Healthy Eating

Chef Steve: Sugars

Delicious answers to your cooking questions
Chef Steve: Sugars: Main Image

There are so many kinds of sugar. I've heard that none of them is very good for you, so what are they all for?

I’m not a nutritionist, but what you’ve heard is pretty much correct: sugar, for the most part, is sugar, though refined sugars are metabolized by the body more quickly than starch and may lead to increased risk of obesity and blood sugar irregularities. While this debate continues without definitive answers, it seems more important to remember that all sugars should be used in moderation, since most offer few benefits the body other than the short-lived pleasure of a sweet treat (which obviously has its time and place).

When your sweet tooth demands satisfaction, fruit and fruit-sweetened sugar-free foods are a better choice, but if you're turning to a sugar sweetener, here is a selection of varieties to consider:

  • Brown sugar—both light and dark—has a molasses-like flavor and aroma. Both types are typically used in baking in the same measurements as regular sugar. They’re also great for sprinkling on hot cereals.
  • Turbinado sugar, sometimes called raw sugar, is used predominantly in baking though it’s become popular in a lot of coffee shops as well. Its larger crystals are somewhat less processed than refined white sugar, but its effects on the blood sugar are the same.
  • Brown rice syrup is a mild, minimally refined sweetener. Substitute it one to one for sugar, but reduce the total amount of liquid in the recipe by 1/4 cup per cup of brown rice syrup used.
  • Honey is one of the least-refined sweeteners, but, like other sugars, it raises the blood sugar quickly and should be used in moderation. Always look for raw honey, which has its natural nutrients and enzymes intact. (Caution: Do not give honey to babies under 12 months of age because it may contain Clostridium botulinium spores that can cause botulism in an immature immune system; they are harmless after the first year of age.)
  • High fructose corn syrup is often used in processed snacks, partially because it is inexpensive, has a long shelf life, and it tastes good. HFCS has received special focus in recent years due to a possible (but not definitively proven) association with higher rates of obesity.
  • Agave is sweeter and thinner than honey. The filtered juice is heated, turning the carbohydrates into sugars, which manufacturers claim has a low glycemic index, though this has not been proven in research.

There is one natural sugar alternative that is gaining popularity: Stevia root, which is available in packets or liquid extract. Though very sweet, it isn’t a sugar, so it doesn’t affect blood sugar the way sugar does. It doesn’t taste exactly like sugar, but its fruity taste works well in teas and baked goods.

Chef Steve Petusevsky, a graduate and former instructor of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, is a nationally syndicated columnist whose writing appears in Natural Health, Fine Cooking, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and the Chicago Tribune.