Sugar is a carbohydrate.  Cereal grains and tubers provide a starchy glucose (a sugar), while honey, fruits and vegetables supply simple sugars like glucose and fructose.  Over time, methods for refining sugar from sugar cane and beets increased the availability of sugar to food manufacturers and to consumers.  Today, Americans consume 130 pounds of refined sugar every year.  By way of comparison, the amount of sugar people consumed in a year in 1820 was less than 20 pounds.  Over a lifetime, an average of 3,550 pounds of sugar is consumed.  In fact, Americans consume more sugar than any other food additive.   

Why This Matters:

Refined sugar has 0 nutritional value - 0 vitamins, 0 minerals, 0 enzymes, 0 fiber - and has been linked to obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure, hypoglycemia, depression, headaches, fatigue, nervous tension, aching limbs, diabetes, acne, skin irritations, stiffening of arteries, and violent behavior.  Brain scans have shown that consuming refined sugar is as addictive as consuming cocaine.

The USDA uses the term “added sugars” to refer to sugars and syrups that are added to foods during processing and preparation before consumption.   In addition to providing a sweet taste, sugars are added to conventional foods to:

  • Inhibit microbial growth by binding water in jams and jellies
  • Add texture, flavor, and color to baked goods
  • Support the growth of yeast for leavening or fermentation
  • Contribute volume in ice cream, baked goods, and jams
  • Enhance the creamy consistency of frozen desserts
  • Enhance the crystallization of confectionary products
  • Balance acidity in salad dressings, sauces, and condiments
  • Help to maintain the natural color, texture, and shape of preserved fruits

In 1975, author William Duffy was among the first to point out the dangers associated with consuming so much sugar when he published Sugar Blues, which illuminated the role of sugar in our food chain as well as sugar’s addictive influence on human eating behavior.   Since that time, the relationship between sugar and conditions such as diabetes, obesity, headaches, hyperactivity and other immune disorders have become well known.

Sweeteners are customarily grouped into two types - nutritive and nonnutritive.  Nutritive sweeteners are obtained from plant sources, contain carbohydrate (sugar) and provide energy (calories).  Nonnutritive sweeteners, commonly called artificial sweeteners, are made in the lab to provide a sweet taste, but they have no carbohydrates, no calories, and no nutrition.        

Artificial (Nonnutritive) Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners, made in the lab, have been around since 1879 when the first one – saccharin – was discovered.  By 1917, the little pink packets of saccharin are on tables all over the U.S.   Made in the lab, artificial sweeteners are called nonnutritive because they have zero calories for energy and absolutely no nutrition.  The approved artificial sweeteners on the market today are all chemically manufactured molecules – molecules that do not exist in nature such as:

  • Saccharin (aka Sweet 'N Low) is used in drinks, canned goods, and candy.  Between the years 1981 and 2000, all items with saccharin had to display a warning label due to links between saccharin consumption and bladder cancer.  Although Congress repealed the warning label, many nutrition experts still recommend avoiding saccharin and products that contain it.
  • Aspartame, trade named Equal or NutraSweet, was created in the lab in 1965.  It is one of the most studied artificial sweeteners with zero nutritional benefits.   Some organizations including the Center for Science in the Public Interest recommend that people with phenylketonuria (an inherited genetic disorder) should avoid it.
  • Acesulfame potassium (brand name Sweet One) was developed in 1967 and is now added to soft drinks, gelatins, chewing gum, and frozen desserts.  It offers no nutritional benefits and animal studies show links to cancer.
  • Sucralose (aka Splenda) has 1 calorie per teaspoon and is used in fruit drinks, canned fruit, and syrups.  Recent research* has shown that it can cause a variety of harmful biological effects including reducing good gut bacteria, making medication less effective and releasing toxins.
  • Neotame, the newest artificial sweetener on the market, is made by the same company that produces aspartame.  It has zero nutrition and is found in drinks, dairy products, frozen desserts, puddings, and fruit juices.

*Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B: Critical Reviews, 2013.

Refined (Nutritive) Sweeteners

Nutritive sweeteners originate from plants, contain carbohydrate and provide energy.  They can be classified into monosaccharides or disaccharides, or sugar alcohols (polyols).   On labels, refined sweeteners are listed as ingredients with terms such as sugars, sugar, caloric sweeteners, and added sugars.   Sugar occurs naturally in all fruit, vegetables, and dairy foods or they are added to foods during processing. 

