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Sugar Overview

Sugar sweetens many of the foods that we eat, the cakes and deserts you cook and most of the processed and fast foods. It is best not to eat foods with refined white sugar instead eat unrefined sugars like honey, evaporated sugar cane juice, maple syrup or molasses. It is best to limit all added sugars as much as possible.

Sugar Overview
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What it is


The use of the word sugar in the kitchen most often refers to a crystallized form that is used to sweeten tea and coffee or to add to cakes and deserts. For a technical discussion on sugar see the carbohydrates article in the nutrients section.

Sugar is sweetness when it comes to the kitchen. It is usually a sweetener that comes from the sugar cane, which can be found at different stages of refinement, from dehydrates sugar cane juice to totally refined white table sugar. Sugar beet is the second most common source of refined sugar used in processed foods or on the table. Then there is the artificial substitute saccharin that is actually an acid induced by chemical reaction in the laboratory, which is not a food and best avoided at all times.

A high degree of processing and refinement means that most sugars that you can find in stores are stripped of any nutrients they once contained. If you are going to add sugar to your foods, for your health it is best to choose the least refined or processed sugar you can.

There is a new sugar cane product that is created using a technique for retaining rich nutrients from parts of the sugar cane that are normally discarded during processing. This new-patented natural sugar product is LowGI sugar, with a Glycemic Index of 51 as compared to GI 100 for pure glucose and GI 65 for white refined sugar. This new sugar breaks down slower in the body, it is suggested that a low GI and slowly digestible carbohydrates can contribute to the prevention of obesity and diabetes. See the article on carbohydrates in the nutrients section for more in GI.

Below is a list of unrefined sugars. For common cooking the ones that stand out are evaporated sugar cane juice (rapadura), molasses, maple syrup and honey. Where ever possible use these natural alternatives.

Types of unrefined sweeteners
From Sap

  • Sugar Cane – evaporated sugarcane juice, syrup, molasses, and raw sugar
  • Sweet sorghum syrup is made from the sugary juice extracted from the stalks of Sorghum
  • Maize sugar can be made by boiling down the juice of green maize stalks.
  • Birch syrup is made from the sap of Birch trees
  • Maple syrup, taffy and sugar are made from the sap of tapped maple trees.
  • Palm sugar is made from by tapping of the flower stalk of various palms to collect the sap.
  • The sweet resin of the Sugar Pine (Pinus lambertiana)

From Roots

  • Sugar beet syrup is made from the tuberous roots of the sugar beet Sugar beet molasses, a by-product of the processing to make refined sugar, also exists but is mainly used for animal feed.
  • Yacón syrup is made from the tuberous roots of yacón
  • Licorice root

From Seeds

  • Barley malt syrup is made from germinated barley grains.
  • Brown rice malt syrup is made from rice grains cooked and then cultured with malt enzymes.
  • Amazake is made from rice fermented with Koji

From Fruits
Many fresh fruits, dried fruits and fruit juices are used as sweeteners. Some examples are:

  • Watermelon sugar, made by boiling the juice of ripe watermelons.
  • Pumpkin sugar, made by grating the pumpkins, in the same manner as to make beet sugar
  • Dates, date paste, spread, syrup ("dibs"), or powder (date sugar) are made from the fruit of the date palm.
  • Jallab is made by combining dates, grape molasses and rose water.
  • Pekmez is made of grapes, fig and mulberry juices, condensed by boiling with coagulant agents.

A variety of molasses are made with fruit:

  • Carob molasses is made from the pulp of the Carob tree's fruit.

From Leaves

  • Stevia is a herb; it can be used whole, or dried and powdered to sweeten food or drink. Uniquely, stevia contains no carbohydrates or calories.
  • Jiaogulan (Gynostemma) has sweet leaves, although not as sweet as Stevia.

By Animals

  • True honey, made by honeybees from gathered nectar.
  • Sugarbag, the honey of stingless bees, which is more liquid than the honey from honeybees.

