that white sugar to do it.
Similar to light or dark brown sugar, it is a moist, wet, sand-like, unrefined cane sugar with a higher content of molasses. Its additional molasses content makes it a healthier sugar choice for baking and sweetening and creates a slightly smoky aftertaste.
This is an unrefined, hard, compressed sugar from Mexico that is famously used in its custard flans. It is medium to dark brown and cone shaped. You’ll find it at Nino’s in the Exotic Produce Section. The two varieties are blanco (lighter) and oscuro (darker). Once grated, Piloncillo can be used as a substitute for dark-brown sugar.
This is a light-tan, crystallized, semi-processed cane sugar made through evaporation. It can be used as a granulated white sugar substitute in nearly every way.
This sugar comes from the sap of the (what else?) palm tree and is less sweet than milled white sugar. It’s used in some Asian recipes for its ever-so-subtle flavors of caramel, smoke and maple.
This choice is high in fiber, ground and made from dehydrated dates. Date sugar can be substituted in equal amounts in place of white or brown sugar in baking cakes, muffins and quick breads. You can also use it in place of brown sugar to make crumb toppings for pies and fruit crisps.
One of the newest and healthiest sugars on the market, it’s derived from the juices of tropical coconut palm sugar blossoms. It has a lower glycemic index than most sugars and a higher concentration of nutrients. It’s rich in minerals and B vitamins.
The Liquid Sugars (worse to first)
High Fructose Corn Syrup:
Liquid sugars range from the heinous to the sublime, with the devil’s own nectar high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) leading the way. While you won’t find it on the grocery store shelf, you WILL find it in products ranging from mayonnaise to jams, juices, jellies, breakfast cereal and baked goods. Amazingly, even supposedly healthy foods like yogurt and nutrition bars can have high fructose corn syrup in them.
The basic problem with high fructose corn syrup is that the body processes it in such a way that it is said to cause a metabolic change in hormones that stimulate your liver to release more fat into the bloodstream and create urges to want to eat even more, storing more and more fat as the spiral continues. It’s safe to say avoid it if you can.
Brings very little nutritional value to the table, but it’s nearly as detrimental as HFCS. It’s not as sweet as many liquid sugars and it doesn’t crystallize when it cools, so it is often added as an ingredient in dessert sauces and candies.
This is made from the sugary juice extracted from the stalks of the Sorghum plant, which looks similar to corn stalks without the tassels. It’s high in iron, calcium and potassium and can replace any other liquid syrup in recipes including corn syrup, honey, maple syrup and molasses.
Well, it doesn’t taste like tequila, but it comes from the very same plant, whose fibrous leaves and core are VERY sweet. Honey-like, sweet, sticky and syrupy, it’s the perfect honey substitute for vegans, with a bonus of a glycemic index less than half that of honey. Agave nectar doesn’t crystallize and has a long shelf life. Its sweetness is the same as honey and maple syrup, so you can use it in equal amounts.
Barley Malt Syrup:
Primarily maltose (a complex sugar), this dark, sticky liquid sugar has a molasses-like quality but not its taste. Its malty taste is less sweet than honey, but it’s primarily used in recipes where you might have otherwise used molasses or honey.
Brown Rice Syrup:
Made from brown starch converted into maltose (a complex sugar), rice syrup is the mildest-flavored of the liquid sweeteners and contains trace amounts of B vitamins and minerals. Use it interchangeably with honey or agave in cooking and baking.
Mainly sucrose (a simple sugar), maple syrup contains several trace minerals plus measurable amounts of calcium and iron. It’s also, along with honey, one of the BEST-tasting liquid sugars going. As such, look for ones labeled “pure” and graded Fancy or Grade A. Apart from its favored use as a topping for pancakes, maple syrup can be used successfully in baking and to add a delectable flavor to puddings.
Molasses is one of the most beneficial sugars on the market because of its mineral content, and its dark color is due to the richness from the sugar cane. Molasses is high in calcium, magnesium and iron. It could cure depression, anxiety and related nervous disorders as well as such chronic ailments as arthritis, rheumatism, tumors and fibroids. Based on this information, molasses is also utilized as an energy booster as well as a natural laxative. It is good for breads, cookies and baked ham because it adds aroma, texture, flavor and color.
Honey is primarily glucose (a simple sugar), but it does contain trace amounts of some B vitamins and many minerals. The darker the honey, the more nutrients it contains. More importantly, honey, especially raw honey, has many antiviral, antioxidant and immune-boosting properties. As sugars go, you get an extra bang for your buck here.
About 1/2 cup honey equals the sweetness of 1 cup of sugar. Use it as a general-purpose sweetener for hot beverages, in smoothies, and for cooking and baking. In baking, reduce the amount of liquid called for, and lower the oven temperature by about 25 degrees.
And as for the rest…
The “rest” are sugars with mostly controversial histories and stories, some still yet to be decided. Here is where you really have to rely on scientists, nutritionists, doctors or holistic practitioners to figure this whole thing out. I, for one, avoid all of them because, well, I can.
Aspartame is a low-calorie sweetener that’s common in diet soda. It’s published that it causes side effects ranging from joint discomfort to vision problems. Or you can choose to be overweight, I guess, which has consequences of its own.
is a no calorie sweetener called sucralose. The Splenda Company, through its website, advertises that Splenda® reduces sugar in particular diets, controls calories to maintain body weight, and controls consumption of carbohydrates in order to help manage diabetes.
Stevia is zero-calorie sugar derived from the leaves of a plant native to Paraguay. The FDA has approved it as a dietary supplement, but not as a sweetener. It’s a greenish powder 30 times sweeter than sugar! Stevia imparts huge sweetness, with a faint liquorish undertone that is an issue for some. It can be used in beverages and baked goods. Of these three, to me, it’s the best of the bunch.