accolades from Saveur, Culture, Good Food Awards, Urban Famr, and Wine Spectator

Sugar Alternatives – Pros and Cons of Refined Sugars & Sugar Substitutes

At the markets and events where I sample some of our jams, and drink syrups I find myself  responding to questions about sugar alternatives more than any other issue.  Five to ten years ago the questions focused on whether the product was organic, whether it had artificial preservatives in it, whether it was made in the US, and if all the alcohol was burned off.  Today the questions tend to center around refined sugar alternatives. Frequently asked questions at market include:

  1. “What kind of sugar do you use?
  2. What is the carb count of this product?
  3. Can diabetics eat this?

Important Distinctions to Consider with Respect to Sugar and Sugar Alternatives

Examples of some of the alternatives for refined white sugar
Sugar cubes, brown sugar crystals, granulated white sugar, rock sugar, stevia, honey.

Because of the growing number of diabetics and the alarming obesity rate, many people have been bombarded with information about sugar.  Much of this information is questionable, and in my mind, some of the labeling implications can actually be harmful to diabetics. 

Products Labeled No-added-sugar, but Sweetened with Fruit Juice

The “no-sugar added” tag on the label for jams is very misleading.  Very often that means the manufacturer is substituting white grape juice or apple juice for pure cane sugar.  These processed fruit juices will do two things:

  1. It will mute the flavor of the fresh fruit and allow for less of the volume of the product to be fresh whole fruit
  2. It will allow the jam to be less expensive to produce and therefore often less expensive for the consumer.

The travesty is that white grape juice and apple juice is no better for the diabetic or the insulin-resistant than pure cane sugar.  In essence, “less” sugar is not really used, but rather “different” sugar.

If you are in the market for jams or jellies, opt for a jam with real fruit sweetened with sugar rather than a “flavored” jam using grape or apple juice for the sweetener. Go for organic fresh fruit when possible, and look for small batch producers who don’t usually boil the nutrients into oblivion.

Artisan jams (and other products) are frequently more expensive, but you don’t need very much of them to get full flavor, and that in itself can mean less sugar.

Refined Processed Sugar (Beet sugar vs. Cane Sugar)

When  talking about refined sugar, “nutrition” is not what we’re talking about.  The nutritional aspect of the food you’re eating that contains sugar is better looked at by how much of  the serving is made up of refined sugar.

Beet sugar and Cane sugar are both refined and processed products.  Chefs tend to like cane sugar more because it caramelizes better and in some things (like brulees) the difference is important.

Professional bakers also seem to prefer cane sugar due to the behavior of beet sugar in baking (apparently it gives a coarser texture in some things).  For most cooking purposes you can’t tell the difference in texture or taste, and for the home cook it is very difficult to know which one you are getting from the store, as the label doesn’t distinguish which one in most cases.

You pretty much have to know which brand is beet or cane and then buy by the brand name.  I used to use beet sugar because the Crystal brand is a beet sugar that is grown in Minnesota and I tried to stay as local as possible.  When it was brought to my attention that all beet sugar is a GMO product, I switched to pure cane organic sugar.  Labeling law doesn’t require a cane or beet designation. C & H is the only mass-market producer to do so; other refiners decline.

The biggest difference between cane and beet sugar is in the brown sugar product and how it is processed.   Brown cane sugar is a combination of sugar and molasses, both of which exist in the sugarcane plant .  It is produced in one step, as part of the natural refining process (crystallization). 

Beet sugar is processed differently.  The molasses is stripped off of the sugar granules because beet molasses is not fit for human consumption.  Cane molasses is then added back in to the beet sugar by coating (or painting, as it is called) the beet granules with the molasses.  Because the molasses is not an inherent part of the sugar, it can sometimes by rubbed right off.  Read more:

It is true that 99.95 percent of both beet sugar and cane sugar is sucrose.  The remaining .05 percent is made up of trace minerals and proteins, which can have an effect.  Remember that beets are a root, growing below ground and cane is a grass that grows above ground.  This variation might mean something in the mineral make up of the soil in which they grow. 

