When it comes to selecting your ingredient of choice to satisfy your sweet tooth, the options can seem a bit tricky and confusing. From tried and true favorites to this year’s sweetener of the season, each sugar has had its turn to be celebrated or scrutinized in the media spotlight. This simple guide highlights the basics of sugar selection to help you decide which sweetener is just right for your next holiday baking adventure. 

A note on sugar: Before we discuss the differences between the most popular forms of sweeteners, let’s define what sugar really is. You have probably heard of glucose (most commonly known as our blood sugar), as well as fructose (commonly associated with fruit or high fructose corn syrup), and you may not have heard of galactose (a sugar found in dairy and various sweeteners). These three sugars are important because these sugars are the end product after digesting carbohydrates. They are the single sugar molecules that make up all of our sweeteners (besides artificial ones), and carbohydrates. In this article, we are exclusively focusing on simple sugars, which are largely made up of glucose and fructose. In this respect, sugar is sugar. What sets one sugar apart from the other is the composition of the sugar (how much glucose? how much fructose?) and if it delivers more than just calories and sweetness. 

Types of Sugars – There Are More Than You Think

Granulated Sugars. These are the familiar white and brown sugars, which have had a place in the family baking cupboard for generations. What is commonly known as table sugar, those in the nutrition realm call sucrose, and is composed of equal parts fructose and glucose. Other forms of sucrose include plain white sugar, turbinado sugar, evaporated cane juice, and all of the light to dark varieties of brown sugar. Most often used for confections such as cakes and cookies, refined white and brown sugars have essentially been stripped of all nutrients and provide a calorie-dense, flavorless source of sweetness at an inexpensive cost. 

Alternative/Natural Sweeteners. These are unrefined granulated sugars that still contain some vitamins and minerals. They can include palm sugar, date sugar, coconut sugar, and succanat (unrefined cane sugar). Palm sugar and coconut sugar are made from the sap of their trees, which is then dehydrated forming a crystallized version of their sugar. Date sugar is made using dehydrated dates, which are then ground until it has a sugar-like consistency. Coconut and palm sugar are lower on the glycemic index, as they are composed of a lower amount of glucose. They also deliver small amounts of potassium, calcium, magnesium, and B vitamins. Date sugar is relatively high in potassium. 

Liquid Sweeteners. The liquid varieties generally include honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar. Honey and maple syrup offer a moist and soft quality to baked goods and tend to retain more of the natural trace minerals when purchased locally and organically. Furthermore, they contribute a rich taste and depth to recipes in ways that other sugars simply cannot. Agave nectar is processed using heat or fungus, which means most of its nutrients are stripped by the time it reaches a bottle. When using liquid sweeteners it is best to stick with honey or maple syrup. 

SN Tip: When replacing granulated sugars with liquid sweeteners, reduce the amount by ¼ cup.

Artificial Sweeteners. These include Aspartame (Equal, Nutrasweet), Acesulfame-K (Sunett, Sweet One), Saccharin (Sweet’N’Low), and Sucralose (Splenda), and Stevia. Artificial sweeteners are controversial, especially when it comes to the long-term impacts on our bodies. They are used widely in the food and beverage world as low-calorie/no-calorie sweeteners that deliver ultra-sweet flavor in small amounts. They can be up to 20,000 times sweeter than regular granulated sugar, which means that our taste buds are getting blasted with sweetness when consuming products with artificial sweeteners. Though these can potentially be beneficial to blood sugar regulation, they certainly do not decrease our cravings for sugar. Research on the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners is still growing and it is recommended that you consume these sweeteners in moderation. If you experience any symptoms after consuming these sweeteners it is best to avoid them. If you are unsure, this is a great reason to talk to a nutritionist! 

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The center of many sugar debates. Fructose is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, and starches. Fructose is about 150% as sweet as glucose and is much cheaper to make, due to the ability to enzymatically convert glucose into fructose using mass-produced corn. HFCS contains about 55% fructose and has been associated with many health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and cancer development. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American consumes 83 pounds of HFCS per year. HFCS is used to sweeten snacks and drinks that are high in calories, fat, and salt, and are devoid of nutrients. This combination creates an addicting food product that can easily be over-consumed, contributing to weight gain, lack of energy, and many other health complications. 

Fresh fruit, on the other hand, is a low-calorie, nutrient-dense food filled with fiber and water that may suppress appetite and help control the amount that is eaten per serving, while also providing amazing health benefits to support the immune system, digestion, and weight loss. Check out Starkel Nutrition’s recipe database to find many fruit-centric sweet treats!   

Sugar in and of itself is not a bad guy.  Having a sweet treat every once in a while is a normal part of a diet. You deserve the freedom to enjoy a piece of chocolate cake at a friend’s birthday party or eat a donut if a coworker brings a dozen in for the office. What is important to consider is how much sugar you have and how often, and if that intake serves your well-being. Excessive intake of simple sugars is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases, like diabetes, hyperlipidemia, heart disease, Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver disease, and other inflammatory conditions. If you need help sorting out your relationship with sugar or need support in reducing your refined sugar intake, consider talking to one of our nutrition experts!

Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with us to get support on your future journey to body and mind health.

Written by the Starkel Nutrition team.