Sugar, Sugar, Sugar

By: Kim Beavers Email
By: Kim Beavers Email

We all love sugar...and yes, it is true we do eat too much of it these days. However, today's post is not about how much sugar we should or should not eat; it is merely a fact sheet describing the old stand-by models and a few newcomers to the sugar aisle. As always we start basic and move forward.

Granulated sugar: Derived from sugar cane or sugar beets, highly processed, allowed to crystallize and dry. It contains 15 calories per teaspoon. Raw granulated sugar is more lightly processed and is generally more golden in color as it retains some molasses in the crystals.

Brown sugar is typically refined white sugar with molasses added back. It seems counter-intuitive to remove the molasses and then add it back, but this is done to maintain a consistent product. Dark brown sugar contains a higher percentage of molasses than light brown sugar (6.5% vs. 3.5%). In general, brown sugar contains 14 calories per teaspoon.

  • Natural brown sugar is unrefined and minimally processed, produced from the first crystallization of sugar cane juice. It gets its color and flavor from the sugar cane itself, has a stronger molasses taste and contains more minerals. Brown sugar can replace white sugar in most applications (cup for cup).

Powdered/confectioners' sugar is granulated sugar that has been crushed into a fine powder. To prevent clumping, a small amount of cornstarch is added. Confectioners' sugar is also called icing sugar because it dissolves so readily. It cannot be used as a substitute in baking. Measure confectioners’ sugar as you would flour--gently spoon into a measuring cup and level with a straight edge.

Honey: I just adore honey! Honey is likely the world’s most ancient sweetener. It has 20 calories per teaspoon. Honey is produced by honey bees from the nectar of various flowers. There are more than 300 unique types of honey available in the United States. It is sweeter than sugar and therefore less can be used to achieve the same amount of sweetness. In addition honey is a source of antioxidants (see “of interest” below). To learn more about available varieties visit the Honey Locator at

To bake with honey:

  • Use ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon of honey for every cup of sugar

  • Decrease the liquid in the recipe by ¼ cup

  • Add ½ teaspoon of baking soda for every cup of honey (honey is slightly acidic and needs to be neutralized with the soda)

  • Reduce your oven temperature by 25 degrees

  • Have fun experimenting

Also note: Honey should not be fed to babies less than one year of age!

Molasses is a byproduct of refining sugar. Light molasses comes from the first boiling of the sugar syrup and is lighter in both flavor and color. It is often used as pancake syrup. Dark molasses comes from a second boiling and is darker, thicker and less sweet. It is used as a flavoring in American classics such as gingerbread, shoo-fly pie, Indian pudding and Boston baked beans. Blackstrap molasses comes from the 3rd boiling and is what amounts to the dregs of the barrel. It is thick dark and somewhat bitter. All types of molasses have some minerals and antioxidants. Blackstrap molasses is a good source of calcium and iron. Two tablespoons of blackstrap molasses has 14% of the daily value for iron and 11% for calcium.

Agave syrup: Agave is best recognized as the plant from which tequila is made. The nectar of the plant is now also gaining popularity as a sweetener. The blue agave is the preferred species for producing nectar due to its high carbohydrate concentration and sweeter product. Agave syrup is made by extracting the sap of the agave core, filtering the sap and then heating it until the desired sweetness is achieved. Agave syrup has about 20 calories per teaspoon. It is sweeter than sugar; less can be used to achieve the same amount of sweetness.

Agave syrup is being marketed as healthier because it has a lower glycemic index, meaning it does not raise the blood sugar as quickly as white sugar. Keep in mind, however, that once the agave is mixed with other foods, the glycemic index is changed, and in general agave should be regarded by people with and without diabetes as sugar--i.e. to be used in moderation. There is also some concern regarding the percentage of fructose in agave syrup. It can be up to 90% fructose to 10% glucose. Table sugar is more of a 50/50 concentration of fructose and glucose. Some studies have demonstrated ill effects of fructose-concentrated sweeteners when compared with glucose. My concern is that agave syrup is marketed in such a way to imply it is healthy. Agave, like other sugars, has calories and few nutrients, and as always moderation is key.

“Of interest”: There is constant hype surrounding the antioxidant potential of food and how that relates to health. Believe it or not, a study was done to test the hypothesis that sugar alternatives are higher in antioxidant capacity than refined sugar. The results are not really all that surprising. The less-refined sugars had the highest antioxidant capacity. Refined sugar, corn syrup and agave nectar contained minimal antioxidant activity. Dark and black strap molasses had the highest level, while maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey had intermediate levels of antioxidant activity. JADA: 2009; 109: 64-71

The Bottom Line: All these sweeteners likely have a place in our diet, however none of them are healthy enough to deserve a significant place in our diet. Do use them to enhance the flavor and enjoyment of other healthier foods!

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