by Buffy Ellen 0 Comments

A handy guide of some of the most common natural sweeteners out there, including their GI, fructose content, calorie content, flavour, and pros and cons of use. Read on for a discussion of "sugar-free" too. (To read my original blog posts on this click here and here).

Sweetener Description/Use GI (%) Fructose (%) Flavour Pros Cons Cals /100g
Agave Syrup Extracted from the agave plant; thinner than honey; light/dark versions can be substituted for honey/maple syrup 19 90 30-40% sweeter than white cane sugar; dark tastes like maple syrup, light tastes like honey Low GI, affordable

Higher in fructose
300
Brown Rice / Rice Malt Syrup Made from brown fermented rice; thick consistency;
can be substituted for honey/maple syrup
25 0 Nutty sweet flavour, about half as sweet as white cane sugar. Fructose free, metabolises slowly.
Contains trace minerals such as magnesium & potassium.
Not as sweet so need to use more 260
Coconut Nectar Made from the sap of coconut palm trees; light/dark versions can be substituted for honey/maple syrup 35 ~38 Great flavour - light tastes similar to honey, dark tastes like maple syrup.

Low GI, affordable, great taste, sweeter than sugar so can use less, most sustainable sweetener (coconut trees produce 50-75% more sugar per acre but use less than 1/5 of the soil, nutrients & water of cane sugar!), lower in fructose than agave or cane sugar, contains numerous trace minerals and vitamins including iron, magnesium and zinc.

Contains some fructose for those who are intolerant 370
Coconut Sugar

Made from the sap of coconut palm trees; can be substituted for white, raw and brown sugar in baking

35 ~38 Great caramel toffee flavour, similar to brown/rapadura sugar, less sweet than regular white sugar.

Low GI, affordable, great taste, sweeter than sugar so can use less, most sustainable sweetener (coconut trees produce 50-75% more sugar per acre but use less than 1/5 of the soil, nutrients & water of cane sugar!), lower in fructose than agave or cane sugar, contains numerous trace minerals and vitamins including iron, magnesium and zinc.

Less sweet than white sugar so need to use more 375
Dates Edible fruit from the date palm tree 42 25-30 Medoul dates have a delicious caramel flavour Great in baking, raw desserts; a wholefood so contain fibre and are well digested; contain trace minerals and vitamins; medjoul variety are very sweet so can use less Contains some fructose (as do all fruit) 280
Honey Thick, sticky syrup made by harvesting nectar from flowers by honeybees. 58 40 Floral flavour, dependent on the flowers from which it is harvested; sweeter than white sugar Great flavour. Not plant-based, ethical issues involving bees, cheaper brands be unsustainably produced and highly refined, higher GI 304
Maple Syrup Made from the sap of maple trees and boiling it down. 54 40 Rich maple flavour Great characteristic maple flavour, affordable, widely available. Higher GI, cheaper brands can be highly refined, characteristic flavour can overpower some recipes 260
Stevia Extract from the Stevia rebaudiana plant sold as a powder <1 0 1/4 tsp stevia = 1 cup white sugar in sweetness. Zero GI and calories, good for diabetics and weight management. Not great taste, can be bitter, unrefined versions taste grassy, refined version taste artificial, not great in baking 0
Sucrose (white sugar) Commonly known as table or white sugar - extracted from sugar cane or beet plants. 65-85 50 Widely available, inexpensive, good results in baking, the standard in most recipes. High GI, high fructose, heavily processed, refined and bleached 387
Yacon Syrup Made from the root of the yacon plant, has been used for centuries among the Andean people. 1 7 Characteristic dark and rich floral flavour Negligible GI so great for diabetes; very low in fructose; natural and minimally processed; is also a prebiotic (good for the gut and immune system) and contains soluble fibre; lower in calories More expensive. 165-200
Xylitol Naturally occurring sugar alcohol, commonly extracted from the bark of Birch trees. 7 0 Neutral flavour Low GI so good for diabetes; no fructose; lower in calories than normal white sugar. Often highly refined, no vitamins or minerals, doesn't work in all baking 240 

Will the real sugar-free please stand up?
So what does sugar-free really mean? Sugar-free, refined sugar free, fructose free, I quit sugar/IQS, low sugar, no sugar, dried fruit vs fresh fruit… what’s a sweet-toothed gal (or guy) supposed to do amidst this sea of sugary confusion?

