The Best “Natural” Sweetener

By now, we’ve all seen the headlines. Sugar is “toxic.”It’s more addictive than cocaine. It may be the real cause behind America’s obesity epidemic.

But it’s one thing to demonize an ingredient and it’s another to make food choices that actually make a difference.

Too busy to read the whole article? [3500 words, a 17-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Many sugars marketed as “raw” or less processed than white sugar have essentially no nutritional benefit.
  • There is also no benefit (and sometimes harm) to products sweetened with “evaporated cane juice,” “cane sugar,” or “dehydrated fruit juice.”
  • Honey shows the most promise of being superior to sugar, but health benefits may depend on the source of the honey.
  • Brown rice syrup also shows some promise, but I couldn’t find nutritional studies comparing it to normal sugar. It does, however, taste really good.

Why is it so hard to get a straight story on sugar? In 2009, Dr. Robert Lustig, a medical doctor and obesity researcher recorded a strongly-worded condemnation of sugar as a toxic drug and one of the main causes of obesity in the United States.

Since then, multiple public controversies have raged, targeting High Fructose Corn Syrup, the size of soft drinks in New York, and serving chocolate milk to children. And as public consciousness of the dangers of sweeteners have grown, so too has the market for alternative sweeteners. Large corporations are desperate to find and bring to market the “miracle” sweetener that can deliver all the taste of sugar without any of its unfortunate consequences.

For the same of clarity, I’m splitting this topic off into two separate articles. This first one focuses on “natural” sweeteners like different types of sugar, honey, and other sweeteners extracted from plants. The second article finds the best nonnutritive substitute for sugar.

Both articles ask two simple questions:

Is any sweetener really “healthy?” Or at least better than refined white sugar?

Let’s cut straight to the point:

The Best Sugar Substitute in Most Cases:

Just use sugar.

<$1 per pound

 

Why am I saying that sugar is the best sugar? Isn’t this sort of obvious? Hear me out.

When looking at sugar substitutes, I considered three factors.

#1: Is it better than sugar, nutritionally? Sugar substitutes can be better than sugar in two major ways: by containing beneficial vitamins and nutrients and by having less negative impact on metabolism. For example, honey contains beneficial vitamins; another example: molasses has significantly less impact on blood sugar than refined sugar does.

#2: Can the substitute actually be substituted for sugar? As it turns out, blackstrap molasses contains many healthy nutrients. It also tastes terrible and makes a miserable substitute for sugar. For something to be a good substitute, it should taste clean and sweet, and not like much of anything else.

#3: Price. Can I actually afford to use this stuff on a regular basis?

With those factors considered, plain old sugar won out. There simply wasn’t a substitute for it that was clearly better in all ways. There are, however, two very good runners up: honey and brown rice syrup, which I’ll discuss a little later. But let’s first dispel some myths about what sugar really is and why premium sugars are a waste of money.

A quick technical primer

Sorry to do this to you guys, but after writing the rest of this article, I thought it’d be helpful to start by explaining a few terms. The word “sugar” actually refers to more than just table sugar. All sugars are a type of carbohydrate. In the context of food, carbohydrates are a form of macronutrient eaten by many as a primary source of energy (the other macronutrients are proteins and fats). They are the primary constituent of flour-based foods such as pasta and bread, as well as of most vegetables.

Chemically, the term carbohydrate is synonymous with “saccharide.” There are four types of saccharides: mono-, di-, oligo-, and poly- saccharides. For our purposes, the term “sugar” refers to monosaccharides and disaccharides only. And that means the term “simple sugar” is essentially saying the same thing as “sugar,” since simple sugars include only mono- and disaccharides.

Monosaccharides are the most basic form of carbohydrates. Whereas we digest polysaccharides and disaccharides into simpler sugars, monosaccharides do not need to be further digested to be used. There are five monosaccharides, the most important of which for our purposes are glucose and fructose.

  • Glucose has many important functions in the body, from providing energy to the muscles to serving in the production of other important compounds, such as protein and vitamin C (asorbic acid). When people talk about “blood sugar,” they really mean “blood glucose”. A healthy level of glucose in the blood keeps the brain and body functioning optimally. Too little glucose can cause an energy crash, while excess glucose can thicken the blood, increasing the risk of heart problems.
  • Fructose is the sweetest naturally-occurring form of sugar and is prevalent in many fruits. Like glucose, fructose is an important enabler of metabolic functions.

