Cooking with Sweeteners: Sugars and Substitutes

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Cooking with Sweeteners: Sugars and Substitutes

The importance of eating gluten-free includes keeping your insulin and blood sugar levels stable! Healthy alternative sweeteners include: birch xylitol, liquid stevia, raw honey, coconut palm sugar, organic maple syrup, and molasses. Glycemic index measures how much your blood sugar increases 2-3 hours after eating certain foods. Most carbohydrates are metabolized into the simple carbohydrate glucose, which has a glycemic index of 100.  The higher a glycemic index food number is, the faster it raises your blood sugar level. So sweeteners and foods with a lower glycemic index number are best. Stevia has the lowest glycemic index while coconut sugar and xylitol also have a lower glycemic index profile, meaning stable blood sugar levels throughout the day vs. corn syrup and refined sugar.

Sugars & Substitutes with their Glycemic Index

Artificial Sweeteners (N/A)               
Never a Healthy Sugar Alternative
All artificial chemical sweeteners are toxic and can indirectly lead to weight gain. They should be avoided. In fact, given a choice between high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners, we recommend high fructose corn syrup (the lesser of two evils)

Stevia (0) - Best Healthy Sugar Alternative
Native to Paraguay, Stevia is 200 times sweeter than table sugar, so a little goes a long way. It works best as a flavor enhancer.  Unlike other popular sweeteners, it has the lowest glycemic index and therefore inhibits the growth of bacteria and yeast such as candida. It stabilizes blood sugar levels, and benefits digestion.

Xylitol (7)              
Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol sweetener derived from the birch tree and found in the fibers of fruits and vegetables. It can cause bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence with initial consumption.  Studies show it can be used to treat ear infections, osteoporosis, respiratory infections, candida, and it even helps fight cavities. You can buy gum made with it and put a teaspoon in your netti pot to treat sinus congestion.

Agave Nectar (15-30)
Agave Nectar is obtained by the extraction and purification of "sap" from the blue agave plant, which is broken down by natural enzymes into the monosaccharides (simple sugars): mainly fructose (75%) and dextrose (25%). A highly chemical process using genetically modified enzymes, caustic acids, clarifiers, filtration chemicals in the conversion of agave starches into highly refined fructose. Agave Nectar is higher in fructose content than high fructose corn syrup!

Fructose (17)
Though fructose has a low glycemic index rating, fructose consumption should be limited. Fructose is linked to heart disease as it raises triglycerides and cholesterol. It is devoid of nutrition.

Brown Rice Syrup (25)
Though it is said to have a low glycemic index, it is not recommended for diabetics, since its sweetness comes from maltose, which is known to cause spikes in blood sugar.

Raw Honey (30) - A Healthy Sugar Alternative in moderation.        
With antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, carbohydrates, and phytonutrients, raw, unprocessed honey is considered a superfood and a remedy for many health ailments. Choose your honey wisely. There is nothing beneficial about processed honey.

Coconut Palm Sugar (35)
Made from the sap of coconut palms Coconut Sugar has a nutritional content far richer than all other commercially available sweeteners.  It is high in Potassium, Magnesium, Zinc and Iron and is a natural source of the vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6 and C. Coconut Sugar is unprocessed, unfiltered and unbleached. Coconut Palms produce an average of 50-75% more sugar per acre than Sugar Cane and uses less than 1/5th the nutrients for production.

Apple Juice (40)
Fresh apple juice is good for you and it can be used as a sweetener, though we recommend eating fresh raw whole apples. Concentrated apple juice is closer to refined sugar than fresh apple juice.

Barley Malt Syrup (42) - Not gluten-free!
Barley malt is made by soaking and sprouting barley to make malt, then combining it with more barley and cooking this mixture until the starch is converted to sugar. The mash is then strained and cooked down to syrup or dried into powder. 

Amasake (43)
This is an ancient, Oriental whole grain sweetener made from cultured brown rice. It has a thick, pudding-like consistency. It's not easy to find in the U.S., but it is a great alternative to refined table sugar.

Sugar Cane Juice (43) - Healthy Sugar Alternative in moderation.
Sugar cane juice has many nutrients and other beneficial properties.

Organic Sugar (47)
Organic sugar comes from sugar cane grown without the use of chemicals or pesticides. It is usually darker than traditional white sugar because it contains some molasses. (It has not been processed and bleached to the degree white sugar is processed).

Maple Syrup (54)
Maple syrup is made by boiling sap collected from natural growth maple trees during March & April. It is refined sap and is therefore processed.  It does have a high glycemic index, but it is more nutritious then refined table sugar and high fructose corn syrup.

Evaporated Cane Juice (55)
Evaporated cane juice is often considered unrefined sugar, but juicing is a refining process, and evaporating refines further. Though better than turbinado, cane juice (unevaporated) is a better choice as a sweetener.

Black Strap Molasses (55)
White refined table sugar is sugar cane with all the nutrition taken out. Black strap molasses is all of that nutrition that was taken away. A quality organic (must be organic!) molasses provides iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, and is alkalizing to the body.

Turbinado (65)
Turbinado sugar is partially processed sugar, also called Raw Sugar.

Raw Sugar (65)
Raw sugar is not actually raw sugar. It is processed, though not as refined as common white table sugar. Therefore, given a choice between raw and white, choose raw. There are many different variations of raw sugar with many different names depending on how refined it is.

Cola (and most other sodas) (70)              
Though cola has a lower GI ranking then some might expect, there are many other reasons to avoid cola, or any type of soda. There is nothing beneficial to the human body inside a can of soda (not to mention we should avoid drinking out of aluminum cans!).

Corn Syrup (75)
Corn syrup is void of nutrition and should be avoided. Studies show it contributes to obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer's and memory loss. Corn syrup has been shown to increase osteoporosis, tooth decay, anemia and osteoarthritis. It contains phytate, a chemical that binds to iron and inhibits iron absorption, thus it can cause anemia.

Refined, Pasteurized Honey (75)
The nutrition is gone, and there is often high fructose corn syrup added to processed honey. Refined pasteurized honey is no better than white table sugar.

Refined Table Sugar (80)
Conventionally grown, chemically processed, and stripped of all beneficial properties, many health advocates believe that refined sugar is one of the two leading causes (high fructose corn syrup is the other) of nearly every health ailment known to man (or woman or child). Not only does it have a high GI ranking, but it also is extremely acidic to the body causing calcium and other mineral depletion from bones and organs (sugar is alkaline but has a very acidic effect on the body).

High Fructose Corn Syrup (87)
High fructose corn syrup and refined sugar are the two biggest contributors to health ailments in our society. High fructose corn syrup is comprised of equal parts of glucose and fructose. Fructose is processed in the liver. When too much fructose enters the liver it can't process fructose as a sugar. Instead, the liver turns excess fructose into fats-triglycerides causing increased cholesterol. When you incorporate these fats into your cell membrane, triglycerides cause these cells to be insulin resistant. The Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2009 published a article which concluded that beverages containing  fructose increase cholesterol levels, abdominal weight gain and decreased insulin sensitivity.

Glucose (AKA Dextrose) (100)
White bread was the benchmark, but for consistency glucose now holds the rating at 100.

Maltodextrin (150)
Foods that have maltodextrin often say "Low Sugar" or "Complex Carbohydrate", this sweetener should be avoided!


Adapted from Kristen Lum, ND and Jess Kelly, MNT, "Gluten-Free Healthy Holiday Baking"