Sweeteners are a diverse category of food additives used to impart a sweet taste to foods and beverages. Throughout history, humans have sought and cultivated various plant sources to obtain sweeteners to add to their diet. The most commonly used sweeteners are refined from natural sources like sugarcane or corn. More recently, the food industry has developed no-calorie artificial sweeteners as well. Today sweeteners are ubiquitous in the modern food supply and play an important role in food production. From enhancing flavor to contributing bulk and texture, sweeteners impart qualities that consumers enjoy and expect. However, there is controversy regarding the potential health impacts of overconsuming certain sweeteners, like sugar and high fructose corn syrup. This has led to increased interest in alternative sweeteners, both natural and artificial. Understanding the range of sweeteners available today can help consumers make informed choices about their diet.
The most common natural sweetener is sucrose, which is commonly known as table sugar. Sucrose comes from either sugar cane or sugar beets. Sugar cane is a tropical grass that produces a juice containing 12-15% sucrose. The juice is extracted from the cane stalks and then crystallized to produce granulated sucrose. Sugar cane is grown in tropical and subtropical areas, including Southeast Asia, southern China, and the Caribbean. Sugar beets are root vegetables that contain about 20% sucrose and are grown in more temperate climates like the U.S. and Europe. The beets are processed to extract the sucrose-containing juice, which is boiled down to form sucrose crystals.
Whether from sugar cane or sugar beets, the end product is chemically identical sucrose. This is the sucrose that we typically use as table sugar, simple syrup, or other common household sweeteners. Sucrose provides sweetness to foods and beverages. It is used in baking, candy making, preserving fruits, sweetening coffee and tea, etc. Sucrose contains no nutrients apart from carbohydrates and calories. The body breaks down sucrose into glucose and fructose during digestion. Glucose is used for energy by cells throughout the body, while fructose is processed mainly by the liver.
Honey is a natural sweetener produced by honey bees from the nectar of flowering plants. It has been used as a sweetener and medicine for thousands of years across many cultures. Honey can be produced from many types of flowering plants. The most common honey comes from clover, alfalfa, manuka, and wildflower varieties. Honey contains sugars like glucose and fructose and trace amounts of minerals, enzymes, amino acids, vitamins, and antioxidants. Some of the health benefits of honey are attributed to these compounds. Antioxidants in honey, like chrysin, pinobanksin, catalase, pinocembrin, and vitamin C, may help protect cells from damage and reduce inflammation.
Raw, unprocessed honey is taken directly from the honeycomb. It contains trace amounts of bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. Raw honey is said to retain more of the health benefits than processed honey, since processing typically involves filtration and pasteurization. Processed honey is smoother in texture, slower to crystallize, and easier to handle and package.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees, primarily the sugar maple. The sap is collected in early spring when the maple trees prepare for budding. Holes are drilled into the trees, and the sap flows out from the high pressure within the tree. The sap is clear and almost tasteless and is made up of mostly water and sucrose. The sap is boiled to evaporate the water, leaving the concentrated sugary syrup. As the water content decreases, the syrup takes on the characteristic maple flavor. The boiling process is very lengthy, with 40 gallons of sap boiled down to make just 1 gallon of syrup.
Maple syrup is divided into grades based on color and flavor:
Grade A Light Amber – This is the lightest grade and has a mild, delicate maple flavor.
Grade A Medium Amber – This grade has a richer maple flavor and is the most common grade for pancake syrups.
Grade A Dark Amber – The darkest grade with a more pronounced maple flavor. This grade is usually used for baking.
Grade B – This grade is darker and has a robust maple flavor. It is usually used for cooking rather than as a table syrup.
The highest concentration of maple syrup production is in northeastern North America, especially Quebec, Canada. Vermont is the largest producer in the United States, with maple syrup being an iconic part of the state’s identity and tourism. Maple syrup production provides economic benefits to rural communities involved in the labor-intensive process.
Molasses is a viscous byproduct of the processing of sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar. It has a rich, robust flavor and is used as a sweetener in cooking. The sugar refining process produces different grades of molasses based on how much sugar content remains:
Compared to refined sugars, molasses contains more nutrients like vitamin B6, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium. However, it is still high in sugar and calories and should be consumed in moderation. The rich, caramel-like flavor of molasses makes it a popular sweetener in baking, marinades, barbecue sauces, stews, beans, and other savory dishes. Its unique flavor and high mineral content also make it a prized ingredient in gingerbread cookies, pecan pies, and Boston baked beans. Molasses helps brown sugar retain moisture and its color.
Agave syrup (also known as agave nectar) is a sweetener made from the sap of several species of agave plants, including Agave tequilana (blue agave) and Agave salmiana. The sap or juice is extracted from the core of the agave plant, called the “pina,” and is filtered and heated to break it down into sugars. The main sugar in agave syrup is fructose. Agave syrup has a medium-low glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load. Pure agave syrup has a GI of around 15, while commercial agave syrup products mixed with inulin or corn syrup have a GI around 30. This is lower than table sugar, or sucrose, which has a GI of 65.