Why This Matters:

There are many steps used in the refining process for sugar, including filtration using bone ash as a filter. This practice has been a source of controversy for vegans and vegetarians as bone ash is derived from animal bones.

Sucrose is the most recognized sugar, made from sugar cane or sugar beets.  It is a disaccharide that occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables that is composed of one part glucose and one part fructose, both of which are monosaccharides that are chemically bound together.   Enzymes in the intestine quickly split sucrose molecules into glucose and fructose which are absorbed in the body as single sugars. 

Sucrose is the white table sugar most consumers know.  Raw material from cane or beets is mixed with warm concentrated syrup and the resulting mixture is centrifuged to remove the impurities and separate the solids from the sugar syrup.  The next stage of refining removes any remaining solids (and most of the color) to make the liquid sugar more clear.  The liquid sugar is boiled and the resulting white crystals are sugar.  A byproduct of this process is refiner's molasses which is often turned into food for cattle or sent to distilleries where alcohol is made.

Brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, turbinado sugar, and unrefined sugar made from sugar cane juice are also sucrose.  In fact, brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added back in for coloring and flavor.  Turbinado sugar is manufactured using the same steps as white sugar but stops short of the final extraction step that removes the last of the molasses, leaving the turbinado darker and richer tasting.   Sugar cane juice is extracted mechanically from the whole cane and then dehydrated and made into a crystallized form.  Dehydrated cane juice is less refined and easily substituted for regular sugar.

Corn sweeteners are ubiquitous in processed foods.  They are composed of glucose or fructose or any combination of the two.  Many processors prefer sweeteners from corn because they offer stability and crystallization control during the manufacturing process.   

  • Corn syrup is made from the starch in corn kernels, which is hydrolyzed into glucose by using a series of steeping (swelling the kernel), separation, and grinding processes to separate the starch from the other parts of the kernel, which are used for animal feed. The remaining starch is dextrose, a simple sugar, known as glucose when found in blood.    Refiners hydrolyze the starch using various enzymes or acids to produce varying levels of sweetness and sweetening products including corn syrup (glucose syrup), dried corn syrup, maltos and its derivatives (malt sugar, maltotriose, and maltodextrin) and dextrose (glucose).

Why This Matters:

Maltose is a disaccharide composed of two glucose units.  It is found in molasses and is also used for fermentation, to extend shelf life of foods and to help people who have an issue with dry mouth. It is a natural sweetener, with a lower glycemic index, but it can be difficult on the digestive system. People who use large quantities of maltose may have more digestive issues.

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is made by adding enzymes to corn syrup which converts the high dextrose corn syrup to 40-90% fructose. The chemical composition of HFCS is very similar to sucrose.  Humans easily convert naturally occurring fructose in fruit to glucose.  HFCS is controversial partly because it is unclear that humans have an equally efficient way of converting this chemically produced fructose (HFCS) into glucose, and additional study into the metabolic responses to HFCS is needed.   Nevertheless, HFCS contributes added sugar and calories to foods, which has been linked to the increased epidemic of obesity and diabetes.   HFCS is found in sodas, desserts, cereals, salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, breads, yogurts and other packaged products, including children's cough and cold medicines.  Manufacturers use this ubiquitous additive because it is cheap to produce and gives products a longer shelf life and has many advantages during manufacturing including ferment-ability, lower freezing points, surface browning and flavor enhancement.  HFCS is often called “fructose” or “fructose syrup” on a label.
  • Crystalline fructose is produced from corn by transforming glucose from corn starch enzymatically to fructose; and it is produced from sugar (beets or sugar cane) by separating the glucose and fructose in the sucrose.  When finished, crystalline fructose is a brilliant white product similar to white table sugar in appearance.  Crystalline fructose is not HFCS.  HFCS contain both glucose and fructose and is similar to sucrose (table sugar); crystalline fructose is just that - only fructose.  New research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity.   Health experts recommend that the less fructose consumed, the better.
  • Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are carbohydrates with a chemical structure that partially resembles sugar and partially resembles alcohol, but they don’t contain ethanol as alcoholic beverages do.  Sugar alcohols occur naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but are commercially produced from other carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, and corn starch.  They provide fewer calories (about a half to one-third less calories) than regular sugar. This is because they are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized and don't cause sudden increases in blood sugar. This makes them popular among individuals with diabetes.  The commonly used sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt, glycerin and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.  Most sugar alcohols are approximately half as sweet as sucrose, although maltitol and xylitol are about as sweet as sucrose.  Xylitol provides the greatest cooling effect of any of the sugar alcohols and has a pronounced mint flavor. These characteristic makes xylitol popular for sugar-free chewing gums, candies and chewable vitamins.  Sugar alcohols have a laxative effect or can generate other negative gastric symptoms in some people, especially children, when foods with these additives are overeaten.  They are not fully absorbed and metabolized by the body, and thus contribute fewer calories than most sugars.  On the other hand, xylitol has a benefit for healthy teeth because it helps prevent bacteria from sticking to teeth, which prevents tooth decay, and may actually help repair damage to enamel.   

