Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Sweet on the Tongue

Sweet treats and dessert do have a place in a healthy diet.  Many delicious options exist for crafting recipes that you will love while you also get a nutritional boost.  The key to making good-quality desserts and baked goods is to understand that they don’t need to be calorie-free; rather, just try to ensure that they are not empty calories.  Below, you will find a run-down on the different options of sweeteners available.  If you experiment, you may find that you like certain sweeteners for certain recipes, such as stevia for teas, rapadura for cookies, agave nectar for muffins, and barley malt for spice cake.  Have fun exploring!

Sweeteners for Going Easy or Avoiding

Aspartame, Sucralose, Other Artificial Sweeteners

These products are made in labs, not kitchens. Different studies suggest artificial sweeteners are linked to weight gain and obesity because they interfere with the body’s ability to judge caloric intake. Allergic reactions and sensitivities to these chemicals also occur, including panic, rashes, dizziness, and bowel problems. I personally don’t care for them because they have a slight bitter taste and unpleasant texture when used in baking. In a nutshell: they’re not food, so don’t eat them.

White Sugar, Brown Sugar, and Molasses

Once you’ve gone beyond white sugar, you’ll never go back. White sugar is the purified, crystallized, bleached byproduct of either sugar cane or sugar beets. It is sweet in a sharp, clean way. It’s also bad news for diabetics and anyone else with blood sugar issues or glycemic index concerns. In addition, studies suggest refined white sugar may suppress the immune system and raid our bodies for stored minerals such as calcium—bad news for those with low bone density.

Molasses is a thick syrup extracted from sugar cane or sugar beets during the refining process. It is very strongly flavored and contains a variety of trace vitamins and minerals, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. It typically complements other sweeteners in baking but is not used alone. This is diabetic-friendly, but it can’t stand on its own.

The soft, packable sugar labeled “brown sugar” is simply refined white sugar with a little molasses added back in. It’s not a good choice for diabetics or the average person.

Better Choices for Those Without Blood Sugar Concerns


Honey comes in many varieties, hues, and intensities. You can get it raw, pasteurized, whipped, or otherwise processed, but I recommend getting local honey from your grocery store, co-op, or farmer’s market to enjoy the flavor of your home. My favorite here in Arizona is mesquite honey, which is rich, dark, and somewhat vanilla-y.

Honey is antibacterial in nature and raw honey can be used externally on cuts and scrapes. Internally, it is low in nutrients, but is believed to contain antioxidants. Honey should never be fed to infants because it can contain dormant bacteria that can cause illness. Honey is swiftly absorbed into the bloodstream, making it a poor choice for diabetics.

Maple Syrup

Real maple syrup is delicious, and if you need syrup on your pancakes, make sure it’s either this or agave nectar. Avoid any syrup with “maple flavor.”  Really, maple flavor is a sad, unfortunate thing.

Maple syrup is the boiled sap of maple trees, high in zinc and manganese to protect your heart and boost your immune system. It is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and is not well-suited to diabetics.

Sucanat, Rapadura, and Turbinado

These are terms for sugar which should be less refined than other kinds. The grains tend to be light brown to deep caramel in color, reflecting the trace minerals they contain. However, the manufacturing process for some of them has changed over time, so it’s worth it to check occasionally. All these sugars are deeper and rounder in flavor than white sugar, and add a wonderful complexity and richness to your baked goods even as they give you a nutrient boost over the straight white stuff. The information below is from the PCC Natural Markets website.

  • Rapadura is a brand name for organic, unrefined crystals. Unlike other methods of cane processing, the sugar stream is not separated from the molasses when the cane is crushed, which helps retain trace minerals and nutrients.  This sugar has more nutrient value than others.
  • Muscovado sugar is made by evaporating and draining off the molasses, leaving impurities that make it dark and moist.
  • Sucanat is a brand name for organic cane juice that’s clarified, filtered and granulated, with some molasses added.
  • Turbinado sugar is made the same way as white sugar without the last extraction of molasses, leaving it a golden color. It’s closer to refined sugar than raw sugar.
  • Demerara sugar is turbinado sugar with larger, crunchy crystals.

Short version: rapadura is a whole food. The others are trying to pass themselves off as healthier without deviating too far from the taste of white sugar. None of these are the best option for diabetics.

Slow and Steady Sweets


Stevia is a natural sweetener which comes from the leaves of the stevia plant, which is native to South America. It is 200-300 times sweeter that sugar, and it can be purchased in liquid, refined powder, and dry leaf forms. I have tried using it all three ways, but I have never been able to get past the sharpness of its flavor and the bitter aftertaste. It is safe for diabetics, so you may want to give it a try if you are diabetic, though I would recommend a more natural form, such as the crushed leaves. Personally, I prefer the liquid sweeteners described below.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a syrup from the heart of the agave, a desert succulent. You can get it in light or dark grades (the darker has a stronger flavor), both of which are slightly sweeter than sugar. However, agave nectar is safer for diabetics. It is also delicious, with a light, sweet taste. Also, it dissolves very well in beverages, consistently pours well, and does not crystallize. The only downside? As a sweetener, it is pricier than a lot of other options. However, as health care, it beats the pants off the cost of diabetes drugs. It is my personal favorite for low-impact sweeteners.

Brown Rice Syrup and Barley Malt Syrup

Both of these liquid sweeteners are about half as sweet as sugar and metabolize slowly, making them safe for diabetics and others concerned with the glycemic index. In both cases, the whole grains (sprouted, in the case of barley) and enzymes are cooked down to a sweet syrup full of nutrients.

Brown rice syrup has a light, straw-like taste, while barley malt is richer and more like molasses. I recommend against using them to sweeten beverages, as the flavor is noticeable. They can be easily used in baked goods, and barley malt is particularly well-suited for gingerbreads, spice cakes, and pumpkin-based goodies.


3 Comments so far

  1. Michelle @ What Does Your Body Good? November 19th, 2008 11:31 am

    Agave is my sweetener of choice too, but I really only grab for a tablespoon of it now and then. Good info about the differences between turbinado and other fancy sounding sugars! thanks!

  2. Kim November 30th, 2009 12:17 pm

    thank goodness Rapadura is a whole food! I loved your explanation of the different sugars. Glad because I bought a big bag of it to flavor cookies, breads, oatmeal. It is a good alternative to brown sugar in recipes. My picky girls will actually eat it on oatmeal without being prompted, which is a miracle…

  3. Laurel November 30th, 2009 6:13 pm

    You’re welcome, Kim! I love the flavor of rapadura–full and molassesy. It’s also very easy to use when you are just starting to move away from white sugar.

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