06 February 2011

Comparing Sugars

I've been trying to do some research on various kinds of sugars for this posting, and was left with my head spinning. There are a number of things I was looking at when comparing sugars, like glycemic index, processing, environmental impact and health effects.

The first thing that I started looking into was the glycemic index, thinking that it should be pretty black and white with numbers. I found that there seems to be no standard for testing, and the numbers can also vary depending on variety and manufacturer.  The glycemic index scale can also be set up in a couple of different ways. So, as I checked a variety of sources, I found a huge range of numbers.

Business definitely gets in the way of finding correct information. Some manufacturers have been deceiving consumers to cut costs, while the others are all pushing their own agendas, claiming their sweetener has amazing benefits.

Agave Nectar

  • Made by harvesting the pina of the blue agave. The liquid is filtered and cooked down to form a syrup.  It is basically tequilla in the unfermented form.
  • Gentle neutral taste, less viscous than honey.
  • Use 2/3 agave nectar to 1 cup of white sugar (reduce liquid by 1/3)
  • Lower oven temperature by 25F and increase baking time as needed
  • Usually sold as organic, without additives
  • Contains calcium, iron, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, vitamins B, C, D, E, zinc, selenium and chromium
  • Made in Mexico
  • Some manufacturers have mixed agave with cheaper corn syrup.
  • It is low glycemic, but this is due to the fact that it is high in fructrose.

Note on Fructrose: Fructrose has been studied a lot recently (high fructrose corn syrup) and has some major negative health effects.  Fructrose is poorly absorbed by the GI tract, doesn't trigger insulin release and is primarily cleared by the liver. It has been linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and liver disease.


  • Honey bees collect nectar from flowers, bring it back to the hive, partially digest and regurgitate it, then fan it with their wings to reduce the water content so that it doesn't ferment when stored.
  • Often available locally, raw and organic.
  • Not recommended for children under 18 months, due to the presence of a particular bacteria.
  • The range of glycemic index numbers I have found is too broad to comment on.
  • Some studies show reduced weight gain, decreased anxiety, improved cholesterol and blood sugar levels, higher antioxidant levels.
  • Contains trace amounts of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
  • Not considered vegan (if that matters to you)
  • Tips for use in baking here

Palm Sugar

  • Nectar is harvested from the flower of the coconut palm tree, then air dried.
  • Usually found organic, without additives.
  • In Asian markets, it has been found blended with cane sugar, misleading consumers.
  • High in potassium, zinc, iron and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6.
  • Has a rich caramel flavour, somewhat similar to brown sugar.
  • Generally has a lower glycemic index than white sugar, but varying numbers.
  • Can replace sugars 1:1 in baking, but remember it has a flavour more like brown sugar.
  • Seems to be all positive, may be due to the fact that it is fairly new in our markets and not extensively studied.

Cane Sugar

  • Sucanat is a trade name for dehydrated cane juice. It can be found organic, and free of additives. Since it is unrefined, it still contains trace vitamins and minerals.
  • Raw sugar is mixed with lime to achieve the desired pH and settle impurities. It is then reduced and dried.
  • White sugar can be made in a few different ways, all with the use of chemicals to remove impurities.
  • Brown sugar is white sugar that has had molasses added, then dehydrated again.
  • An article on the environmental impact from WWF


  • Highly processed in the granulated, or liquid form. It may also be available in it's natural leaf form.
  • Can not replace sugar in baking.
  • Horrid aftertaste similar to artificial sweeteners aspartame and sucralose.
  • Nearly 0 glycemic index and calories.
  • Hasn't been thoroughly tested, may have connections to reproductive difficulties, cancer and metabolic disruption.
  • If you are using aspartame or sucralose as artificial sweeteners, stevia would probably be a slightly better choice.

So, what have I learned?

  • No sugar is good, so use all sugar sparingly.
  • White and brown sugar are highly processed, high on the glycemic index scale and should be avoided.
  • All other sugars are more expensive, so I will have to adjust to the fact that whatever I choose, it will cost more.
  • If you are diabetic, using less sugar is the safest bet. Avoid refined sugars because the glycemic index is higher than other options.
  • Everyone in big business seem to only be concerned about pushing their products for profit.

So after all of this what have I chosen to use? I chose local honey and palm sugar. I know where the honey was made and that it is in fact honey.  There are many varieties of honey too. Sometimes it is necessary to have a dry sugar, or brown sugar replacement in recipes. I find that palm sugar has an amazing flavour, so for now, I'll continue to use it as well.


  1. Thanks for this; very useful, Amber. Now I just have to find out where to get palm sugar. Honey has always been a staple.

  2. I get my organic palm sugar from Bulk Barn. I went to their website, there are 2 in Sudbury. http://www.bulkbarn.ca/en-ca/locations.html I like the bulk barn and believe I'm cutting down waste by buying bulk. They don't however, allow you to put your goods in your own reusable bulk bags. You have to use a new plastic bag for everything, due to hygiene. They use scoops, while some places have dispensers for bulk products.