It is officially the time of year when sugar, in all of its forms, seems to make an appearance. Pumpkin and sweet potato pies, cookie exchange parties, lattes and hot chocolates, eggnog, and even Santa on the can of Coco Cola, all seem to be as essential as hats and gloves during this time of year. It is during this time, that we may tend to notice the packaging and labels a little bit more. Sugar-free icing for the gingerbread men? Low-calorie sweetener for the hot coco? What do all of the sugar terms really mean and what is the difference between them?
Sugar and other natural sweeteners
Our bodies take sugar, also known as sucrose, and use it for cellular activity. Insulin is a hormone that is produced by the Pancreas. It helps to transport glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. Sugar we eat from foods including regular table sugars, and natural sweeteners are all converted to glucose. Many times we are told to opt for natural sweeteners instead of table sugar (even though some natural sweeteners are nutritionally comparable to sugar). Examples of natural sweeteners include: honey, molasses, agave nectar, etc.
Artificial sweeteners are typically extremely sweet (in comparison to regular sugar) and are lower in calorie content. Artificial sweeteners are commonly cited as the sweetener option for dieters and those focused on weight loss because of their low calorie content. Examples of artificial sweeteners include: Sweet One, NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet’N Low, Splenda, etc.). Be careful how much you consume as you may be enhancing your appetite for sweet foods.
Sugar alcohols and novel sweeteners
Sugar alcohols can be both natural and manufactured. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, meaning that while they contain less sugar than table sugar, they may have more calories and sugar content than artificial sweeteners. Sugar alcohols are more visible in processed foods, baked goods, and some toiletries, etc. Examples of sugar alcohols include: sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, etc. Novel sugars are a bit more ambiguous in nature as they are a combination of sweeteners. An example of a novel sweetener is Stevia.
Controversy (But are the alternatives to natural sweeteners safe?)
Although the FDA has evaluated artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and novel sweeteners, there is still more research to be done. There are some claims that the true effect of sugar alternatives on the metabolism and brain are unknown. As always, it is suggested that you seek professional insight and guidance from a personal physician and/or nutritionist who can best help you meet your personal health goals.
What about the holidays?
Regardless of the type of sweeteners, one recommendation is the same across many organizations, and that is, “don’t overdo it with sugar.” Whether using natural sweeteners, artificial sugars, or products with sugar alcohols the consensus is to use them sparingly. With that being said, how can we navigate the sugar laden path this season? Our suggestion is to focus on portion control. Personally, I am baking smaller desserts this season. For example, instead of baking a pan full of brownies and cutting a large section whenever I’m in the mood for something sweet, I made mini-brownies (photographed below). You can easily stretch out the batter and make smaller individual servings (e.g. just use cupcake tins or ramekins to make mini versions).
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Here are some other ways to bake your sweet and eat it too!