Sugar, essentially, is the generic name for the short-chain members of the carbohydrate family. The smallest include monosaccharides (mono-sugars i.e one sugar) which include glucose, fructose and galactose. Then slightly larger, the disaccharides (two monosaccharides joined together), which include sucrose (simple white table sugar), lactose (found in milk). These are what we normally term “sugar”. However moving on from them, we also have oligosaccharides and polysaccharides (= multiple monos stuck together), which are also found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains. Essentially the longer the chain, the more work the body has to do to break them down in order to use them as energy. This is why the smaller mono and di chains are often called “sugars or simple sugars” while the longer chains are referred to as “complex carbohydrates”.

All sugars though, regardless of length, are eventually broken down into glucose (a simple mono sugar), which is the key form of energy our body, cells and brain use to function. So really, any food that contains carbohydrate of any form (white table sugar, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, avocados, coconut, and sweeteners such as agave, maple syrup, rice syrup and coconut nectar), can never truly be “sugar free” in a full technical sense. Refined sugar free yes, but not fully sugar free, technically speaking.

So given the above, that eventual sugars are found in so many foods, why are people so set on being sugar free? Two reasons – firstly, sugars consumed in any form in excess to our body’s needs will be stored as body fat. Secondly, simple sugars cause spikes in our blood sugar, which can leave us feeling drained, headachey, and in the extreme, lead to metabolic syndromes such as diabetes.

However to counter these two oft-stated rationale, fat and protein are both stored as body fat if consumed in excess too. In fact, any macronutrient we eat too much of (carbohydrates, protein, or fat), can lead to us retaining more body fat than we might like. Secondly, blood sugar spikes can be mitigated by simply combining our various sugars, particularly the shorter chain ones, with protein or fat to balance out our blood sugar response. This is why an apple might leave you feeling hungry half an hour later, but an apple dipped in nut butter will likely leave you feeling just perfect.

To add mayhem to the mystery, many foods and recipes labelled sugar free still might not be good for us in large quantities. They often contain either artificial sweeteners, which our body doesn’t recognise and thus we want to avoid. Or they include large amounts of other sweeteners, such as agave, maple syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura sugar or dates. Even though they’re more natural whole food forms of sugar, they’re in such great quantities that if consumed in large amounts, would cause anyone to gain excess body fat and have blood sugar spikes!

So, what to do? Here are my top three recommendations:

  1. Choose whole foods sweeteners wherever possible – dates, raisins, fresh banana and coconut nectar are my favourites
  2. Keep your total sugars low – that means using dates in your recipe, but making sure they don’t make up the majority of the ingredients
  3. Consume short-chain sugars (monos and di’s) with protein or fat – eg apple + nut butter, fruit salad + coconut yoghurt/nuts/seeds, wholegrain crackers/toast + hummus/avocado, or brown rice + chickpeas/tofu. 

Also, be somewhat wary of recipes that claim to be “sugar” or “refined sugar free” – have a look at the ingredients, and if a sugar-containing food is 50%+ of the ingredients, it’s still going to be very high in sugar. In terms of my recipes here on the blog and elsewhere, they all meet the above three criteria - whole foods sweeteners only, low in total sugars, and are combined with fats or proteins for blood sugar stability and satiety.

Sources:

Herbs and Natural Supplements - An Evidence-Based Guide (Braun, L., & Cohen, M.)
The Food Pharmacy (Carper, J.)
Healing With Wholefoods (Pitchford, P.)
University of Sydney Glycemic Index 
Science Congress
Harvard University
Loving Earth
Sugar and Sweetener Guide
Live Strong
I Quit Sugar
I Quit Sugar - Sugar Substitutes
Sarah Wilson
The Paleo Diet
Food Intolerances
Calorie Control



Buffy Ellen
Buffy Ellen

Author

Buffy is the founder of Be Good Organics, and loves creating delicious yet simple plant-based whole foods recipes. Buffy also oversees our Be Good Organics online store, full of plant based goodies that she personally uses and loves. Sign up for our newsletter below to be the first to receive her weekly recipes.




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