Sugar 101

Recently a friend asked me about the differences between various sugars and after writing out a few things, thought it might be good to share with others.  So here are some basic thoughts and ideas to get the conversation started.  Maybe one day when I go back to school I could enhance this further!

When it comes to choosing a sugar for use, there are a few things I like to take into consideration.
1. How much processing is involved to make the product
2. The flavour it offers
3. The glycemic index (GI) which is the impact it has on your blood sugar levels. The lower the number, the slower the energy release is on your body and prevents a sugar crash. A low GI food typically takes longer for your body to digest.

Types of Sugars
Traditional white and brown sugars are highly processed, and have high glycemic indexes.

Sucanat is manufactured in a way that they separate the sugar and molasses but then put them back together again. A high glycemic index.

Rapadura is made by just evaporating the water from the organic cane juice leaving it a “whole” product with more nutritional value than other cane sugars but still a high glycemic index.

Tubinado is another evaporated cane sugar and high glycemic index.

Honey is unprocessed but still has a higher glycemic index (usually lower than cane sugars noted above).  When I can buy unpasteurized (cause unpasteurized is healthier), I have started to use this a bit more as it is still natural and sweet!

Pure Maple Syrup (not Aunt Jemimah's) is also minimally processed but still a higher glycemic index (similar to honey). Still makes for a good natural source of sweetness.

Apple Butter (Wellesley brand) is cooked apples, apple cider and cinnamon so some processing involved and has no official glycemic index reading. From experience in using it, I have to say people who feel the “sugar crash” of the various sugars will not feel it with apple butter so my unofficial testing says it is a low GI (similar to an apple really). As for flavour, it definitely adds an apple/cinnamon taste so it does not work with all foods. Sometimes in baking, it has a ‘burnt’ flavour in the end if the product is baked more than 15 minutes.  
Apple butter can be purchased in most health food stores, health food sections of major grocery stores and in some bulk food stores as well.  Wellesley brand is local in southern Ontario and can be found in major grocery stores in the jam section.

Agave Nectar is highly processed and is primarily made of fructose making it a high fructose syrup. Foods with ingredients reading “high fructose corn syrup” are definitely on my “avoid” list as that stuff contributes to extra body squishiness and while agave is not corn syrup, it is still "high fructose" syrup.  Overall though, agave nectar has a very low glycemic index and the flavour is similar to white sugar which is beneficial in light flavoured foods. Many mixed reviews on its use in preparing food and falls into my "limited use" category.  You can find this in most health stores, bulk food stores or health food sections of major grocery stores.

Palm sugar comes from Coconut Palm trees and is also highly nutritious! It is minimally processed and also has a very low glycemic index. Plus it has a great flavour, similar to brown sugar, and cooking properties to it (it melts like white and brown sugar does). Definitely a more costly option but I feel it is worth it overall since I use much less.  
You can find this in most health stores, bulk food stores or health food sections of major grocery stores.

Jenn’s Personal Preference

Everyone needs to make a choice as to what you put in your foods and ultimately your own body. Until I started to educate myself on it all, I never gave much thought to sugar and how much I used. Sometimes life was much easier before I knew the things I know but there is no going back now. In the end, my family feels and functions better with less sugars and the use of low glycemic ones.

So when it comes to baking, I prefer to use Wellesley apple butter and palm sugar. Occasionally I do use the agave nectar in desserts but it is not very often. These natural sugars definitely cost much more money but I use much less overall as I try not to make as many sweets either. Please know we are not the perfect eaters and are not a sugar-free home. We do our best while still enjoying life with food.


As with anything in life, all palm sugar is not identical nor is all maple syrup. Some is organic, some from various trees and plants and some are mixed with other products and processes do vary. If it matters to you, please use your own judgement and take some time to read labels, educate yourself and find something that allows you to feel good about what you are preparing and putting into your own body.

There are many details one could find on glycemic index and sugars. Above is a quick snapshot of what is out there. I hope it may inspire you to read more and dig until you find the answers you are looking for.

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