SWEET - SWEETER - THE SWEETEST
After we have explained the most important basics and terms about sugar in the previous article, it is time to find out which sugar or sweetener is the best and "healthiest". For this purpose, the different sugars are compared in four categories and rated with points from 1-5:
> Health: fructose content, calories, glycemic index, any additional nutrients contained.
> Sustainability: production, origin & transport, resource consumption, working conditions.
> Usage: sweetening power and variety of uses
The categories health and sustainability get a double weighting, as we find these two aspects most important.
So here we go: Curtain up for our sweet candidates, who will compete against each other in the race for the title "Best Sugar":
Group 1: The sweet classics
The standard among sugars. Everyone is probably familiar with household sugar or its caramelized form, whole cane sugar (brown sugar), and the washed variant, raw cane sugar, from which the molasses has been removed. Even grandma baked with it. With a calorific value of about 390 kcal/100g definitely not a light food. Its sweetening power is given the value of 1 or 100% and is used as a standardized comparison value. It consists of 50% fructose and 50% glucose and has a GI of 65. If it is obtained from domestic sugar beets (beet sugar), a lot of CO2 can be saved during transport, but if it comes from overseas sugar palms, the ecological footprint looks quite different. This is also reinforced by the rather intensive production process. In terms of price, however, it is a real bargain at an average of 0.75 €/kg.
"Honey honey, how you thrill me, a-ha, honey honey
Honey honey, nearly kill me, a-ha, honey honey".
Let's see which of the two lines from the famous ABBA song is more accurate. Honey is extracted by honeybees from the nectar of flowers, so it is a true natural product. In terms of sustainability, regional (organic) honey from your trusted beekeeper is definitely way ahead. You should be careful with non-EU honey, because it does not take sustainability aspects into account. The production of the honey is super easy, because the honeycombs only need to be centrifuged. It has a GI of 50, an approximate calorie content of 300 kcal/100g and is actually also sweeter than household sugar. The chem. Composition varies greatly by variety (between 27-44% fructose, 22-41% glucose and 15-21% water). Honey also has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. In terms of price, it is about 9-14 € / kg.
Known as a vegan honey alternative, with similar calorie content of about 300kcal/100g and very high sweetening power, it is often used to sweeten food and drinks. At first glance, the GI of 15 seems promising in terms of health, but in return it has an extremely high fructose content. The golden juice is obtained from the agave, a plant found mainly in Mexico, by boiling it down. Agaves are often grown in monocultures and under poor working conditions for the harvesters. So you can't really talk about sustainability. In terms of price, it is cheaper than its non-vegan counterpart at 5-7 €/kg.
When one thinks of the sweet Canadian export hit, fluffy pancakes usually immediately come to mind, from which the syrup drips down like liquid gold. It is considered to be well tolerated, has a GI con 54 and at 260kcal/100g is somewhat lighter than the previous candidates, but this is also noticeable in its sweetness, which is only about 70%. It is 60% sucrose (the rest is water) and also contains some minerals. The main country of production is Canada, which of course consumes a lot of CO2 during export. On a positive note, however, it is usually sold in glass bottles. In addition, its consumption promotes the cultivation of more colonies of maple trees, which act as an ecosystem.
Yet, there is caution, as it is now also partly stretched with sugar water to save on manufacturing costs. For a liter of maple syrup you have to count with about 15-20€.
The rather viscous mass is obtained from sugar beets and is therefore usually made in Germany or the Netherlands. The short transport routes and the simple production make the sustainability heart happy. Also the calorie content with 300 kcal/100g and the GI of 35 is absolutely manageable, especially since the sugar beet syrup also contains some good minerals. The only drawback is its own somewhat tart or malty taste and consistency. Due to its viscosity, it is not as versatile as its competitors, often used as a sweet spread. In terms of price, it is about 10€ / liter.
Group 2: The sugar substitutes and replacements
About 10 years ago, the calorie-free sweetener was still strongly hyped. In the meantime, there are more and more critical voices. But first the positive aspects. With 0 kcal/100g, corresponding to a GI of 0, it is particularly attractive for all calorie savers. In addition, it was praised especially for diabetics and as a protection against caries. So far so good. The big problem, however, is that stevia is a mixture of substances whose components and thus also their effect have not yet been fully elucidated. Therefore, according to EU law, the stevia plant falls under the designation "novel food" and is not fully approved. However, extracts from the stevia plant (known as steviolgylcosides) are approved as sweetener E 960 with legally defined maximum amounts.
Its sweetening power exceeds that of household sugar by a factor of 200-400, so only small amounts of the substance are needed in tea or coffee. If you buy stevia nowadays, it usually comes from China and thus causes quite a bit of CO2 emissions during transport. Stevia has a very wide price range with offers from 25 to over 100 €/kg.