Other refined nutritive sweeteners include fruit-juice sweeteners, sometimes called fruit-juice concentrates, made from fruit that has been pressed into juice and then reduced to a thick liquid or dehydrated into a powder.  They are commonly derived from grapes, apples, peaches, pears, or pineapples.  They are frequently used to replace fats in low-fat products because they retain water and provide bulk, which improve the appearance and “mouth feel” of the food.  They have very high levels of fructose and are another way that empty sugar calories get into food.

Stevia is a perennial herb plant native to South America that has been traditionally used as a sweetener for centuries.  It is used as a sugar substitute (similarly to artificial sweeteners) because it has no calories, does not register on the glycemic index, and is 25-30 times sweeter than sugar.  The sweet flavor comes from glycosides (enzymes in the leaf cells) instead of carbohydrates, thus stevia passes through the digestive tract without impacting blood sugar levels.  However, there are some concerns about use of stevia impacts on control of blood sugar and effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems.  The FDA does not allow the use of the stevia leaves nor of "crude stevia extracts" for use in food. But it does allow the use of an isolated chemical from stevia to be used as a food additive, giving it a GRAS label.  Now products such as Truvia and others are able to use Rebaudioside A, which is found in stevia.  Natural food stores have carried stevia as an alternative sweetener for many years; often as a liquid concentrate in the herb department.  Today powdered stevia is commonly found in natural food stores from NuNaturals, Now Foods, SweetLeaf, and Frontier Naturals.   

“Natural” Sweeteners

Sugars made from corn, beets and sugar cane are often labeled natural because they originated from plants and the chemical structures are found in nature.  But less processed, less refined sweeteners are more appropriately called “natural” and some are often only found in health food stores.  There are three advantages of using less refined, natural sweeteners over refined sweeteners; chemicals are not used in the refining process, more nutrient content stays intact during the manufacturing process, and some rank lower on the Glycemic Index.

Why This Matters:

While so-called natural sweeteners may offer more nutrition, it is important to note that all sweeteners should be eaten in moderation. The human body is not designed to eat large amounts of sweet foods.   The glycemic index and glycemic load offer information about how foods, especially various natural sugars, affect blood sugar and insulin.  The lower a food's glycemic index or glycemic load, the less negative effects on blood sugar and insulin levels.  But glycemic index alone may not be sufficient information for some consumers.  For instance, agave nectar is low glycemic nectar but it is high in fructose.  The more staff knows about the different types of natural sugars, the better customers with low sugar requirements will be served.

Agave Nectar is sourced from Blue Agave plant with a taste and texture similar to honey.  The Blue Agave is actually a large spikey succulent plant similar to Aloe Vera with well over 100 different species.  Agave plans contain a high amount of carbohydrate which results in a high percentage of fructose in the agave nectar.  Sap is extracted from the plan, heated at low temperature which breaks down the carbohydrates into sugars.  Light and dark types of agave nectar are made from the same plant - the lighter variety undergoes less heat and more filtering to produce a more mildly flavored product.  The low temperatures allow agave nectar to qualify for those raw food diets.   A tablespoon of agave nectar contains about 60 calories per tablespoon and is sweeter than sugar.  It is lower on the glycemic index, but should be limited, just like other sugars, especially for diabetics.  Considered a "natural" sweetener, new research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity.   So many consumers who had switched to agave nectar are moving away from it, due to its high fructose content.

