What is Sugar? + Sugar Substitutes

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon Category: FAQ

On Sunday, 60Minutes ran an episode about sugar titled "Sugar and Kids: The Toxic Truth" (you can watch it online at the link).

After the show aired, a number of questions poured in on Facebook and via email about sugar and sugar substitutes, so I thought I'd put a blog post together addressing the more common questions.

What is sugar? 

According to wikipedia, "sugar is the generalized name for a class of sweet-flavored substances used as food." There are various types of sugar, derived from different sources. For example, date sugar comes from dates, beet sugar from beets, and the sugar most of us think of when we hear the word "sugar" comes from sugar cane. 

Lisa asked, "How is confectioners sugar and brown sugar okay to eat, but white sugar is not?"

I'm not sure if Lisa is asking from a vegan or health perspective, so I will address both. From a vegan standpoint, commercial brown sugar and confectioners sugar (also called powdered sugar or icing sugar) are generally made from white sugar. Since white sugars can be and are often processed with bone char, many vegans don't use it. 

From a health perspective, these three sugars are the same, more or less. Brown sugar is usually white sugar mixed with molasses and confectioners sugar is white sugar pulverized with cornstarch. I suppose you could argue brown sugar is a bit more nutritious than it's white counterpart, but in reality: sugar is sugar.

I make my own confectioners sugar and brown sugar from raw sugar (also called turbinado sugar) or sucanant. Raw sugar is cane sugar that's minimally processed. It hasn't been stripped, bleached, or processed as much as white sugar has, but it's still sugar.

How to make confectioners sugar: I combine 1 cup raw sugar with 2 tbsp of cornstarch (arrowroot would also work) and pulverize it into powdered sugar in my blender. As a warning, it makes a bit of a mess!

How to make brown sugar: I beat 1 tbsp molasses into 1 cup of raw sugar (source).

If you're looking to avoid "sugar" totally, here are some other suggestions (Note: these charts are in the back of both of my cookbooks -- directions for confectioners sugar are also in the glossaries.)

Sugar Replacements:

Syrups:Switching from dry sweetener to liquid sweetener can be a little tricky. You always need to reduce liquids if you're using a liquid sweetener. For example with barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup, you usually need to reduce liquids by 1/4. You also don't want to do a straight 1:1 ratio. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, use 3/4 cup syrup. (I find agave is so overpoweringly sweet that I usually only do 1/2 cup to 1 cup sugar, and as a result, still need to use all the liquid, but we all have different tastes.) 

With pure maple syrup specifically, reduce liquid by 3 tbsp and add 1/4 tsp baking soda (a tip in my maple syrup container!)

Date sugarandbeet sugar are another option. With date sugar, use 2/3 cup to replace 1 cup of sugar. I've never had or worked with beet sugar, but I imagine less is more. See my post how to make and use date sugar and date syrup.

If you don't want any sweeteners at all, you're only option would be stevia. I have never used stevia myself, but most websites say to use 1 tsp stevia to replace 1 cup of sugar. 

Another option I found online is to use "juice" (i.e. oj or apple juice) but be aware that most commercial fruit juices are no healthier than a pepsi and some are so acidic that you'll need to adjust your baking soda or baking powder. You'll also need to reduce liquids. 

I have a few sugar-free (sweetener free) desserts and baked goodies in Everyday Happy Herbivore, like my pineapple sponge cake! Give those a whirl, too!

If you have other sugar-replacement tricks, please share them. 

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