Agave’s high fructose content and low GI make it an appealing natural sweetener for people with diabetes or those following a low glycemic diet. However, agave syrup is very high in fructose – typically about 70-90% fructose and 10-30% glucose. Some health experts have raised concerns about the fructose content of agave syrup. High fructose intake has been linked to increased risk of metabolic syndrome and liver damage in some studies. However, in moderation, agave syrup can be a flavorful alternative to other refined sugars.
Refined sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are manufactured from natural sources through intensive processing. HFCS is produced from corn starch using enzymes to turn the glucose into fructose. The process yields a very sweet syrup that is similar to table sugar but cheaper to produce. HFCS is commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods and soft drinks. It adds sweetness, improves texture, and acts as a preservative. Compared to sucrose, HFCS mixes better, doesn’t mask flavors, and is more stable at higher temperatures. This makes HFCS well-suited for use in baked goods, cereals, condiments, candies, canned fruits, dairy products, and many other foods.
Some concerns have been raised over the health effects of high fructose corn syrup. Since it is so ubiquitous in processed foods, overconsumption may contribute to problems like obesity and diabetes. However, in moderation, HFCS is no worse for you than regular sugar. The main issue is that HFCS enables excess sugar to be added to foods, resulting in empty calories with little nutritional value.
Brown sugar is refined white sugar with molasses added back in. The molasses gives it a soft texture and caramel or toffee-like flavor. The molasses also contributes nutrients like iron, calcium, and potassium that are not present in regular white sugar. The amount of molasses determines whether it is light or dark brown sugar. Light brown sugar has 3.5% molasses while dark brown sugar has 6.5% molasses. The higher molasses content gives dark brown sugar more moisture, color, and stronger flavor compared to light brown.
Brown sugar has a tendency to harden because the moisture evaporates over time. To prevent clumping and bring back the soft texture, some people store brown sugar with a slice of bread or apple in the bag or container. The moisture from the produce will help keep the brown sugar soft. The rich caramel-like flavor of brown sugar makes it popular for baking, especially in recipes like cookies, quick breads, muffins, and gingerbread. The molasses notes pair particularly well with chocolate, ginger, cinnamon, and nuts. Brown sugar also works as a rub for barbecued or baked meats since the surface caramelizes. Both light and dark brown can be substituted for white granulated sugar, but the flavor will become more pronounced. Reduce any additional liquids in the recipe to account for the extra moisture in brown sugar.
Artificial sweeteners are sugar substitutes that provide sweetness without calories or carbohydrates. Two common artificial sweeteners are sucralose and sodium cyclamate. Sucralose is synthesized from sugar in a multi-step chemical process where three hydrogen-oxygen groups are replaced with chlorine atoms. This results in a non-caloric sweetener that is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. Sucralose was discovered in 1976 and approved for use in foods and beverages in the late 1990s. It is marketed under the brand name Splenda. Studies have found sucralose to be safe for human consumption, though there are some concerns about potential adverse effects on gut bacteria. Sucralose is widely used as a non-nutritive sweetener in products like diet soft drinks, baked goods, ice cream, candy, fruit drinks, and yogurt.
Sodium cyclamate is another high-intensity artificial sweetener, approximately 30-50 times sweeter than sugar. It was discovered in 1937 and marketed in the 1950s and 60s, but was banned in some countries after a study linked it to bladder cancer in rats. Further research did not find clear evidence that cyclamate causes cancer in humans when consumed in normal doses. Today it is approved for use in more than 100 countries, though still banned in the United States. Sodium cyclamate is often used in combination with other sweeteners to enhance sweetness. It is found in diet and low-calorie foods, beverages, desserts, canned fruits, jams, chocolates, candy, and chewing gum. Artificial sweeteners like sucralose and sodium cyclamate allow for sweetness without the high caloric content of sugar. They provide options for people seeking to manage diabetes, weight loss, or other health conditions. However, some consumers wish to avoid artificial sweeteners due to concerns about potential health risks.
Stevia is an artificial sweetener that is extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant. Unlike many other artificial sweeteners, stevia is derived from a natural source. The extract from the leaves, called steviol glycosides, is very sweet but has no calories. Stevia is gaining popularity as a zero-calorie alternative to sugar. Because it is 200-400 times sweeter than sugar, only a tiny amount of stevia extract is needed to sweeten foods and beverages. This makes it an attractive option for people looking to reduce sugar and calories in their diet.
Stevia works well for sweetening drinks like coffee and tea. It can also be used in cooking and baking. When baking with stevia, recipes may need to be adjusted since stevia does not have the same bulk or browning effect as sugar. Stevia is not fermentable, so it will not produce carbonation in drinks. Overall, stevia provides a natural, zero-calorie sweetness that can help limit sugar and calorie intake. With its intense sweetness, stevia is a versatile, low-calorie sweetening option.