Barley Malt syrup is an unrefined sweetener produced from sprouted, then roasted (sometimes called malted) barley.   It contains approximately 65 percent maltose, 30 percent complex carbohydrate, and 3% protein. It is dark brown, thick and sticky, and possesses a strong distinctive flavor described as "malty." It is about half as sweet as refined white sugar. Barley malt syrup is sometimes used in combination with other natural sweeteners to lend a malt flavor and is often used in spice cakes, gingerbread, whole grain breads, baked beans, barbecue sauces, candied vegetables and home brewing.  Some people use barley malt syrup as a home remedy for constipation in infants and for treating irritable bowel syndrome.

Brown Rice Syrup is commonly used in the macrobiotic community as a natural sweetener.  It is produced by steeping brown rice with an enzyme preparation, then converting the rice into a liquid extract.  The resulting syrup is thick with a mild butter flavor and delicate sweetness.  As a sweetener, it is rich with rice protein concentrates, including soluble carbohydrates, 45% maltose and 3% glucose.  It is a polysaccharide (complex sugar) that takes longer to digest than simple sugar and has a more healthy effect on cholesterol and cardiovascular disease than white table sugar. 

Coconut Sugar is made from sap of the coconut palm tree that has been extracted and then boiled and dehydrated. It is not the same as Palm Sugar which comes from the sugar palm tree and is often used in Thai cooking.  Coconut sugar provides the same number of calories and carbohydrates as regular cane or beet sugar.  However, coconut sugar is 70 to 79 percent sucrose and only three percent to nine percent each of fructose and glucose, which is an advantage for those who want to reduce their fructose intake.  Coconut sugar also contains good amounts of zinc, iron, antioxidants, and inulin, a dietary fiber that acts as a prebiotic in the body, and is lower on the glycemic index.  Coconut sugar is caramel colored with a taste that is similar to brown sugar and can be substituted for light or dark brown sugar in most recipes.

Date Sugar is actually very finely ground dry dates, so all of the nutrition and fiber contained in dates is also contained in date sugar, including its inherent antioxidants.  Since it retains these nutrients it helps make a person feel full for longer.  It has more potassium than bananas and is lower in calories than other sugars.  It is very sweet, but it clumps and doesn't melt, so it is not useful in all the ways regular sugar is used.  It is more easily substituted in recipes that call for brown sugar in a 2/3 to 1 ratio.

Honey is made when honeybees transform the nectar they collect from flowers into a food source that is used to sustain the hive. Farmers with hives benefit by using the bees to cross pollinate crops and from the harvest of honey.  Honey is extracted by removing the waxy cap on the honeycomb and spinning the combs in a honey extractor, which removes most of the honey by centrifugal force.  Typically the honey is filtered through a screen to remove bits of wax and bee debris. There are over 300 known varieties (flavors) of honey.  The color and flavor of these vary according to the flower source; typically darker honey has a stronger flavor. 

Why This Matters:

Vegans follow a vegetarian diet that excludes meat, eggs, dairy products and all other animal-derived ingredients. Because a bee is a living creature, a vegan would not consume honey. Many vegans also do not eat foods that are processed using animal products, such as refined white sugar and some wines.

Honey can be consumed in different forms.  The comb is edible, so some prefer honey, comb and all.  Liquid honey is the most widely used form.  Honey can also be whipped or creamed, where the crystallization of the honey is controlled at certain temperatures so it can be spread like butter.  This form is popular in many countries around the word, especially for breakfast.  Commercial honey is heated to extract every last drop of honey from the combs and make manufacturing and packaging easier.  Many shoppers in natural food stores are looking for raw honey – honey that has not be heated during the extraction process.

Honey has about 21 calories per teaspoon and contains trace amounts of vitamins and minerals and studies have shown that it raises blood sugar more slowly.  Honey will crystallize over time, so it should be stored at room temperature and can be heated at a low temperature to melt the honey crystals.  Honey is also used as a natural remedy for colds and cough, acne & skin breakouts, wounds, burns, ulcers, dry skin and lips, gingivitis, intestinal ulcers, dry hair and aging skin.

