What most people would call sugar in this country is granulated, highly refined cane sugar. That’s the most common form sugar used at the table and for cooking. But there are many forms of cane sugar, as well as sugar from other plants. In addition, there are liquid sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup, as well as an increasing number of artificial sweeteners such as Splenda and Truvia.
Here’s a rundown of the types of sweeteners you can choose.
- Beet sugar: Sugar beets are sliced, then the liquid is extracted, partially evaporated, and boiled off. The resulting sugar crystals are white and can be used like granulated sugar.
- Brown sugar: This moist sugar is granulated cane sugar that has molasses added to it. It comes in both light and dark forms. Dark brown sugar has more molasses than the light version and has a stronger flavor. Light brown sugar has less molasses and less of a molasses flavor and is also a little less moist. They can be used interchangeably. Dry, granulated brown sugar is also available.
- Cane sugar: Sugar is made from sugarcane that is chopped, then has some water added, and is then heated, clarified with the addition of lime, and evaporated. The resulting syrup is then centrifuged to extract the sugar crystals. The liquid by-product of this process is called molasses. The two main categories of cane sugar are white refined sugar and brown sugar.
- Date sugar: Made from ground, dehydrated dates, this very sweet sugar does not dissolve when added to liquids.
- Demerara sugar: This “raw,” pale brown, coarse-textured cane sugar is from Demerara, an area in Guyana where the cane grows in rich, volcanic soil. It is often used as coffee sugar.
- Fructose: Fruit sugar, twice as sweet as refined cane sugar, provides moisture in baked goods. It’s sold in both a granular and liquid form. Commercial fructose is not extracted from fruits, but is created by treating glucose with enzymes.
- Fruit sweetener: Made from grape juice concentrate blended with rice syrup, this sweetener is about 80 percent as sweet as white sugar. It is sold in both granular and liquid form.
- Jaggery (palm sugar, gur): Made from the reduced sap of either the sugar palm or the palmyra palm, this sugar is dark brown and crumbly. The two most common forms of jaggery are the solid cake form of which the reduced sap is traditionally dried in coconut shells, and a soft type with a spreadable texture. Sometimes the syrup is smoked, giving the jaggery a black color and smoky flavor. It is generally found in East Indian markets and is available in both granular and liquid form.
- Maple sugar: This is maple syrup with all the liquid evaporated, leaving behind a dry sugar. It comes both in pressed cakes as well as in a granulated form. Except for the fact that it is expensive, this is a good substitute for refined sugar because the mouth perceives it as much sweeter than white sugar and it has fewer calories.
- Muscovado (Barbados) sugar: This “raw” cane sugar is similar to brown sugar, but with a richer, more complex flavor. It comes both light and dark.
- Piloncillo (panela, panocha): Raw sugarcane is crushed to extract the juice, then boiled to evaporate the liquid. It is poured into cone-shaped molds and sold in cone shapes in Hispanic markets.
- Raw sugar: True raw, unrefined sugar is not allowed to be sold in the United States because of the presence of dirt, insect fragments, and other unknown particles. Sugar sold as “raw” in this country has actually gone through at least 50 percent of the refining steps. Examples of “raw” sugar are Demerara, Muscovado, and Turbinado.
- Rock sugar (Chinese rock sugar): This lightly caramelized cane sugar is amber in color and not quite as sweet as regular granulated sugar. It is used in many Chinese dishes.
- Sucanat: Juice from organically grown sugarcane is turned into granular sugar by a process that does not involve any chemical additives. It is light brown and has a mild molasses taste.
- Turbinado sugar: Raw cane sugar crystals, derived from the first pressing of sugarcane, are steam-cleaned, but not bleached, to produce a blond, delicate, molasses-flavored sugar that is similar to Demerara, but with smaller crystals.