I do not have any researched information on the difference that this makes, but being an organic farmer I know that trace minerals in the soil can be pretty important in some cases.  Some people have also told me they will not use beet sugar due to the way it is grown, and some people don’t want to use cane sugar due to the way it is harvested.  This is all anecdotal information however, and if you know of any specific studies relating to this please leave a comment.

Refined Sugar by Other Names:

A lot of manufacturers are using the word “crystals” in classifying something as sugar alternatives in their products.  Some of these names include: cane juice crystals, dehydrated cane juice crystals, unrefined cane juice crystals, raw cane crystals, washed cane juice crystals, Florida crystals (a trademarked name), unbleached evaporated sugar cane juice crystals, crystallized cane juice, and unbleached crystallized evaporated cane juice.

Organicanews.com had a fairly comprehensive article on sugar alternatives called “On the Sweet-Tooth of a Dilemma”, and they include several interviews on the subject. 

The following quote is from Vimlan VanDien, a nutritionist at the respected Bastyr University, in Seattle, Washington:   “One hundred grams of dried cane juice is pretty much the same thing as 100 grams of other sweeteners, no matter what you call it.  When people call these sugars something other than sugar, it’s deceptive in a way—if the market is uninformed. Because dehydrated cane juice is sugar. It simply sounds like a whole food.  But it’s not whole food. If you wanted the whole food, you’d go out in the field and eat the sugar cane, and get all the fiber and nutrients it has.”

The nutritionist’s advice for consumers is, ” …look at the package to see if it tells how many grams of sugar are in the product.” That is one sure guide to controlling your sugar intake.

Other Forms/Names of Refined Sugars

VanDien provided the following list of alternative sweeteners and comments on each one for Organica News.

Here are some of the sweeteners you may encounter in products:

Amasake: One of the least refined of the “natural” sugars, fermented and filtered, made from brown rice.

Barley malt: Mostly maltose. A dark, sweet, thick liquid. Sometimes used in malted milks.

Brown rice syrup: Cultured (usually naturally fermented) rice, broken down by enzymes, strained and cooked to a syrup-like consistency. Is also available in powder form.

Corn syrup: Cheap to produce, it’s basically glucose with water. Dark corn syrup has food coloring in it.

Date sugar: Made from pulverized (generally not refined) dates, it contains sucrose, glucose and fructose. It’s low in grams of sugar per teaspoon, low in calories.

Florida Crystals: A trademarked brand, slightly less refined than white refined sugar.

Fruit juice concentrate: “Reduced” (broken down) peaches, pears, pineapple, white grapes and other fruits are used. Concentrates can be highly refined. If a product has slightly refined or unrefined fruit juice, it will obviously be more nutrient dense.

Honey: A mix of sugars. Usually about 30-40% glucose, 40-60% fructose. Honey does contain some nutrients, but not many. It’s very high in calories. Honey may sometimes be “stretched” with additives, and some imported honeys are reportedly “contaminated.” It’s best to buy local honey.

Molasses: The dark brown syrup left after sugar processing has milled out and crystallized the sugar for refining. After filtering, molasses may have sulfur added to kill bacteria, and stabilize it. Blackstrap molasses contains iron and traces of vitamins and minerals.

Sugar Substitutes That Don’t Spike Blood Sugar & Cause Insulin Response

Stevia drops being added to hot tea
Stevia drops being added to hot tea

Stevia: Made from the leaves of a Paraguayan herb, and usually found in powder form, it is 300 times sweeter than sugar. A little goes a very long way (obviously).

Artificial Sweeteners:  The Atkins Diet Center has done research that indicates sweeteners that contain aspartame (such as NutraSweet and Equal) stimulate insulin production (leading to unstable blood sugar, irritability and carbohydrate cravings). Sweeteners that use sucralose (marketed as Splenda) and saccharin (such as Sweet’nLow) have not been shown to stimulate insulin production.