Disaccharides are simply two monosaccharides bonded together. Disaccharides must generally be digested before entering the blood stream. Specific enzymes are responsible for the digestion of each disaccharide. The names of these enzymes are easy to remember: simply replace “ose” in the disaccharide with “ase” (sucrose/sucrase, lactose/lactase, etc.) , and you get the name of the enzyme. There are five disaccharides, the most important of which is sucrose.

  • Sucrose is just common table sugar. Chemically, sucrose is one glucose molecule bonded to one fructose molecule. Sucrose digestion is enabled by the enzyme sucrase. Sucrase is secreted by glands in the small intestine, so breakdown of sucrose begins in the small intestine, almost immediately after it passes the stomach. Once sucrose is cleaved into fructose and glucose, these monosaccharides enter the blood stream through the walls of the small intestine. 1

Next, we’ll look at some of the various types of sugar and try to figure out if any are better than normal sugar from a nutrition perspective.

Sugars processed from sugarcane

Most of us know sugar as small white granules, easily stirred into recipes or sprinkled over a plate. Most sugar around the world is made from either sugarcane or sugar beet, but mostly sugarcane. To make sugar, producers crush the sugar plants in large machines to extract their juice. The juice is then boiled to remove water and to promote the crystallization of sugar. Sugar extracted at this point is raw sugar and should have a dark, moist appearance and deep molasses flavor.

However, the term “raw sugar” doesn’t really mean much—many producers claim to produce raw sugar while their actual manufacturing methods vary significantly. The well-known sweetener brand “In The Raw®” clearly explains that its sugar products are actually Turbinado sugar, sugars that have been centrifuged to further dry them and remove plant impurities.2

Both turbinado sugars and Demerera sugars are centrifuged and have a golden, granulated appearance and a slight taste of molasses.

A few sugars are less processed than turbinado and demerera. Muscovado, Rapadura, Panela, and Sucanat Sugars—area all extracted from cane juice without a centrifuge. Either way, they look and taste the most like molasses and will also contain the largest concentration of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals. Depending on the processing method used, they will also contain more complex carbohydrates than more refined sugars.

These types of sugars are arguably the most “healthy” of sugars, but the ratio of simple sugar to beneficial nutrients is still so high that you might as well think of them as sugar.3 When considering them as a sugar substitute, the negligible health benefits they offer couldn’t offset the increased cost and difference in taste over normal sugar.

Up to this point, I’ve mentioned Molasses, but I haven’t actually explained what it is. When sugar cane juice is boiled and granulated sugar is extracted what remains is molasses. The first processing of molasses typically results in a product with higher sugar content, so high that it is sometimes marketed as “golden cane syrup” rather than as molasses.4 The second and third processing of cane juice results in molasses containing less sugar and more residual vitamins and minerals. The most processed molasses sold in the United States is “blackstrap molasses” and is usually marketed as a health supplement rather than as a sweetener because it has a strong taste.

Although blackstrap molasses could have nutritional benefits as a supplement, it really doesn’t make sense to use it as a direct substitute for sugar. It’d be like comparing apples to apple cider.

The two most well-known sugars on the market are white sugar and brown sugar. To make white sugar, raw sugar that has been centrifuged from cane juice is repeatedly dissolved into water, evaporated, and centrifuged. Each time the sugar runs through this process, more impurities are removed and a more pure sugar results.

Once the sugar is sufficiently cleaned, it is processed with either sulphur dioxide or carbon dioxide to whiten it. Any sugar that is labeled as “unbleached” is simply processed sugar that hasn’t been treated for whitening. Brown sugar, though it might look similar to a raw sugar, is actually just white sugar that has had molasses added back in. Although brown sugar may contain some trace minerals and fiber as a result, like the raw sugars discussed above, the impact will be negligible.

The term organic sugar means relatively little from a nutritional standpoint. USDA organic guidelines don’t allow chemical processing, organic sugar cannot be be treated for whiteness. That, and organic sugar has to come from sugarcane that has been grown in accordance with USDA organic guidelines, which do not allow certain pesticides.

