The most commonly used sugar in households in the United States is white sugar. I’ll be the first to admit that I grew up eating tons of white sugar and had continued to do so well into adulthood.
But now, fortunately, we as consumers start to slowly realize the dangers of white sugar. I remember when I went on my first diet (that I based solely on what I was hearing from the media) that I cut out any kind of sugar completely. I was sure that it was the key to reaching my desired supermodel-like body style. Oh, how I was wrong. While cutting out sugar definitely caused some positive effects, that diet didn’t last long. I loved desserts too much and I didn’t have the willpower to avoid them. That’s the problem with those binary diets – eat only this but absolutely do not eat that. They’re difficult to follow.
Then I started learning more about nutrition and I first came to realize that there are better and worse kinds of sugar. It was such an eye-opener for me! Now that I think of it, I don’t know how I could have been so convinced that all sugar is bad. I mean, bananas are sweet, right? That means they contain sugar (fructose). And I was sure that sugar, even if it came from a natural source was evil.
So I learned about different types of sugar and sweeteners. It was so daunting at first. I had to learn so many new words, like “rapadura” or “sucanat”. I remember thinking to myself: “how are there so many different types of sweet substances?”. And how could one possibly know them all?
I suppose that many people who embark on their healthy eating journey for the first time, face similar doubts. That’s the main idea behind this post. I prepared a short reference list of different sweeteners, natural and unnatural. This is the kind of list that would have been really helpful to me when I was first starting to eat clean. So I hope you will find it useful as well.
And just in case, I want to point out one thing. Even if your chosen sweetener comes from a natural source and contains plenty of other minerals and vitamins, that doesn’t mean that you can eat an unlimited amount of it and still feel good afterward. The human body needs all kinds of nutrients to function properly and honey, as tasty as it is, won’t give you them. It’s all about the balance!
This list needs to be broken up into two different subcategories: sugarcane-based sweeteners and non-sugarcane sweeteners. Sugarcane is the plant from which your typical white sugar and other sweeteners are sourced from. White sugar is just granulated sugarcane that has been refined and bleached using chemical processes. On the other hand, whole cane sugar is exactly the same sugar but intact in its unrefined version.
- whole cane sugar: dehydrated granulated sugarcane that contains all the natural minerals and molasses. It’s also referred to as: rapadura, sucanat, panela, piloncillo, or jaggery.
- molasses: this syrup is a byproduct of making sugar from sugarcane. It contains all the natural properties of the sugarcane.
- muscovado: dark brown sugar with high molasses content. It’s slightly more moist than other sugars. The name comes from the word “unrefined” in Portuguese.
- evaporated cane juice crystals: unbleached organic white sugar made from boiling cane syrup to the point crystals begin forming.
- honey: raw honey from your local bees is the ultimate sweetener for me. It’s not only sweet but it also contains plenty of minerals that boost our immune system and can help combat colds and sore throats.
- maple syrup: there are different grades of maple syrup and the healthiest one is called grade B because it hasn’t been processed using formaldehyde (source). Buy organic to support smaller suppliers.
- maple sugar: maple sugar is made from dehydrated and granulated maple syrup. It’s perfect if you want a delicate sweetness in your recipe.
- date sugar: date sugar is just ground dehydrated dates. Its simplicity is its best quality. However, it does not dissolve in the same way as other more common sugars.
- coconut palm sugar: coconut palm sugar comes from palm trees and is usually sold in its granulated form. Sometimes you can even find it as a paste.
- sorghum: sorghum is a plant of a similar type as sugarcane. The sweetener that can be sourced from is looks like a very dark syrup and it has a slightly milder, not so overpowering, flavor.
- brown rice syrup: the starches in white or brown rice are reduced using barley sprouts (barley malt) until they reach the consistency of a thick syrup.
- stevia (unrefined): stevia is one of the most commonly known “healthy sugars” but be careful to only but its unrefined version. Remember that it’s much sweeter than other common sugars
- white sugar: comes from a sugarcane and is refined to the biggest extend. It’s better avoided. If you need to use it, search for versions that are unbleached and organic.
- powdered sugar: just as refined as white sugar and it’s also combined with GMO-containing corn starch to get that powdered consistency. Avoid!
- brown sugar: you might think that brown sugar is the same as white sugar but without undergoing the bleaching process. Unfortunately, it’s usually bleached as well but then has molasses added back in to make it look more ‘natural’. If you need to buy it, then choose organic. The darker color it has, the better chance of it being close to a natural sweetener.
- turbinado sugar: this is partially refined sugar from sugarcane. Partially because it hasn’t been bleached. Still, it’s refined in other ways so I recommend avoiding it.
- beet sugar: I put beet sugar here because most beets nowadays are genetically modified and heavily sprayed with chemicals.
- agave: agave sugar (miel de agave) was traditionally made in a fully natural way from agave plant but now it’s usually only found as a highly refined granulated sugar that only pretends to be natural.
- stevia (refined): if your stevia is white or clear in color then you can be sure it has been heavily refined. Unrefined stevia should have some green in it.
- xylitol: xylitol is just a processed sugar alcohol. It’s lauded as a healthy kind of sugar but I don’t trust anything made in a lab to be healthy.
That’s it about the different types of sweeteners. Lastly, I want to talk about substitutions.
Say you have a recipe that calls for white sugar or powdered sugar. How can you substitute these ingredients to eat cleaner?
- white sugar
I substitute white sugar with other dry sugars, like whole cane sugar, coconut palm sugar, or maple sugar.
- powdered sugar
You can put whole cane sugar, coconut palm sugar, or maple sugar in a blender and keep pulsing them until they eventually become powdered. In recipes that use powdered sugar to make cake frosting or icing, I would use a honey glaze made from honey, lemon juice and milk/water. That way, the original flavor isn’t disrupted by the strength of whole cane sugar.
- brown sugar
I replace brown sugar with muscovado sugar or whole cane sugar.
- corn syrup
Instead of corn syrup, I prefer to use maple syrup or sorghum. Brown rice syrup or liquidated honey also work.
Now you’re ready to start eating healthier without fearing sugar!