How Sweet It Is!

Sweet refers to much we enjoy in our culture, from sweet treats to sweethearts, to the joy of an experience: "How sweet it is!" In food, sweetness can often be too much of a good thing. Of the five primary tastes-salty, sweet, sour, pungent and bitter-sweet is the most popular. This is probably the result of having simple sugars be in relatively scarce supply, and therefore especially valuable to our distant ancestors. Unfortuneately, sweet foods are altogether too available to modern humans, in the form of concetrated purified sugars that are mostly calories with little other nutritional value. We need a method to evaluate the effects of sweet consumption on our bodies, our society and the health of the planet. The Shopper's Guide to Natural Foods uses the following parameters: 1) How refined is the sweetener you are using? Most sweeteners consist of concentrated simple sugars extracted from their food source, like white sugar and molasses from sugarcane, fructose from corn.

2) How does your body metabolize this product? Concentrated sweeteners like table sugar, molasses, maple syrup, and honey are mostly glucose and sucrose which are sent quickly into the blood and are used up just as quickly. When blood sugar levels drop quickly, many humans get really grumpy. Rice and barley syrups are made by using enzymes to digest starches into malt sugar - the proteins and some of the startches from the grains remain in the final product. These syrups consequently digest more slowly and cause smaller changes in blood sugar levels.

3) What are the political and ecological factors in the production, processing and distribution of the sweetener? According to Whole Food Facts, sugar changed from a scarce luxury to a major commodity when Christopher Columbus and his crew landed in the West Indies. "Huge sugar plantations soon were built and slave labor kept them going - just as low-paid indigenous workers provide the labor for sugarcane production today." Grain sweeteners are produced in developed countries and have less deleterious impacts on the folks producing them. Honey is often produced locally.
Answers to these and other questions can help us decide when and which sweeteners, if any, are right for us, our families, and our planet.

How Do They Compare?
Aspartame (Nutrasweet) & saccharin (200 & 300-400 times sweeter than white sugar, respectively) are synthetically produced and may have yet-to-be-determined adverse health consequences.

Brown sugar, turbinado sugar, white sugar and molasses come from sugarcane. All except molasses are at least 95% sucrose & have no nutritional value. Molasses, 72% to 85% sucrose, retains minerals and trace elements of the original cane or beets.

Sucanat® comes from organically grown sugar cane. The juice is pressed from the cane then dehydrated. It consists of about 7% fructose, 5% glucose, 84% sucrose, about 1% minerals (mostly sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, and .04%, a tiny smidge of vitamins.

Corn syrup comes from the starchy middle part of the corn kernel. It is often used as filler in processed foods such as ketchup. High-fructose corn sweetener is often used in sodas.

Honey is the oldest sweetener, comes in many flavors & contains small amounts of minerals & B-complex vitamins. Raw honey retains bee pollen otherwise lost by filtration.

Maple syrup is expensive but has a unique flavor. It is almost all glucose and water, but contains trace amounts of calcium, iron, potassium & phosphorous.

Barley malt syrup & rice syrup are complex products derived from whole grains, and contain significant amounts of protein starch and trace elements. These sweeteners ar better tolerated by folks with blood sugar disorders.

Fruit juice concentrates are commonly made from white grape or pineapple juice, are generally sweeter that other sweeteners due to the high fructose content.

SweetenerSourceDegree of RefiningSugar(s)CostCalories per Cup
Refined White Sugarsugarcanehighsucroselow821
Blackstrap Molasses sugarcane high sucrose low 699
Sorghum Molasses sweet sorghum low to med. sucrose high 848
Sucanat® Organic sugarcane none all high 570
Fructose (HFCS) corn high 40-90% fructose, some glucose low 736

beeslow to med.about half glucose, half fructoselow1031

Maple Syrup
maple treeslow to med.sucrosehigh764

Barley Malt
barleymediummostly maltose, some glucosehigh944

Rice Syrup
rice low to med. mostly maltose, some glucose med. to high752

rice low mostly maltose, some glucose high unknown

Fruit Juice Concentrate
fruit low to med.mostly sucrose, some fructose high depends upon type of fruit

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This page built by Ray Neff andDavid ResSeguie Last update: June 3, 1996