In theory, there should be less risk that pesticides used in the growth of sugar cane would make it into a final sugar product if you buy organic sugar. But, it seems unlikely that pesticides would actually make it into any sugar, given how much sugar is processed. Either way, I haven’t found any studies that further explore the topic.

One final annoyance: labels that boast cane sugar or evaporated cane juice. Both of these are nothing more than plain table sugar. Ideally, evaporated cane juice would be the least processed of all sugars and have a dark, clumpy appearance as shown in the above picture. However, there is no actual regulation of these terms on nutrition labels and many companies use the terms to describe sugar that is for all practical purposes no different from processed white sugar. Remember? Because technically all sugar begins as evaporated cane juice at some point.5

Maybe some companies are legitimately trying to use a better sugar (even though we’ve established it doesn’t really matter), but there’s just no way of knowing for sure.

Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

As sugar has developed a bad reputation, many products have sprung up to replace it on supermarket shelves. Here are some of the more well-known.

Let’s start by talking about corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Corn is high in glucose and when you cook it down and purify its sugar, you end up with a syrup made almost entirely of glucose. In fact, in the United States, all glucose syrup is essentially corn syrup and can be labeled with either name.6 In other countries, glucose syrup might be made from other sources. Glucose syrup makes a poor sweetener by itself; it is less sweet than sucrose while delivering more calories. It’s more often used to give baked goods texture and moisture.

High fructose corn syrup has been widely antagonized in recent years. To make high fructose corn syrup, producers add fructose to glucose syrup to create a product that is approximately 45% glucose and 55% fructose. This syrup has almost the exact same glucose-to-fructose ratio as sucrose. And that, in essence, has been the corn lobby’s argument against the anti-HFCS movement: as far as the body is concerned, HFCS and plain table sugar are functionally equivalent.

Here’s the history:

  • 2004: Researchers link HFCS availability in the U.S. food system to increased obesity7
  • 2007: An expert panel reviews the available literature on HFCS and finds no significant difference compared to sucrose. 8
  • 2008: HFCS and sucrose shown to have essentially identical short-term metabolic effects.9
  • 2009: More researchers fail to identify a reason why HFCS might be worse for health than sucrose.10
  • 2010: Researchers publish an article arguing that rats fed HFCS gain more weight than rats fed an equivalent amount of sucrose. 11
  • 2010: Marion Nestle quickly finds flaws with the rat study and writers stop touting it as conclusive evidence of HFCS’s evils.12

The takeaway? There’s no significant difference between high fructose corn syrup and sucrose. And that’s not just my opinion after reading a few articles. An excellent 2010 article from the Atlantic13 as well as a more recent 2013 analysis of the HFCS debate both came to that same conclusion. In fact, to quote the 2013 study, “the scientific debate related to the initially proposed link between HFCS and the obesity epidemic has been largely settled.”14

“the scientific debate related to the initially proposed link between HFCS and the obesity epidemic has been largely settled”

But with all that being said, that doesn’t mean that HFCS is good for you, it’s just about equally as bad as plain old sugar, which is basically what the corn industry has been saying all along.

Some other syrups, however, claim to actually be healthier than sugar itself.

Sweeteners extracted from other plants

Agave syrup is made from agave plants—the same plants used in the production of tequila. A few years ago, agave syrup started finding room on American store shelves because some science suggested it might be healthier than sucrose. The basic argument goes like this: agave naturally contains a higher percentage of fructose than glucose or sucrose. Since fructose is sweeter than sucrose, you can use less agave nectar (and thus fewer calories) to achieve the same sweetness. On top of that, fructose doesn’t directly affect glucose levels in the blood, which means that it does not register as high on the glycemic index.