The sugar substitute xylitol - also known as birch sugar - consists not of sugar but of polyhydric alcohols obtained from corn and wood residues (sounds strange, but it works). With a comparable sweetening power to table sugar, but only 240 kcal/100g and a GI of 11, it's a good calorie-conscious alternative. In recipes, it can replace sugar 1:1, but be careful: in too high quantities, this alternative can have a laxative effect. Also problematic is the industrial production, which is very energy-intensive and not very environmentally friendly, as pressure, high temperature and the use of acids are necessary. Xylitol is available from EU and non-EU countries and usually costs around 8 €/kg.
The sugar substitute erythritol also consists of polyvalent sugar alcohols. Unlike xylitol, erythritol is completely calorie-free and has only 70-80% of the sweetening power of sugar. It also has a laxative effect for many people in larger quantities and also has a cooling effect in the mouth that some people find unpleasant.
The tolerance is therefore to be rated as rather problematic. On the other hand, its production is quite unproblematic, because erythritol is obtained by fermentation from starchy - and thus natural and renewable - plants.
It costs about 10 €/kg.
Group 3: The Exotic
Probably one of the currently most hyped sweeteners. Coconut blossom sugar in its crystalline form has a GI of 35 and about 380 kcal/100g and consists mainly of sucrose, as a syrup it has about 310 kcal/100g because of the water content. It probably owes its positive reputation to the minerals it contains, although it must be said that these are not present in noticeably high concentrations. Its slightly caramel taste is characteristic. It is obtained by boiling down the flower nectar of the coconut palm. It is considered to be a sustainable natural product, as coconut palms are very productive and yield up to 70 liters of nectar. But since coconut palms are rarely found in Europe, it mostly comes from Southeast Asia and thus covers long transport distances. It can be bought for about 7.50 €/kg or 15-20 €/liter.
The date is also one of the trend fruits of the current time - in dried form to bite into or as sugar or syrup. It enjoys great popularity precisely because of the nutrients, fiber and vitamins it contains. With a GI of around 50 and 280-300 kcal/100g, it is also more figure-friendly than normal household sugar. However, the date consists mostly of fructose, so please enjoy only in moderation. The production is quite simple, but the date cultivation is quite water-intensive and also they have to travel a medium-long way to get to the German supermarkets, because they are imported mainly from Tunisia.
Price-wise, the syrup is around 11 €/liter, the crystalline form is a bit more expensive and costs between 12 and 15 €/100g.
Rice syrup is also currently the talk of the town. Fructose-free and 300 kcal/100g and a simple enzymatic production from glutinous rice or sweet potato starch sound quite promising at first. But beware, because rice syrup has a GI of 98 (!) and sends your blood sugar level on a wild roller coaster ride. Furthermore, it usually comes from China, Thailand or India and can therefore not have a good CO2 balance. Price-wise, it is a bit more expensive than coconut blossom sugar and costs about 8-10 €/liter.
This syrup is a newcomer, especially in vegan cuisine. This is probably because its viscous consistency is quite close to that of honey, but its sweetness is much lower. On the other hand, this syrup has a GI of 0 and, depending on the manufacturing process, between 150-320 kcal/100g. Its high fiber content makes it easily digestible and it is also completely free of fructose. It is produced by enzymatic or chemical processes from the so-called cassava root or the starch contained in the tuber. Unfortunately, this alternative also comes from far away, mostly from South America or Southeast Asia, and thus has to cover long transport distances. In terms of price, too, it tends to be in the upper segment at around 22€ /liter.
One exotic sugar is followed by the next. Yacon syrup is also quite unknown so far, but this could soon change, because from a health point of view it is an absolute star among the sugars. It has a high proportion of healthy fiber and prebiotics and thus has a gut flora-strengthening effect. With a GI of 1 and 300 kcal/100g, it also has very blood sugar-friendly and not too calorie-rich in comparison. Taste rather strongly reminiscent of maple syrup, but has only 30-50% of the sweetening power of household sugar. Yacon syrup is obtained by gentle boiling down of the tuber of the yacon root, which originally comes from the Peruvian Andes. Because of its high adaptability, however, the plant is increasingly spreading to other regions and continents. Nevertheless, it currently still has to be imported from far away and is one of the most expensive sugar alternatives with a price of about 50 €/kg.
Time for the award ceremony
>> DRUM ROLL <<<
1st place: Regional honey
2nd place: Sugar beet syrup
3rd place: Erythritol & tapioca syrup
Highlighted in color are the respective final winners and in bold the respective top performers per category.
*While expensive on 1kg but only very small quantities necessary or recommended/permitted.
You most likely can't call any sugar or sugar alternative truly healthy. After all, sugar is still sugar. But as with everything, it's the amount that makes the poison, or enjoy in moderation rather than in masses. So you don't have to give up completely, and the food industry offers us a wide range of sweet options so that everyone can choose freely according to their taste, individual tolerance and mood.