- White refined sugar (granulated sugar, table sugar, sucrose): White refined sugar comes primarily from sugarcane though also from sugar beets. It is highly refined, free-flowing sugar and the type most Americans think of as sugar. In addition to the typical granulated sugar, it comes in a number of other granulations, from coarse to fine. Coarse sugar is large crystals of granulated sugar, used for decorating baked goods. Superfine sugar is finer than granulated sugar and dissolves instantly. It is therefore often used in drinks and may be referred to as bar sugar. In England it is known as castor sugar. Confectioners’ sugar (10X sugar, icing sugar) is granulated sugar that has been crushed to a very fine powder. It often has a small amount of cornstarch added to prevent clumping. This is used in baking and to make frostings.
- Barley malt syrup: Roasted, sprouted whole barley is combined with water and cooked down to produce this brown liquid. It has a flavor similar to light molasses.
- Corn syrup: Corn syrup is made by converting the starches in corn to sugar. Light corn syrup is clarified, removing any particles. Dark corn syrup has caramel coloring added and has a stronger flavor than light.
- Honey: Our attraction to honey goes back to antiquity. In fact, references to honey can be traced back to 9,000 years ago in the form of cave paintings. Honey was so prized that the ancient Romans used it instead of gold to pay their taxes. Honey is the thick, sweet liquid made by bees from flower nectar. The honey’s color and flavor come from the source of the nectar. There are hundreds of different honeys and, in general, the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor. In addition to the standard liquid honey, it comes in a few other forms: In comb honey, the liquid honey is sold still in the chewy, edible comb. Chunk-style honey has bits of chewy honeycomb included in the jar along with the honey. Whipped honey is honey that has been processed by controlled crystallization to give it a thick, smooth, spreadable consistency. It is sometimes called honey butter or creamed honey. Though some preliminary studies show that honey does contain antioxidants, most people don’t eat large enough amounts of honey to reap any of the benefits. A tablespoon of honey is not a significant source of anything, except calories. This flavorful sweetener comes with one important caveat: Honey should never be fed to infants under the age of 12 months. Because their digestive systems are immature, babies less than 1 year of age are susceptible to infant botulism, an illness that can originate from spores in honey that have no effect on older children or adults.
- Malt syrup (malt extract): This natural sweetener is made from a mash of evaporated ground corn and sprouted barley. It has an earthy flavor and is less sweet than honey.
- Maple syrup: In Colonial America, Native Americans taught the early settlers how to tap the sugar-maple tree for its sap and how to boil the sap down to evaporate the water and produce the thick, sweet syrup the Indians called “sweetwater.” Because the processing of maple syrup is time consuming and labor intensive, it is rather expensive. Maple syrup is available graded according to color and flavor. Fancy or Grade AA is light amber and mild in flavor. Grade A, which comes in both medium and dark amber, is mellow with a delicate maple flavor. Grade B is dark and full-bodied with deep maple flavor, and Grade C is very dark with a molasses-like flavor. There are also maple syrup-like products called pancake syrups, which are corn syrups mixed with varying amounts of real maple syrup. Some pancake syrups have no maple syrup at all, and are flavored with artificial maple extract.
- Maple honey is maple syrup that’s been boiled until it achieves the consistency of honey. Maple cream (maple butter) is boiled longer still and is thick and spreadable.
- Molasses: When granulated sugar is extracted from sugarcane, the remaining brownish-black liquid is called molasses. The type of molasses depends on what part of the sugar-refining process produces it. Light molasses comes from the first boiling of the sugar syrup in the sugar-making process. Dark molasses is the by-product of the second boiling of the sugar syrup. Blackstrap molasses, the strongest and most bitter of the three, comes from the third boiling. The British call molasses treacle. Molasses also comes in either sulfured or unsulfured. Unsulfured molasses, made from the juice of sun-ripened sugarcane, is the lightest and most delicately flavored. Sulfured molasses is made from green, immature sugarcane that’s been treated with sulfur during the sugar extracting process. It has a stronger flavor than unsulfured molasses.
