Welcome to Sweeteners 101!
There are a lot of sugars out there – we know, we stock them on our shelves. Despite the name of this blog, sugar, and other products we use to sweeten food and drink, impart a lot more than sweetness in a recipe. Sugars are used in baking to provide structure and texture, in jams and jellies as a preservative, and as a stabilizer in emulsions. In many cases, sugar gives the food we eat the taste and mouthfeel we expect, so make informed substitutions only. Use the information in this blog to know which to use when.
If you have diabetes or other health concerns around sugar, be sure to check with your doctor before you make substitutions.
You can find all of the sweeteners mentioned in this blog (except corn syrup) at the Co-op. Most are located on Aisle 11 and many are available in bulk from the Bulk Department.
(also called Granulated Sugar and Table Sugar)
Granulated white sugar, the scientists call it sucrose, comes from refined sugarcane or sugar beet juice crystallized into sugar granules ranging in size from coarse to superfine. You’ve probably heard of glucose and fructose. Sucrose is a 50-50 composition of fructose and glucose.
White sugar is very versatile with applications in cooking, baking, and basic everyday sweetening. Due to it being highly processed, it contains little nutritional value other than calories and has been linked to cardiovascular disease and other non-communicable diseases so enjoy in moderation. The processing of white sugar can involve animal by-products, so if you’re vegan or vegetarian (or cooking for someone who is) choose organic white sugar or certified vegan white sugar.
Best for: baking, pastry
(also called Confectioner’s Sugar and Icing Sugar)
Powdered sugar also comes from refined cane or beet juice. These sugars are ground into a fine powder and mixed with anti-caking agents (usually cornstarch*). Powdered sugar shares the same nutritional value as white sugar, which is to say it should be enjoyed in moderation. Powdered sugar is the finest sugar commercially available and is used differently than coarser sugars, think buttercream frosting or the glaze on a donut.
*If you are avoiding corn, the Co-op carries two cornstarch-free options: Wholesome Organic Powdered Sugar and Field Day Organic Powdered Sugar use tapioca starch instead of cornstarch.
Best for: baking and pastry, especially for icings, glazes, confections, and finishing
Brown sugars are composed of refined, granulated sugar and surface molasses syrup, a byproduct of the sugar making process. The addition of the molasses syrup imparts color and flavor. Light brown sugar contains less molasses and is therefore lighter in color and flavor. Light brown sugar is more versatile, but is best used in baking, condiments (BBQ sauce!), and glazes. Dark brown sugar (more molasses = deeper color, richer flavor) can be used in more full-flavored foods, think gingerbread, baked beans with bacon, and butterscotch.
The addition of molasses makes this a moist sugar. Brown sugars should always be stored in an airtight container to prevent drying (a dry brown sugar block is almost impossible to use).
Best for: baking, pastry, sauces, glazes
(also called Raw Cane Sugar)
Turbinado sugar is a partially refined sugar retaining some molasses, which gives it a darker color and subtle caramel flavor. Turbinado sugar is often marketed as a “raw” sugar, but it is not: the cane juice is still boiled down and processed. Turbinado sugar usually comes in a larger crystal size than white sugar and holds up to heat better. It is similar to white sugar in nutritional value.
Turbinado’s molasses content is similar to light brown sugar (about 3.5%) so you can substitute in a recipe calling for light brown sugar, but using it will result in a slightly crunchier texture.
Best for: finishing and garnishing (e.g. sprinkling over scones or snickerdoodles), replacement for light brown sugar
Panela is an unrefined whole cane sugar popular across Latin America and parts of the Caribbean. Although it has a deeper caramel flavor than white sugar, panela can be used as a 1:1 substitute for white and brown sugars. As an unrefined sugar, it contains more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants than chemically processed sugars like white sugar and brown sugar.
Panela usually comes in solid blocks, pucks, and cones, but we carry a granulated version that makes substituting very easy!
Best for: use as you would white or light brown sugar
(also called Coconut Palm Sugar)
Coconut sugar comes from the sap of a variety of palm trees (not from coconuts). It is minimally processed and plant-based, which makes it popular among many vegan and vegetarian eaters. It contains some vitamins, minerals, and fiber and falls lower on the glycemic index than white sugar, but has similar sucrose levels. The taste is subtly caramel-y and makes a great replacement for brown sugar.
Best for: vegan and vegetarian baking
(also called Coarse Sugar or Sanding Sugar)
Decorating sugar is typically made from cane or sugar beet juice like white sugar. Its crystals are quite large and very heat resistant making it a popular choice for finishing and decorating baked goods. We carry Watkins decorating sugars which are vegan and made with natural dyes unlike many decorating sugars.
Best for: decorating and finishing
Maple sugar is formed when liquid is evaporated from pure maple syrup and has a similar nutritional profile as maple syrup (it is an excellent source of manganese and contains a variety of antioxidants). The flavor of maple sugar is very maple-y and should be considered when using in a recipe.
