Sugar is considered enemy #1 by many diets trending today. You may have heard that some sweeteners are “healthier” than others. Honey over sugar, agave over maple syrup, and so on. But is there any evidence behind this hierarchy diet culture has created? Let’s take a look!
An Intro To Different Sweeteners
Cane sugar comes from sugarcane or sugar beets. Their juice is extracted, clarified and crystallized, until only a thin layer of molasses remains. This is raw or “Turbinado” style sugar. The process can then be repeated to leave nothing but pure sucrose with no sign of molasses, aka white table sugar!
Agave is made by gently heating the sap of the agave plant. Many consider it a ‘raw’ food. Agave is particularly high in fructose, which makes it sweeter than table sugar.
Raw Honey is not plant-based, but is often considered a “healthier alternative” to table sugar. It goes through almost no processing. Wax and large impurities are removed. It will crystallize very quickly making it difficult to use at room temperature. Most honey sold in grocery stores, or ‘commercial’ honey, is pasteurized to prevent crystallization.
Maple Syrup. Most Canadians have an idea of how maple syrup is made. Just stick a tap in a sugar maple tree and wait to collect the sap! Maple sap is then heated to evaporate the water and thicken it into a syrup.
To summarize, all sweeteners have different tastes and properties that make them useful in cooking. For example, agave will not work in a typical cake, but it can dissolve easily in tea.
How can we compare the health impact of these sweeteners?
1) The Glycemic Index is a scale used to measure how much a food raises blood sugar. The food is compared to a reference food, usually glucose, given a glycemic index score of 100. In other words, the lower a foods glycemic index, the slower it increases your blood sugar.
Glycemic Index of Different Sweeteners
|White Table Sugar||72|
Sweeteners vary widely in their glycemic index, as shown in the graph above. A major factor affecting glycemic index is the glucose vs fructose content of sweeteners. You can see that fructose has a much lower glycemic index that glucose. Agave is absorbed relatively slowly because it is high in fructose.
Another major factor affecting the glycemic index are the other nutrients in the food. Protein, fat and fiber all change the rate of absorption of sugars when consumed together. The glycemic index of a sweetener is not very relevant on it’s own. You have to consider the composition of each food as a whole.
2) Vitamin & Mineral Content
The more processing and heat treatment a sweetener goes through, the less vitamins and minerals it contains. There are traces of vitamins and minerals in raw cane sugar, but each amounts to less than 1% of your daily needs. No sweetener is a significant source of micronutrients. The micronutrient content of sugars is inconsequential to our health.
So How Do You Choose Which Sugar to Use?
At the end of the day, sugar is sugar. All these differences are too small to have a proven impact on our health. Use the sweetener most appropriate for your purpose, whether baking or sweetening your tea in the morning. Choose what will provide the flavor, physical and chemical properties needed for your dish. Simply use your chosen sweetener in the smallest amount possible. It’s your diet as a whole that matters!
What is your favourite sweetener? Why do you choose it over others? Let us know!
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