**UPDATE: Because of the popularity of ketogenic diets, sugar substitutes from natural products have become much more available. My favorite natural sugar substitutes that studies show do NOT cause an insulin response include Stevia, Monkfruit or Erythritol. These are often blended together and you will see brand names like Truvia or Swerve in the store. Click here for an infographic that shows the ratios in how to use these sugar substitutes.

Great Recipes for Low Carb Desserts Using Sugar Substitutes

A low carb lifestyle does not mean you have to forego desserts and sweet treats. There are a ton of good low carb and keto recipes for desserts using sugar substitutes and no refined flour. Click here to see a list of my favorites

sugar alternatives
Low Sugar Chocolate Pistachio Truffles: Click here for the recipe

Summary:

So, as with many debatable issues, the sugar debate is complex.   Sugar is a factor in dietary concerns, health issues, environmental concerns, and individual or cultural palates. 

I leave it to the consumer to understand moderation, but I do believe that the labeling laws should force manufacturers to be more transparent.  Deceptive labeling can be harmful to the consumer with health issues.  The average consumer cannot realistically be expected to research out all of the literature on sugar and sugar alternatives.

7 Comments

  1. jackieschwabe on September 9, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    Thank you for the information. I didn’t realize there were so many options.

  2. […] (in moderation). Often sugar is added to berries to enhance their flavor and bring it out more. Click here for a detailed analysis of some of the sugar […]

  3. Helen Olsten on June 9, 2016 at 3:22 pm

    Erythritol is an alcohol sugar not stevia which is an her.

    • dorothy stainbrook on June 9, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Correct. However sugar alcohol does not equate with “unnatural”. Most erythritol comes from birch bark.

      • dorothy stainbrook on June 9, 2016 at 3:50 pm

        Sugar Alcohols are NOT to be confused with artificial sweeteners..
        While sugar alcohols do contain fewer calories than sugar, they occur naturally in plants, like fruits and vegetables.

        Erythritol is:

        Fermented – it is made by fermenting the natural sugar found in corn.
        Heat stable up to 160 degrees C.
        Non-caloric – While most sugar alcohols are low calorie, erythritol has zero calories.
        Non-glycemic – Does not raise blood sugar – erythritol is considered suitable for people with diabetes because it does not raise plasma glucose or insulin levels.
        The easiest sugar alcohol to digest – more than 90% of erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine, so minimal amounts reach the colon where other sugar alcohols end up causing diarrhea and other symptoms.
        Noncarcinogenic– studies have shown that erythritol, like xylitol, does not have carcinogenic properties.
        An antioxidant – erythritol helps to fight free radicals, responsible for the aging process. It is considered to be even more efficient than other sugar alcohols because it is so readily absorbed and yet not metabolized (it is excreted unchanged).

        Erythritol has the status of generally recognized as safe (GRAS) from the FDA and is widely used in many other countries like Japan, the European Union, Mexico and Canada.

  4. Anonymous on January 12, 2015 at 9:37 pm

    Hi

    your short article on different types of sweeteners is helpful. Thank you.

    I am also a “preserve-r”.

    I am currently trying out a sweetener made with monk fruit & erythritol (The Chinese know the fruit as Luo Han Guo ). The sweetener is great for baking also! Plus there is 0 calories in this product. I think erythritol is stevia. This sweetener has no aftertaste like the artificial sweeteners and zero chemicals. Maybe you should see if you can get this and give your verdict.

    Anyway sometimes I use goji “juice” ( ie liquid from soaking the hard dried berries) to sweeten my drink . I eat the fruit as well.

    Regards
    Elvira Jorgensen from downunder

    • dorothy stainbrook on January 13, 2015 at 5:48 am

      5 stars
      Thanks Elvira! Monkfruit has become my sugar substitute of choice. It’s really good. A little more expensive and a little harder to find, but great!

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