Sweeteners 101

Ever since we started our 100 Days of Real Food pledge it seems like we have been getting a lot of questions about sugar and other sweeteners. Can’t we have sugar? Isn’t it natural? Yes, I suppose it is technically “natural” since it is made from the sugar cane plant, but it is also a highly processed version of this plant similar to how white flour is made from the wheat plant. If we are going to start classifying things in this manner we could also technically say high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is “natural” since it is made from corn. And despite the mixed research on if HFCS is really worse for you than good ol’ white sugar, according to Michal Pollan, it just happens to be “a reliable marker for a food product that has been highly processed”.

A sweetener like honey can also be considered natural and somewhat “processed”, although the work is done by bees out in nature as opposed to in a factory. All of these (as well as other sweeteners) are high in energy and low in nutrients, although an alternative like honey or maple syrup might be slightly better in the nutrition department. According to Michael Pollan the moral of this story is that “sugar is sugar” and “organic sugar is sugar too.” In processed food there are “now some forty types of sugar used” including:

barley malt, beet sugar, brown rice syrup, cane juice, corn sweetener, dextrin, dextrose, fructo-oligosaccharides, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, sucrose, invert sugar, polydextrose, sucrose, turbinado sugar

There are also the sweeteners you can find in the grocery store baking aisle such as:

Splenda, Equal, agave syrup, corn syrup, molasses, maple syrup, Sweet-n-Low, brown sugar

No matter what kind of sugar you decide to use we think there are a couple of key takeaways:

  • Consume any and all types of sugar in moderation mainly trying to reserve them for special occasions.
  • When it comes to store-bought foods avoid those “that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients” according to Pollan.
  • Given the choice go with a natural option like honey or even white sugar as opposed to the artificial stuff like aspartame (or Splenda).

As far as our 100 Days of Real Food rules go, we chose honey and 100% maple syrup as acceptable choices because they are made in nature and less often found in highly processed foods. This rule has resulted in us having to make from scratch anything we eat that contains a sweetener. Trust me when I tell you, I have searched high and low for a store-bought product containing 5 or less ingredients and honey or maple syrup as the sweetener. One may exist, but I have not found it. So this rule greatly helps us not only reduce, but also regulate our consumption of “sweets” since we have to make everything ourselves.

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  1. I was curious on sugar because while the guidelines say honey and pure maple syrup are acceptable, some of the dessert recipes contain brown sugar or regular sugar. How does that fit in to the guidelines?

    1. Hi Kasey,
      Lisa tries to use honey and maple syrup as much as possible as her sweeteners when cooking, but it’s also about balance and treating yourself every now and then. – Nicole