Weight Maintenance Program — The Truth About ‘Natural’ Sweeteners
With our weight maintenance program, we try to set the record straight on food myths and
misconceptions. Our goal is to deliver an overview of natural sweeteners to help guide your next sweet
The Truth About 'Natural' Sweeteners
If you’ve wandered into a natural food store lately, you might have
noticed that the selection of sweeteners seems to have multiplied.
Powders, syrups, and liquids with exotic-sounding names catch your eye,
each claiming to be tastier, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly
than plain old table sugar. But are they really any better? Is it worth
the extra expense and hassle of deviating from the mainstream to try
“natural” sweeteners? Whether you choose natural, artificial
or conventional sweeteners is up to you. This article provides a
rundown of the most common types of “natural” sweeteners you’ll find on
the market to help you decide.
Sugarcane is a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for
thousands of years. Making what we know as table sugar from sugarcane
can range from a relatively simple to a multistep process, and the final
result varies depending on the specific steps in the process. Light and
dark brown, powdered, and granulated white sugars are all highly
refined, while others, like those listed below, are made with fewer
steps on the processing chain. Fewer steps benefit the environment,
because less processing means less environmental impact. It also means
that more of the vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in sugarcane
remain in the end product. All of these sugarcane sweeteners can be
found in the baking aisle and/or bulk bins of natural foods stores.
Blackstrap molasses, unlike other sugarcane sweeteners,
contains significant amounts of vitamins and minerals. “First” molasses
is left over when sugarcane juice is boiled, cooled, and removed of its
crystals. If this product is boiled again, the result is called second
molasses. Blackstrap molasses is made from the third
boiling of the sugar syrup and is the most nutritious molasses,
containing substantial amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and
iron. When buying, consider choosing organic blackstrap molasses, as
pesticides are more likely to be concentrated due to the production of
molasses. Cooking notes: Blackstrap molasses has a very strong flavor, so it is best to just replace a small portion of sugar with molasses.
Rapadura is the Portuguese name for unrefined dried sugarcane
juice. Probably the least refined of all sugarcane products, rapadura is
made simply by cooking juice that has been pressed from sugarcane until
it is very concentrated, and then drying and granulating it or,
traditionally, pouring it into a mold to dry in brick form, which is
then shaved. Because the only thing that has been removed from the
original sugarcane juice is the water, rapadura contains all of the
vitamins and minerals that are normally found in sugarcane juice, namely
iron. A German company called Rapunzel is the main company that markets
pure, organic rapadura in the U.S. Cooking notes: Rapadura
replaces sugar 1:1 and adds a molasses flavor and dark color, so it’s
great in baked goods like brownies, coffee and black tea, but it may not
be desirable in something like lemonade.
Sucanat stands for sugar-cane-natural, and
is very similar to rapadura. It is made by mechanically extracting
sugarcane juice, which is then heated and cooled until tiny brown
(thanks to the molasses content) crystals form. It contains less sucrose
than table sugar (88 percent and 99 percent, respectively). Cooking notes: Sucanat
replaces sugar 1:1 and is also an accepted substitute for traditional
brown sugar. Use it as you would rapadura (see above).
is often confused with sucanat, but the two are different. After the
sugarcane is pressed to extract the juice, the juice is then boiled,
cooled, and allowed to crystallize into granules (like sucanat, above).
Next, these granules are refined to a light tan color by washing them in
a centrifuge to remove impurities and surface molasses. Turbinado is
lighter in color and contains less molasses than both rapadura and
sucanat. A popular brand-name of turbinado sugar is Sugar in the Raw,
which can be found in most natural food stores, and even in single-serve
packets at coffee shops. Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Turbinado is a great substitute for brown sugar, too.
Evaporated cane juice is essentially a finer, lighter-colored version of turbinado sugar. Still less refined than table sugar, it also contains some trace nutrients (that regular sugar does not), including vitamin B2. In Europe, it’s known as “unrefined sugar.” Cooking notes: Replaces sugar 1:1. Can be used in a wide variety of foods and recipes without adversely affecting color or flavor.