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What is in it

Refined cane sugar has almost no nutritional value while it still gives your body a lot of calories. It is not considered healthy and is not recommended.

All sugars are over 90 percent carbohydrates with most almost 100 percent or pure carbohydrate.

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What it is good for

May of the raw sweeteners like honey have particular healing or heath properties, while refined sweeteners have few redeeming properties and are best avoided. Other unrefined sugars, while they do not have health benefits, they do not have a negative effect on your body if used in moderation as part or a balanced diet.

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When you get it

Most sugars are available all year around.

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Which to select


Choose a sugar that is minimally processed as these retain more nutrients and are better for you health. Quality sugars can be found in most health food stores and many food co-ops.


For your health and the environment it is best to choose

  • Honey
  • Evaporated sugar cane juice (rapadura)
  • Molasses
  • Maple syrup

Why Organic
Buy organic sweetners when possible

Choose organically grown foods whenever possible. To eat organic means to live cleanly, free of pesticides and toxins. It is a conscious choice. One made in order to survive right along with the planet that sustains us. Organically grown foods do not over-run the landfills with toxic waste from their farming or subject your body to unhealthy toxins. For your health and for the planet, choose to eat organic foods. To understand more about why organic is better please read our “Why Organic?” special feature.

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Where to store

Particular products need particular care. 

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How to use

Sugars are used to sweeten many foods from cakes and deserts. They also feed the yeasts when making bread and are used to sweeten some drinks. It is also used as a preservative in jams and other foods.

In all recipes it is best to substitute unrefined or minimally refined sugars for white refined sugar.

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How much you need


Added sugar should be used sparingly. Limited wherever possible, as even unrefined sugars are high in calories. 

Just 4 teaspoons of sugar is equivalent to one serve of carbohydrates. While most other carbohydrate foods give you other nutrients at the same time, sugar is almost pure carbohydrates with relatively few other nutrients compared to other whole foods.

To reach your health goals and become healthy the most important step is to eat a well balanced diet of food from across all the food groups. 

This list is of recommended daily amount of each food group for an average person 19 to 50 years old with a low level of exercise (30minutes of less a day). If you are older you may need a little less, if you are younger, a little more and if you are very active even more food should be eaten. For more information on serving sizes see our special feature on Sizing Up A Serve.
Servings per food group:

  • Whole Grains (Carbohydrates):  6 – 8
  • Meat and beans (Protein):  1 – 2
  • High quality fats: 1
  • Dairy:     2 – 3
  • Fruit: 2
  • Vegetables: 5
  • Water: 6
    The following are the recommended serving sizes for carbohydrates.

    A serving of carbohydrates should contain about 15 grams of carbohydrates. Examples of this include:
  • Bread, slice 1
  • Muffin, small, 1
  • Rice, 1/2 cup
  • Pasta, 1/2 cup
  • Pancake, 1
  • Sugar, 4 teaspoons

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Things to watch out for

Studies have shown that the use of this over-processed food product is associated with such debilitating conditions as adult-onset diabetes and colon cancer. Avoiding foods with refined white sugar or other refined sugars is a good idea.

As all sugars are high in carbohydrates it is beast to eat any sugar in moderation as they can all contribute to obesity and heart disease if not eaten in moderation.

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The Journal of Nutrition – The American Society for Nutrition,, retrieved 05/2009.

Anthony Fletcher, Food Navigator, Australia firm patents natural low GI sugar, Retrieved 06/2009

Wikipedia, List of unrefined sweeteners,,  retrieved 06/2009

Wikipedia, Sugar,, retrieved 06/2009

Goldman L, Ausiello D. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders, 2004.

Norton Greenberger M.D. and Roanne Weisman, 4 Weeks to Healthy Digestion, Harvard School of Public Health. (2008)

Bratman, Steven, and David Kroll. Natural Health Bible. Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing, 1999.

Paul Pitchford. Healing with whole food, North Atlantic Books, 2002.

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