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The Bitter Truth About Sweeteners: Natural vs. Processed

Healthier Sweeteners are found in nature like honey, maple syrup, date sugar and fruit juice, or are made from natural foods like barley mat, rice syrup and sorghum. Natural Sweeteners are unrefined, or only lightly refined, so they retain valuable nutrients. They are digested more slowly and don’t cause the “sugar blues.”

Natural Sweeteners 

Barley Malt comes from sprouted grains of barley that are kiln died and cooked with water. The resulting syrup is a mild sweetener with a rich malt flavor, recommended for baking. Barley malt is the commonly used sweetener in soy products. Barley malt may contain corn syrup or refined sugar; read labels carefully.

Brown rice syrup is made from brown rice that has been cooked for a very long time. This sweetener has a mild flavor and the highest protein content of any natural sweetener. It is very good for baking.

Date sugar is dried, pulverized dates. It is very sweet, and although it doesn’t dissolve well, it is fine for cooking or baking.

Fruit juice sweeteners are most often derived from grapes, followed by apples and pears. The end result of the refining process for fruit juice sweeteners is a product similar to white sugar. Fruit juice sweeteners are used to sweeten beverages or food products.

Fruitsource is a combination of fruit sweetener and brown rice syrup. It is very sweet, but it assimilates slower into the bloodstream that refined sugar.

Fructose is a sugar naturally found in fruits and honey. Beware of fructose listed as an ingredient in other foods. Most of the fructose available commercially is made from refined corn syrup; people with corn allergies may have an allergic reaction. The body responds to high fructose corn syrup like it does to other refined sugars. Studies show that excess fructose in the diet raises triglyceride levels, increasing the risk of heart disease.

Honey is one of the most popular sweeteners for people who want to avoid using refined sugar. Honey is produced by honeybees that take nectar from flowers and then transform it. There are several types of honey, depending on the geographic location and the types of flowers from which the bees extract the honey. Darker honey contains more minerals and has a stronger flavor than lighter honey.

Natural honey is minimally processed to remove chunks of beeswax and to make it pourable. Read labels to make sure the honey you are getting is not overheated or finely filtered (can remove bee pollen), and does not contain sugar or corn syrup. Honey may contain botulism spores and should not be given to children less than one year old, to protect against infant botulism. Honey should be stored at room temperature, as it will crystallize if it gets cool. Place a container of crystallized honey in warm water to soften it. Honey is a versatile sweetener; it can be used for baking or as a spread.

Maple syrup is a popular natural sweetener made by boiling 13 the sap of sugar maple trees down into syrup. It has a distinctive flavor and is great poured on pancakes or French toast. It is also used for baking.

Molasses is a by-product of the manufacturing process of sugar from sugar cane. There are three kinds. Light molasses is the residue from the first extraction of sugar and is the sweetest. Medium molasses is from the second extraction and is darker and less sweet. Blackstrap molasses is the final residue; it is very dark and only slightly sweet with a distinctive flavor. Blackstrap molasses is a great source of calcium and iron. “Unsulphured molasses” indicates that no sulfur was used in the extraction process.

Sorghum is made from sweet sorghum, a grain related to millet and similar in appearance to corn. The juice from the plant is extracted and boiled down into syrup. It has a flavor and texture similar to that of molasses.

Stevia is a perennial plant native to Brazil, traditionally used as a sweetener in beverages. It is 30 times sweeter than sugar; two drops of stevia extract can sweeten one cup. Refined stevia powder is also available for baking or as a flavor enhancer. People with Candida or yeast conditions can use Stevia as a sweetener.

Sugar cane juice is a vegan sweetener and is made by mechanically extracting the juice from the whole cane; it is available in a dehydrated, crystallized form. Sucanat is simply rapidly dehydrated sugar cane juice. Some cane juice is clarified (though not highly refined or bleached) and then allowed to crystallize like normal sugar, which makes it good for icings and cakes.

Highly Refined Sugars 

The average American consumes 100 pounds of sugar per year. Most of this is in the form of refined sugars that are added to processed foods. Refined sugars such as corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, white sugar and brown sugar have no nutritional value.

Sugar, or white sugar, is made from sugar cane or sugar beets that have been chemically processed or refined to contain 99.9 percent sucrose. This standard leaves little room for the nutrients and fiber that were originally part of the natural plant.

Brown sugar is simply white sugar, with a bit of molasses added for color.

Turbinado or raw sugar is made the same way as white sugar, except for the last extraction of molasses. The standard for raw sugar is 96 percent sucrose.

Corn syrup is chemically refined syrup made from corn kernels. Dark corn syrup is artificially colored. High fructose corn syrup is made by an additional refining process that splits the two components of corn syrup. It is now a common ingredient in processed food and beverages.