Since agave was introduced to the market, most medical professionals have reached agreement that fructose may have worse long-term effects on health than sucrose does alone.1516

One  more problem with agave syrup: marketers would have you believe that agave syrup comes from inside the plant’s leaves, or that it is extracted from nectar. In reality, farmers harvest the thick, woody base of the plants and cook them to convert the complex carbohydrate inulin into fructose.17 Verdict: far from being a healthy alternative to sugar, agave syrup may actually be worse for the body than both sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

For a truly natural sweetener, look no further than honey. Bees actually do make honey from the nectar of flowers. They then use the thick syrup as a form of energy storage, a way to keep the bee colony fed through long winter months when no flowers are in bloom. Honey doesn’t need to be further processed for human consumption; it naturally resists microbial growth and spoilage.

honey

Honey is one of the few sweeteners covered in this article that might actually demonstrate some health benefits. However, those effects vary depending on the type of honey consumed. For example, Acacia honey contains a higher concentration of fructose than other honeys. It therefore has a lower glycemic index than other sweeteners, though higher fructose levels may cause their own problems, as I mentioned while discussing agave, above.

As far as metabolism in general, studies on insulin response and blood sugar comparing honey to sucrose are can be contradicting. 181920 The current general consensus in the medical community, however, seems to be that honey is not significantly better for weight or diabetes management than sucrose. I do think that some of the research looks promising, but it’s not enough to draw any real conclusions. At the very least, though, I didn’t see any studies that showed honey to be worse than sucrose.

Various studies have shown that honey fights oxidation, inflammation, tumor growth, and has overall better impacts on cardiovascular health than an equivalent amount of sucrose.21 But, many of these studies look at relatively large doses of honey—between 50g and 80g per serving (about 3-4 tbsp.) Also, many studies fail to sufficiently describe the sourcing of their honeys. The trace nutrients found in honey can vary depending on the species of bee and the source of nectar used to produce the honey. And since it is most likely these nutrients that are responsible for honey’s health effects, it’s hard to recommend a particular type of honey over others without more research.

Also keep in mind that because honey is a natural product, it can contain trace amounts of toxins and microbes, although the microbes will be inactive. That’s why unpasteurized honey is not recommended for infants.

Verdict? From all I’ve read, it seems that honey is at least a little better than sugar in almost every way and it’s almost always minimally processed. To me, it seems like a no-brainer for everyday use whenever possible. The only downside to honey is that, well, it tastes like honey. While honey does taste awesome, it’s also a distinctive flavor that’s not easily masked by other flavors.

I came across one final caloric sweetener choice when researching this article. Brown rice syrup is made by enzymatically treating the starches found in brown rice to produce simple sugars, then boiling the resulting liquid until it turns into a syrup. The syrup itself is nutty and flavorful and less sweet than an equivalent amount of sucrose syrup. The primary sugars in brown rice syrup are maltose and maltotriose, though the concentration can vary depending on production method used.2223.

Good source of nutrients, great taste, possibly good metabolic impact

Brown Rice Syrup

Price:$11/21 fl. oz.

Metabolically, I wasn’t able to find any studies that tested the effects of brown rice syrup on humans. The good thing, though, is that both maltose and maltotriose fully digest down to glucose, with no fructose at all. But the exact impact on blood sugar and insulin response will depend on how quickly the body can digest maltose and maltotriose, and that’s something I wasn’t able to find.

Compared to table sugar, brown rice syrup is significantly less processed and contains many of the acids, minerals, and complex carbohydrates normally found in brown rice itself.

Unfortunately, toxins carry over into brown rice syrup as well: in 2012, a research team from Dartmouth School in New Hampshire measured high levels of arsenic in brown rice syrup.24 Arsenic is common in rice used for food, but organic brown rice syrup was of particular concern due to its minimal processing. My best advice is to know your sourcing. Popular brand Lundberg releases a detailed archive of resources explaining how they test for arsenic in their rice supply. Hopefully, whatever brand you purchase tests to the same standard.

For now, I can only conclude that this sugar alternative looks promising, but without further testing, that conclusion is tentative.

What does “natural” really mean, anyway?

Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Food and Drug administration does not regulate the term “natural” when used on food labels. Instead, it “objects” when food producers use the term on anything that includes “added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.”25

By that definition, all of the sweeteners we’ve covered so far are indeed natural, even though enzymes, processing agents, and complex machines are used to transform starchy vegetables into simple sugars.

But, natural does not necessarily mean healthy.

