This is probably the most depressing of the articles on sweeteners. We all love choices. We all want to choose the best and healthiest sweeteners. But sadly, in all the abundance of products there is very little to choose from and all the choices are bad. Still, I have tried to give some hope. Clearly some of these sweeteners are less bad than others. I do what to emphasize that none of these sweeteners are likely to do much harm in small amounts and any of them can decrease your quality and length of life in large amounts.
The difference between these refined food based sweeteners is their composition. They are all made up of fructose, glucose or sucrose or some combination of the three. Since sucrose is rapidly broken down to its components (fructose and glucose) any of these sugars can be seen as a ratio of its fructose/glucose content).
Another difference is the degree of sweetness. Fructose is quite a bit sweeter than sucrose and glucose is less sweet than sucrose. Invert sugar is simply sucrose broken down to fructose and sucrose. The total sweetness of one invert sugar (one molecule of fructose and one molecule of glucose) is about 130% higher than when these same molecules are combined into one molecule of sucrose.
The third difference is the presence and quantities of any additional trace nutrients. A few of these products have s notable amount of minerals and many have trace amounts. I would suggest that choosing a unhealthy luxury food based on its vitamin and mineral content may not be too logical. At best, moderate amounts of these sweeteners only a small amount of our overall dietary mineral needs can be met.
I have listed the sweeteners more or less in order of descending preference according to two criteria. First by the ratio of fructose to glucose. Generally, as emphasized in the previous article the less fructose the better. Secondly where two sweeteners have about the same ratio of fructose to glucose I have listed those with less sucrose first, as these will be somewhat more sweet than those with more sucrose.
My guiding principle is avoid fructose, but if there is fructose in your sweetener it is slightly preferable to get it as simple fructose rather than as sucrose, because you will need a bit less to get the same degree of sweetness.
Glucose based sweeteners.
These first three products are made of primarily glucose. Bakers often prefer them because of their moisture retaining
Glucose/ Dextrose is available as dextrose or “grape sugar” – It is made from corn starch. Because it is glucose it is about 70% the sweetness of sucrose.
Corn Syrup – Not to be confused with HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is generally mostly glucose. However, it contains some fructose which varies in percentage depending on the source of corn syrup. Unfortunately, the percentage of fructose may be impossible to ascertain.
Glucose syrup is similar to corn syrup but more reliably close to 100% glucose. It is generally made from corn starch, but check the label if you are gluten sensitive as it may also be derived from wheat.
Mixed Fructose / Glucose sweeteners
Honey is 50% fructose and 50% glucose. It contains no sucrose. It is about 85% as sweet as sucrose. It contains small amounts of some minerals (especially iron and manganese). Sadly, much of the domestic honey supply apparently is artificially produced from white sugar. I have conflicting information as to the legality of this.
Invert sugar is just a mix of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. It is sometimes referred to as artificial honey.
Maple Syrup – Real maple sugar is derived from the sap of a few species of maple trees. It is essentially unrefined except to concentrate it by boiling off most of the water. It is composed mostly of sucrose. It contains small amounts of some minerals (especially potassium).
The following three sweeteners are made from sugar cane or sugar beets and contain almost pure sucrose. Depending on the degree of refining they may also contain small amounts of minerals (especially manganese, copper, iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium). Of course a better source of these is simply blackstrap molasses which is pretty much what is left of the sugar cane after the fiber and sugar are removed.
Evaporated cane sugar is primarily sucrose it contains small amounts of some minerals. A similar product is called sucanat. These are derived from whole sugar cane juice.
Brown sugar goes by many names. Most forms of brown sugar are just white sugar with a small amount of molasses added back. Molasses is a by product of sugar making and contains most of the minerals removed in the refining process. Some brown sugar is less processed than white sugar.
White sugar is pure sucrose derived from sugar cane or sugar beets.
High Fructose Corn syrup is corn starch that is has been treated with enzymes to convert some of the glucose into fructose. There are different grades of HFCS ranging from about 42% to 90% fructose. At the lower end it is basically invert sugar, at the higher end it is almost pure fructose.
Fruit concentrates – The sugar composition of various fruits will be discussed in a future article. But since fruit juice concentrates are sometimes used as sweeteners a few points will be made here. Most fruits contain free fructose and glucose in relatively equal proportions (such as grapes). Apple and pear juice contain a high percentage if fructose (approx. 70%). Plum contains mostly glucose (approx. 30%). Many of these fruit concentrates also contain beneficial nutrients including minerals and flavinoids (more on this later).
High Fructose sweeteners.
Many of these have been hyped based on their low glycemic index. The only thing that gives them a low glycemic index is their low glucose levels. The following sweeteners are mostly fructose. As discussed previously, large quantities of fructose are probably far more detrimental than glucose.
Coconut Sugar is made from the flower nectar of coconut and other palms. It is fairly unrefined. It probably is mostly fructose, although, precise numbers are difficult to come by.
Agave syrup has developed quite a reputation as a healthy sweetener. This seems to be totally undeserved. My best guess it that this is due to our perennial desire to have a healthy sweetener combined with the romance of tequila and Mexico. We are encouraged to imagine it just naturally dripping from these rugged plants. In actuality it is a highly refined product containing 56% – 92% fructose. Again the amount of fructose is variable and difficult to determine with any particular product. At its best it may not be much worse than white sugar, but it certainly is no better.
Natural Sugar Alternatives
Sugar Alcohols – In the following article I will discuss a number of sweeteners known as the sugar alcohols (glycerol, xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol). Some of these may be less harmful than the sugars mentioned above and perhaps even beneficial.