Natural sweeteners are flooding the market these days. Here’s a rundown
of some of the most common ones that are not made from sugarcane.
Agave nectar is produced from the juice of the core of the
agave, a succulent plant native to Mexico. Far from a whole food, agave
juice is extracted, filtered, heated and hydrolyzed into agave syrup.
Vegans often use agave as a honey substitute, although it’s even sweeter
and a little thinner than honey. It contains trace amounts of iron,
calcium, potassium and magnesium. Agave nectar syrup is available in the
baking aisle at most natural foods stores. The fructose content of
agave syrup is much higher than that of high fructose corn syrup,
which is of concern since some research has linked high fructose intake
to weight gain (especially around the abdominal area), high
triglycerides, heart disease and insulin resistance. High fructose corn
syrup contains 55% fructose while agave nectar syrup contains 90%.
Despite this, it has a low glycemic index because of its low glucose content. Cooking notes: To
replace 1 cup of sugar, use 2/3 cup of agave nectar, reduce the
quantity of liquids slightly, and reduce the oven temperature by 25
degrees Fahrenheit. It also makes a good sweetener in cold liquids, such
as iced tea.
Brown rice syrup
is made when cooked rice is cultured with enzymes, which break down the
starch in the rice. The resulting liquid is cooked down to a thick
syrup, which is about half as sweet as white sugar and has a mild
butterscotch flavor. It is composed of about 50% complex carbohydrates,
which break down more slowly in the bloodstream than simple
carbohydrates, resulting in a less dramatic spike in blood glucose
levels. It’s worth noting that the name “brown rice syrup” describes the
color of the syrup, not the rice it’s made from, which is white. Cooking notes: To replace one cup of sugar, use 1-1/3 cups brown rice syrup,
and for each cup of rice syrup added, reduce liquid by 1/4 cup and add
1/4 teaspoon baking soda. Brown rice syrup has the tendency to make food
harder and crispier, so it’s great in crisps, granolas, and cookies.
You may want to combine it with another sweetener for cakes and sweet
Honey, made by bees from the nectar of flowers, is a ready-made sweetener that contains traces of nutrients. Cooking notes: To
replace 1 cup sugar in baked goods, use about 3/4 cup of honey and
lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit and reduce liquids by
about 2 Tablespoons for each cup of honey.
Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees, which is
collected, filtered, and boiled down to an extremely sweet syrup with a
distinctive flavor. It contains fewer calories and a higher
concentration of minerals (like manganese and zinc) than honey. You can
find it in bulk in some natural foods stores, but don’t be fooled by
fake maple syrups, which are cheaper and more readily available at the
grocery store. "Maple-flavored syrups" are imitations of real maple syrup. To easily tell the
difference, read the ingredients list on the nutrition label. True maple
syrup contains nothing but “maple syrup.” Imitation syrups are
primarily made of high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and/or artificial
sweeteners, and contain 3 percent maple syrup (or less). Cooking notes: To
replace 1 cup sugar in baking, use about 3/4 cup of maple syrup and
lower the oven temperature 25 degrees Fahrenheit. For each cup of maple
syrup, reduce liquids by about 2 tablespoons.
The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Too much sugar—whether it’s
marketed as “natural” or not—can harm your health. Even sweeteners
touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed here, don’t
typically add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to
your diet. But in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with the sweetness
that a little sugar adds to life. So if you’re going to eat it, eat the
good stuff...just not too much of it.
This information coupled with our weight maintenance program is designed to help people lose weight. In fact, since we opened our doors five years ago, we’ve helped our patients shed more than 110,000 pounds. Half the battle is being knowledgeable about what you eat and how to eat properly. Our Bariatric Health & Wellness program was designed with the knowledge that not all weight loss is created equal. From personalized meal plans to our nutritionally designed meal replacements, we can help. We wish you the best. With our help and a weight maintenance program, you can achieve the results you want.