- Rice syrup: This thick amber syrup is made from a combination of sprouted barley and cooked brown rice that is fermented to convert the starches to sugar.
- Sorghum molasses (sorghum syrup): The juice from stalks of sorghum (a cereal grass) is boiled down to produce this thick, mild-flavored syrup, which is similar to light molasses.
Artificial sweeteners are now usually called sugar substitutes or low-calorie or noncaloric sweeteners, largely because the word “artificial” makes many people uncomfortable.
There are some sugar substitutes—such as sorbitol and other forms of reduced-calorie sugar alcohols—that provide the sweet taste found in many sugar-free candies, cookies, and chewing gums. Foods made with sugar alcohols affect blood glucose levels less dramatically than sugar and therefore require little or no insulin for metabolism. Thus, sugar alcohols are often used in foods for people with diabetes.
While popular conception is that artificial sweeteners will help you lose weight, studies have in fact failed to show that artificial sweeteners keep people from gaining weight, much less help them lose significant weight. There is competing advice on whether or not to use sugar substitutes—or drink diet soda, for that matter—and it is a discussion worth having with your doctor.
- Advantame: Advantame is a water-soluble, white crystalline powder that can be used as a table sweetener or in cooking. It’s made from aspartame and a compound found in vanilla. Advantame was approved by the FDA in 2014, and is called a “high-intensity” sweetener because it is about 20,000 times sweeter than sugar.
- Acesulfame-K (acesulfame potassium): This sugar substitute was approved by the FDA in 1989 and is used in soft drinks, candy, baked goods, and other foods, sometimes combined with aspartame. More than 90 studies have given it a clean bill of health, though many consumer groups still worry about it. Acesulfame-K passes through the body unchanged and is thus noncaloric. It contains only a small amount of potassium per serving. It does not break down when heated and can be used in baked goods and other cooked foods. Brand names include Sunett and Sweet One.
- Agave syrup: Taken from the nectar of the agave cactus, honey-like agave syrup has enjoyed increasing popularity in the past few years due to assumption that it is more nutritious or lower calorie than sugar. There is little evidence indicating that this is the case.
- Aspartame: Approved by the FDA in the early 1980s, aspartame is made from two amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and has almost no calories. It’s used in countless foods and beverages, but can’t be used in most baked goods. Aspartame should not be used by people with a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria (PKU), who lack the ability to process one of the amino acids.It is sold under the brand names Nutrasweet, Equal, and Sugar Twin, among others.
- Neotame: Approved by the FDA in 2002, neotame is at least 7,000 times sweeter than regular sugar, making it a “high-intensity” sugar substitute. It can be used in baking, and is often added to manufactured foods. It’s sold under the brand name Newtame.
- Saccharine: This artificial sweetener is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar, and is sold under the brand names Sweet’N Low and Sweet Twin, among others. Saccharine was linked to bladder cancer in rats in the 1970s, but since then more than 30 studies in people have found it safe for human consumption.
- Sorbitol: This occurs naturally in some fruits and berries. It is not quite as sweet as regular sugar. In addition to being used as an artificial sweetener, sorbitol is used as a thickener and stabilizer in candy and numerous food products.
- Stevia: An herbal extract from a member of the chrysanthemum family, stevia has become a widely used calorie-free sweetener. It’s sold under the brand name Truvia, among others. Marketers tout stevia as a “natural” alternative to artificial sweeteners, but because the leaves must be highly processed to isolate the compounds in the packets of sweetener, it’s as artificial as other sugar substitutes.
- Sucralose: A chemically modified form of sugar, Sucralose gained impressive popularity in the beginning of the 2000s with the introduction of the brand Splenda. Sucralose is between 320 and 1,000 times sweeter than table sugar. It is a useful alternative to sugar because it can sustain high heat and thus is a good substitute in baked goods. Sucralose is approved as safe by the FDA.