Today, I’m going to get a little further into the nitty-gritty nutritional details of some of the sweeteners mentioned in the following question:
I fastidiously read labels to avoid corn syrup (and glucose syrup if I can). At home, often use alternate sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave nectar but wondering if rice syrup is that much better than corn syrup or liquid sugar as it seems to crop up a lot in processed foods at health food shops. At home in England, we buy sugar free (sweetened with juice) and whole grain ‘snacks’ for the kids but the best in Canada we could find was bars where the second ingredient was organic brown rice syrup. So just wondering…
Answer, Part 3:
Simply put, table sugar is made by extracting syrup from sugar cane or beets, removing impurities, and concentrating it to form crystals. Nutritionally speaking, it is almost 100% sugar with very little water, vitamins, and minerals. Table sugar is technically known as sucrose which is a 50%-50% split of glucose and fructose joined together.
Most of the other sweeteners you mentioned seem a little more natural because the water has not been fully evaporated but nutritionally speaking, they don’t have much more to offer.
Honey is made by bees and it is about 17% water and 82% sugar which leaves about 1% for fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
Maple syrup is made by evaporating maple sap and it can be further evaporated to form maple sugar. Maple syrup is about 32% water and 60% sugar, 7% other simple carbohydrate, leaving about 1% for protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals.
Agave nectar is made a couple of different ways but it starts with a liquid consisting of starch and water that comes from agave plants. It is processed with heat or enzymes to break the starch down into sugar, mostly fructose with some glucose.
Glucose syrup is usually corn syrup in the U.S. but may come from other starch sources as well. Corn syrup is made from corn starch. It is processed with enzymes to break the starch down into simple sugars. Corn syrup is about 23% water, 27% sugar, 50% other carbohydrate, with trace amounts of fat and minerals. Glucose typically makes up 100% of the sugar.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made by further processing corn syrup with enzymes. HFCS is about 24% water, 26% sugar, and 50% other carbohydrate, with trace amounts of fat and minerals. Of the sugar, the fructose content is usually 40% or 55% with glucose and some starch making up most of the remainder.
Rice syrup is produced by treating rice starch with enzymes. As far as breakdown of nutrients, it is similar to regular corn syrup.
Fruit juice is a little more complicated (but simple at the same time) so humor me as I work through it. You start with fruit (if they don’t specify the fruit, it’s probably apple or grape or a mix). Okay, you take your apple, you throw out the peel and the core. Then you squeeze out all of the juice and toss any solids that are left. So the fiber from the peel and all of the vitamins and minerals that were attached to the solids get thrown out. What you are left with is water with the sugar and some vitamins and minerals that are dissolved in the water. So: about 88% water, 10% sugar, 1% other carbohydrate, and 1% left for protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals. Of course when fruit juice is used in foods (fruit juice concentrate), most of the water is evaporated so you are left primarily with sugar (and much of the sugar in fruit is fructose).
As you can see, most of the sweeteners (other than honey) are made by somehow extracting starch or sugars from a plant, using enzymes to break the starch down into syrup, and evaporating the syrup to get a more concentrated product. Some of them, such as HFCS have a few additional processing steps.
In the end, they are mostly composed of sugar and water. None of them contribute much to the diet in terms of fiber, fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals.
In the next post I will explain a little bit about glucose and fructose and why HFCS gets a bad rap.
What You Need to Know
Instead of trying o figure out what the best sweetener is, why not try to stick to naturally sweet foods such as fruit. If you eat a piece of fruit, you can rest assured you are getting good nutrition as the sweetness comes with natural fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Other sweet snack options include:
- Plain yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit mixed in – try pineapple, peaches, or strawberries
- Sliced bell peppers
- A piece of sweet corn on the cob
- Dried fruit – mix them with nuts for a more filling option
- Peanut butter and banana pinwheels made with a whole wheat tortilla
- Frozen grapes or blueberries