I have a terrible sweet tooth. I’ve been known to eat entire bags of fun size candy bars in one sitting. I don’t discriminate either. I like it minty (mint lifesavers/junior mints), chalky (smarties/sweet tarts), tangy (skittles/nerds), nutty (payday), chewy (bulls eyes/taffy), creamy (ice cream/frozen yogurt/push-ups), super sugary (cotton candy/frosting), buttery (pralines/buttercream), cinnamony (cinnamon rolls/coffee cake/red hots), sour (sour patch kids/lemon heads/lemon curd/keylime pie), spicy (atomic fireballs), caramely (twix/snickers), peanut buttery (butterfinger/reese’s/nutty bars) crunchy (werthers/blow pops/dums dums), fruity (crystalized pineapple/twizzlers), icy (snow cones/popsicles), smooshy (fudge/pastry cream/cream cheese filling), cakey (oatmeal cream pies/cake), bakery (cookies/pies/tarts/bars), and chocolatey (solid, crunchy, hot, with nuts, melted, in food, just chocolate in any form).
ANYWAY. Sugar has always made it really hard for me to reach my fitness goals and to change how my body looks. I’ve made tons, it feels like hundreds, of attempts to give sugar up. But, before now, I’ve never been able to. I’d make so many deals with myself. If I have just a bite of this, then I won’t eat this later. Or, I’ll just have half, or a slice. Or, my favorite, I deserve this. I deserve to eat this because I had such a terrible week, or so little sleep, or whatever. But the truth is, I have no will power when it comes to sugar. Like a true addict, I can never have just the one bite, or nibble, or finger full. I’ll go back and back and back till it’s all gone. Then I’ll send my husband out to the 7-Eleven for more. So, I broke the cycle by going cold turkey. And, most importantly, I wanted it. I really, really wanted to take my fitness to the next level. And, really, it was just like anything. Hard at first, but once I got used to it, it wasn’t so bad. And there’s always fruit!
But here’s the thing. Sometimes, I need sugar for cooking. It’s not ever a large amount, a teaspoon or so, but sometimes necessary for better browning, brining, or a hint of added sweetness that makes all the difference. I’ve been eating clean, which means I try to stay away from processed foods, so I should eat something natural, right? But I also don’t want to consume too many calories, especially empty calories. Should I be using a sugar substitute, then? Which is more important, natural or calorie-free? White sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, stevia, splenda, and so many others!
The question: As someone who cares about eating clean and staying fit, if I’m just using a tablespoon of sweetener, what should I use?
I did a buncha googling for you and here is what I found. I didn’t want to get too technical here, so I just did a brief overview of each sweetener; a calroic count, a brief description, and a simplification of how it’s made. There are a lot out there, so I just chose what I felt were the big ticket sweeteners. I decided I’m not interested in anything that is made up of mostly chemicals, so I’m lumping all chemical zero calorie sweeteners such as splenda, aspartame, saccharine, etc., into one category and throwing them all out. The caloric count for each sweetener is in a measurement of one tablespoon.
Let’s break it down.
White/Brown Sugar: (Calories: White-46. Brown, packed-52) White sugar is sugar cane juice that has been boiled, separated from its nutrients (molasses), evaporated, and further refined by processes like bleaching and the addition of man made stuff. White sugar is made up of empty calories, calories that have no vital nutrients. Some people think brown sugar is a healthier alternative to white, but brown sugar is just white sugar with small amounts of molasses added back in for color and taste. The addition of molasses does add some nutritional value, but in amounts so small they don’t really matter.
Evaporated Cane Juice: (Calories: 46) Made from sugar cane juice, it’s basically white sugar that hasn’t been evaporated. It retains a tiny bit of nutrients that white sugar doesn’t, but nothing that would have any kind of real impact on your body.
Raw Sugar: (Calories: 57) Made from sugar cane juice, this is sugar that has been boiled and evaporated but not separated from the molasses or bleached. Because it contains molasses, there are a few more nutrients in here, but again, not enough to really matter.
Coconut Sugar (Calories: 45): Coconut sugar does contain some nutrients because it’s a sugar made from the sap of the coconut plant and not separated. However, this sugar is just as high in calories as white sugar and you would have to eat quite a lot of it to derive any real nutrients from it. It’s processed like raw sugar.
Honey: (Calories: 64) Often grocery store honey is very processed and can have been heated and/or watered down. So, it’s best to go with raw honey if you care about nutritional content. Raw honey has more calories than white sugar but is relatively rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Raw honey has been strained and that should be the extent of the processing. It has a distinctive flavor. You would have to eat a fair amount of honey to get any serious nutritional value from it, but not as much as the sugars.
Maple Syrup: (Calories: 52) Maple syrup is made by straining and boiling sap collected from maple trees. It is also relatively rich in vitamins, mineral, and antioxidants. It also has a distinctive flavor. You would also have to eat a lot of syrup to get any serious nutritional value from it.
Stevia: (Calories:0) Stevia is made from the leaves of a shrub native to South America. It comes mainly in three forms; whole dried leaves, liquid, and powder form. You can eat the whole, dried leaves crumbled into food. Liquid stevia is made by adding a liquid to the leaves, straining, and evaporation. Powdered stevia is made by extraction, clarification, crystallization, decoloration, sometimes blended with a filler, and on and on. There is a lot of conflicting information about stevia. It is much sweeter than sugar so you don’t have to use as much. Some studies have shown large amounts of stevia to reduce blood pressure and/or blood sugar levels. The leaves contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but you would have to consume a lot to get real nutritional value.
So, what do we value here? First, I asked myself why is processing bad? Because it removes nutritional content, right? But if I’m not eating enough of it to make a difference anyway, what’s the point? But when I think about eating a tablespoon of something everyday, I can see how it can add up, nutrients as well as calories.
The Takeaway: Although I’m going to ingest extra calories, I’m mostly sticking with raw honey and the occasional pinch of brown sugar. I enjoy the taste of honey. Besides stevia leaves (which I don’t see working for me, I don’t really want the texture of crumbled leaves in the things I’m making) raw honey is by far the most minimally processed. I like that it was made by bees. I like that it retains nutritional content and I can support my local honey makers by buying it at the farmer’s market. When I don’t want the distinctive taste of honey and I’m only using a small amount, I’ll go with a pinch of brown sugar. I like it’s caramely but somewhat neutral taste, and even though it’s really processed, using something more nutritionally rich wouldn’t do me much good in the small amount I’m going to be using anyway. As far as making things where I would have used a whole cup of white sugar (like cookies or a cake), I think I’ll just put those recipes to bed and look for more exciting alternatives. Like…have you guys tried my homemade protein bars???