Client Question: Which Sugar Should I Use?

Sugar. There are so many layers to this tiramisu. 

A client sent an email asking about whether or not coconut sugar was a healthier alternative to regular sugar. While I tried not to go on too many tangents (it's easy to do...this is complicated, fascinating stuff!) I did have to give some more in depth information to answer her question effectively. So here is her original question and my response, posted with permission: 

Q: In trying to become a healthier eater I'm bypassing all the packaged cookies at the grocery store and I've started baking more. I've been reading coconut sugar is a better alternative than white sugar, but then I read sugar is sugar whether it's cane or coconut. What are your thoughts on coconut sugar? -E.H.

(After I asked a few follow up questions, I discovered that E uses agave nectar in her tea and eats dessert after dinner daily. Her steps toward improving her health included her getting information about which sugars to use, and not about limiting/eliminating sugars altogether.)

A: It's super hard for me to talk about sugar without getting into the nitty gritty/rabbit holes, but I will do my best to not to go on tangents. ;) We're primarily going to focus on your objective: making healthier choices when baking, and in selecting your sweeteners/treats.  

First, the facts:

  1. There is very little difference calorie for calorie from one variety of sugar to the next.
  2. Different sweeteners DO have different effects on the body, so it's not just sugar is sugar is sugar in that regard.
  3. Other benefits, like vitamins and minerals, should be taken into account. 
  4. Alternative sweeteners bear consideration (though trusting the research and manufacturers isn't always easy.) Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, should be avoided based on the science behind the effects in the body. 

Since #1 stands alone, we'll jump to #2: the way that fructose, glucose, and sucrose behave in the body are very different, and that matters. Glucose is 'blood sugar', and travels to all of the areas of our body to be utilized for energy. Fructose goes directly to the liver to be processed, and is not ideal for body processes in myriad ways. Sucrose is a combo of fructose and glucose, and is broken down into its separate parts and then processed by the body in their respective ways. (feel free to google for more info, or let me know if you'd like me to nerd-out on it for you sometime in the future...)

That's important to know when looking at different sweeteners and what they're made from. It's also important to note the harm that fructose does to the body, specifically, and that from a health management standpoint, it's best to reduce fructose in your diet. I will let you google the numbers on things if you're so inclined...but...agave nectar is higher than high fructose corn syrup in the fructose percentage per serving. I don't advise it for regular consumption. (Sorry.) Maple syrup and blackstrap molasses are considered better choices due to their ratios and higher mineral content. Honey can seem pretty great in a lot of ways, but it's also really high in fructose. Here's also a thorough (though sometimes overwhelming) comparison between maple syrup and honey.) If you're eating only a little of this additional sweetener a day in your tea, you'll have to weigh the risks and benefits to make the choices that are right for you.

Now on to coconut sugar vs. table sugar (including turbinado/raw sugar, white sugar, and brown sugar): table sugar is 50/50 glucose to fructose. Coconut sugar varies with the producer, and includes 70-80% sucrose, with the remaining 20-30% being split between glucose and fructose. So there is very little difference between the two. And while coconut sugar may have some additional minerals and vitamins, you'd have to consume a whole lot to actually feel the benefit. So for baking purposes, there's not compelling evidence that one is better than the other. If you want to go deeper to help you choose, you can look into harvesting practices, effect on the environment, cost per serving, etc. etc. 

Other decision making factors

Consider the nutrient content of sweeteners. Blackstrap molasses and grade b maple syrup, for example, have micronutrients that other sweeteners do not. The micronutrient breakdowns are readily available online, and don't vary widely across brands. 

Alternative Sweeteners

There has been an increased use of stevia and xylitol lately, and neither of those have the same effect on blood sugar or the liver. So they can be good choices if you're willing to do the research (and trial and error) between brands to find the best one for you. 

Also, xylitol can cause toxicity in large amounts (and is extremely toxic to dogs) so I don't think I would bake with it for daily/heavy consumption, or give it to kids, personally. (Though there is a strong case for xylitol improving oral health in small amounts.) Lo han is another one, but I have no direct experience with it.  

And the products made for baking in these alternative categories do involve the addition of other ingredients, so label reading is imperative. And without regulation or knowing the source, it makes trusting these ingredients a whole lot more challenging. Brand quality varies greatly, so there's more leg work involved. 

Artificial sweeteners like sucralose, saccharin, and aspartame, should be avoided based on the science behind the effects in the body. 

So, to wrap it up: 

  • Calorie for calorie, no big difference. 
  • The way different sugars work in the body is important to know and consider. 
  • Fructose is the most damaging, and should be reduced as much as possible. 
  • Coconut sugar vs. table sugar = no big difference, though you can consider other factors that can sway you toward one or the other.
  • Alternative sweeteners can be explored, but include an imperative research component.

There's so much more, y'all. And I'm writing this with as much objectivity as possible. Of course you know that I advocate for reducing sugar in the diet as much as possible, to allow for the sugars that are naturally occurring in our vegetables to take up the majority (or all) of our daily recommended value. But as you also know, I am a big fan of a customized approach for 'getting healthy' that may or may not involve trading a healthier option for a less healthy one, or gradually making your way to the sunny side of the street. The issue of sugar is one that affects most of us, and I hope this scratches the surface for you in terms of understanding some of it a bit more. 

Keep your questions coming! I LOVE hearing from you!