Maple Syrup is made during the March through May sugaring season by tapping sugar maple trees and collecting the sap.  The thin sap is then by boiled and some of the water content evaporated until syrup is formed. Typically 40 gallons of sap are needed to make 1 gallon of syrup. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) assigns grades to the maple syrup sold in the U.S.   Grading of syrup sold in the United States is voluntary.  The grades are:

  • Grade A Light Amber (or Fancy) is very light in color and has a faint, delicate maple flavor. It is usually made earlier in the season when the weather is colder.
  • Grade A Medium Amber is darker and has an easily discernible maple flavor.
  • Grade A Dark Amber is very dark and has a strong maple flavor.
  • Grade B is extremely dark in color and has a very strong maple taste as well as hints of caramel.

Although maple syrup is a liquid sugar, pure maple syrup has been studied for its health effects and found to be a source of phenolic antioxidants, the same antioxidant found in berries.  Maple syrup is popular on breakfast items like pancakes and waffles. It is also used to add some sweetness and flavor to marinades and salad dressings and as a general sweetener for baked goods when maple flavor is desired.   Maple syrup should be stored in the refrigerator after opening to ensure freshness and prevent natural crystallization.

Molasses is a by-product of the refining of sugarcane or sugar beets into sugar.  In the case of sugarcane, the first boiling of the sugar cane juice yields the cane syrup that eventually becomes sugar in all of its powdered and crystal forms.  The second boiling produces the light colored molasses and the third produced black strap molasses.  Black strap molasses is a dark, very thick molasses remaining after all of the sugar has been extracted from raw sugar cane.  It has 500 to 600 times more antioxidants than plain sugar, and has significant amounts of minerals including iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and copper.  Some molasses products will be labeled as "sulphured" or "unsulphured."  Sulphured molasses has had sulphur dioxide added as a preservative because molasses will ferment over time.  But it does change the taste of the molasses, making it less sweet.  Unsulphured molasses is the type usually used in recipes and sold in health food stores. 

Molasses is used as an ingredient in rum, in certain types of beers, in dark rye breads and in baked goods.  It is also used in livestock feeds, in fishing ground bait, as an iron supplement, for yeast production, and is a primary ingredient in the production of citric acid.

Sorghum is a broad-leaf plant primarily grown in Kentucky and Tennessee that looks like a corn plant in the field.  Sorghum syrup is produced from the grain of the sorghum plant, which looks similar to millet.  The juice from the plants are extracted right in the field and the bright green juice is returned to the mill where it is heated and cooked, which thickens the syrup and turns it into an amber color when bottled.  Ten gallons of raw sorghum juice yields about a gallon of syrup.  Sorghum is ranked second among sweeteners after blackstrap molasses for its nutrient content, including potassium, protein, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and antioxidants.  Sorghum has a flavor and texture similar to that of molasses and sometimes is called sorghum molasses.  It is less sweet than honey, but more sweet than molasses, and when used to replace sugar in recipes, one third more should be used.   



Words to Remember


A form of glucose found in plant starches.


Also known as sucrose or table sugar, this sugar carbohydrate is formed when two monosaccharides are joined together and a molecule of water is removed. For instance, sucrose is a disaccharide formed from the combination of glucose and fructose.



A monosaccharide sugar found in fruit.



A simple monosaccharide sugar found in the blood, which is also known as dextrose when found in plants. Glucose will be absorbed directly into the bloodstream during digestion.



A verb describing the breakdown of a compound into its different components by a chemical reaction with water.



Also known as Maltos, malt sugar can be produced in a number of different forms called maltodextrins which are used in a number of different food applications.



This type of malt sugar is most often used as a thickening or filling agent in a wide range of commercial foods and beverages.



Also known as malt sugar, maltos is a disaccharide sugar formed from two units of glucose which is often used to create fermented barley used for beer and other products.



A type of simple carbohydrate with a single ring of chemical compounds characteristic of a simple sugar.



Low calorie sugar replacers that are carbohydrates but not sugars. Polyols are low on the glycemic index and do not promote tooth decay. Some polyols include Isomalt, Maltitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol and Xylitol.



A disaccharide carbohydrate also known as table sugar.