Consider, for example, products sweetened with “nothing but fruit juice.” While fruit juice might sound like a healthy alternative to processed sugar, in fact fruit contains a higher percentage of fructose than normal sucrose does. When you eat fruit in its natural form, the fiber in the fruit’s meat helps to slow down the digestion of simple sugars, which protects your body from metabolic effects. But use a machine to juice the fruit, and you lose much of the fruit’s fiber with it.

In this article, I’ve stuck to sugar alternatives that are clearly derived from plant sources and intentionally left out a few of the lesser-known processed sugar alternatives, such as trehalose and the family of sugar alcohols. I’ll cover those in my article on nonnutritive sweeteners (forthcoming) because, as you’ll see, it makes more sense to compare those products rather than against things like honey and agave.

Do you use a sugar substitute at home? If so, why and how?

Liked this post? Make sure to check out my article on nonnutritive sugar alternatives.

Notes:

  1. eHow, How Sugar is Digested
  2. In The Raw, Frequently Asked Questions, Sugar in the Raw.
  3. Kimball, Katie. Are Sucanat and Rapadura Healthier than Sugar? (August 10, 2011).
  4. Wikipedia, Molasses, accessed 01 May 2014.
  5. McCaffrey, Dee. The Skinny on Evaporated Cane SugarProcessed Free America (3/5/2014)
  6. Leibovitz, David. Why and When to Use (Or Not Use) Corn Syrup. 2009.
  7. George Bray, Samara Nielsen, and Barry Popkin (2004), Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesityAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 79(4):537-543
  8. Forshee R.A., et al (2007), A critical examination of the evidence relating high fructose corn syrup and weight gain. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 47(6):561-82
  9. Theodore Angelopoulos, et al (2009), The Effect of High-Fructose Corn Syrup Consumption on Triglycerides and Uric AcidJournal of Nutrition. 139(6):1242S-1245S
  10. Moeller S.M., et al (2009), The effects of high fructose syrupJ Am Coll Nutr. 28(6):619-26.
  11. Miriam Bocarsly, et al (2010), High-fructose corn syrup causes characteristics of obesity in rats: Increased body weight, body fat and triglyceride levelsPharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 97(1):101-106.
  12. Marion Nestle, HFCS makes rats fat? Food Politics.
  13. James McWilliams, The Evils of Corn Syrup: How Food Writers Got It Wrong. The Atlantic. Sep 21, 2010.
  14. Klurfield, D.M., et al (2013), Lack of evidence for high fructose corn syrup as the cause of the obesity epidemic. Int J Obes (Lond). 37(6): 771–773.
  15. Kathleen Zelman, The Truth About Agave, WebMD
  16. Joseph Mercola, This Sweetener Is Far Worse Than High Fructose Corn Syrup. Huffington Post 
  17. Alfredo Sanchez-Marroquin and P. H. Hope (1953). Agave Juice, Fermentation and Chemical Composition Studies of Some Species. J. Agric. Food Chem., 1 (3), pp 246–249
  18. Shambaugh P., Worthington V., and Herbert J. H. (1990), Differential effects of honey, sucrose, and fructose on blood sugar levelsJournal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics 13(6):322-325
  19. Noori S. Al-Waili. Natural Honey Lowers Plasma Glucose, C-Reactive Protein, Homocysteine, and Blood Lipids in Healthy, Diabetic, and Hyperlipidemic Subjects: Comparison with Dextrose and Sucrose. Journal of Medicinal Food. April 2004, 7(1): 100-107.
  20. Mamdouh Abdulrhman, et al (2011), The glycemic and peak incremental indices of honey, sucrose and glucose in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus: effects on C-peptide level—a pilot study. Acta Diabetologica. 48(2):89-94. 
  21. Many interesting studies are cited in this review article: Stefan Bogdanov, et al (2008), Honey for Nutrition and Health: A Review. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 27(6): 677-689. 
  22. Lundberg Family Farms, Rice Syrup FAQs.
  23. Patent US 4876096 A, Nutritional, non-allergenic; liquefaction, saccharification using amylase, glucosidase
  24. Brian Jackson, et al (2012), Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup. Environ Health Perspect. 120(5): 623-626.
  25. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, What is the meaning of ‘natural’ on the label of food?