It is twice as sweet as white sugar, so be careful if you’re substituting it in a recipe that calls for white or brown sugar. Start with a little over half the amount the recipe calls for. Taste and adjust from there. Look for maple sugar with no additives (like the one we carry from Coombs Family Farms).
Best for: oatmeal or use as you would white or light brown sugar, but be mindful of extra sweetness and maple flavor
Honey, especially raw and unrefined honey, is a popular sweetener choice as it contains vitamins, minerals, enzymes, amino acids, and antioxidants (albeit in very small amounts), and has some antibacterial properties. Honey has a unique taste although it can vary from bottle to bottle. It is a very versatile sweetener with many sweet and savory applications.
Best for: sweetening drinks (matcha especially) & smoothies, baking, sauces
Maple syrup (100% pure maple syrup) is the unrefined liquid form of maple sugar and comes in two grades: Grade A and Grade B with Grade B maple syrups boasting the darkest color and richest maple taste. Unlike white sugar, maple syrup contains some vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants (especially zinc and manganese). Maple syrup is sweeter than white sugar, so be mindful when substituting – start with around 40% as much maple syrup.
Best for: vegan & refined sugar-free baking, sauces, finishing
(also called Black Treacle)
Molasses is the thick, richly flavored syrup leftover from sugarcane and sugar beet processing. It comes sulfured and unsulfured, and in light (warm, sweet, and smoky flavor), dark/medium, and blackstrap (spicy, bitter, less sweet flavor) varieties. Molasses, especially blackstrap molasses, contains significant amounts of iron, calcium, and magnesium (even in just 1 tablespoon), amino acids, and antioxidants making it one of the few nutrient-rich sweeteners on this list.
Best for: holiday baking and old-fashioned recipes
Date syrup (look for one made with 100% organic dates like the one we carry), unlike so many on this list, is an unrefined, minimally processed whole food product (it’s just dates). It contains potassium, magnesium, and plenty of antioxidants. It tastes like dates.
Best for: use as you would maple syrup or honey
Corn syrup (different from high-fructose corn syrup) is popular amongst bakers and candy-makers for its ability to impart neutral sweetness and structure – specifically, it is less prone to crystalizing. It is a refined, highly processed sugar made from the glucose in corn starch. It usually comes in light (clear in color, neutral flavor) and dark (molasses added for color and flavor) varieties. However, we do not carry corn syrup at the Co-op. You can use light agave in most recipes calling for light corn syrup and brown rice syrup in most recipes calling for dark.
Agave is a highly processed sweetener that contains more fructose and calories than white sugar. Its high fructose content makes it similar to high fructose corn syrup in its ability to impart sweetness, shine, and stability. Agave comes in light, amber, blue, and “raw” varieties. The lighter agave syrups are generally more processed and have a neutral flavor. Darker and raw syrups contain more minerals and a richer flavor similar to honey.
Best for: as a substitute for light corn syrup
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown rice syrup is derived from brown rice with about half of the sweetness as white sugar and a subtle, nutty flavor. Brown rice syrup is basically 100% glucose and rates higher on the glycemic index (98) than every other sweetener on this list (higher glycemic index foods can lead to blood sugar spikes). It can be used as a substitute for corn syrup thanks to its heat-resistance, but has a nuttier flavor than corn syrup. Although it contains some calcium and potassium, these amounts are negligible in a single serving.
Best for: as a substitute for corn syrup (especially dark corn syrup), vegan baking
Stevia products are made with rebaudioside A (Reb-A), a highly refined stevia leaf extract that is about 200 times sweeter than sugar. It is a nonnutritive sweetener, which means it contains essentially zero calories. Stevia products actually contain very little stevia; sweeteners made with Reb-A are called “novel sweeteners” because they’re blended with different sweeteners, such as erythritol (a sugar alcohol) and dextrose (glucose). You can use stevia as you would white sugar, but you’ll only need a pinch of stevia for every teaspoon of white sugar. Some brands come with conversion charts for baking.
Best for: zero calorie sweetening
Monk fruit sweeteners come from the monk fruit (also called Buddha fruit and luo han guo). While the fruit contains both fructose and glucose, it actually gets its intense sweetness, about 100-250 times that of white sugar, from antioxidants called mogrosides. Because of its intense sweetness, most monk fruit products are mostly erythritol, a sugar alcohol. It is a zero calorie sweetener that does not affect blood sugar. The Co-op carries organic granulated monk fruit sweeteners.
Best for: zero calorie sweetening
(the Co-op carries Xylitol & Erythritol)
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates – hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. Some, like erythritol and sorbitol, are naturally occuring, but most commercially available sugar alcohols are produced industrially. They are considered low calorie sweeteners (not zero calorie sweeteners like stevia products). They’re about 25-100% as sweet as sugar and have fairly low glycemic index scores.
Sugar alcohols are considered low digestible carbs because they are not fully absorbed in the small intestine. They travel to the large intestine where the bacteria in our guts ferment them. Some folks report gastrointestinal issues when consuming large amounts of sugar alcohols. (Note for dog owners: Xylitol is highly toxic to dogs.)
Best for: low calorie sweetening