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Wellness 11/01/2021

Alternatives to white sugar

It has been shown that the ingestion of sugar activates the brain's reward circuit. Could this explain our attraction to sweetness, which is one of the flavours we prefer? But our consumption of sugar is often excessive and can be dangerous for our health. Accused of playing a major role in diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and addiction, sugar has been the subject of debate for many years. Fortunately, there are many natural alternatives to white sugar, some of which provide the body with multiple benefits. Here is a brief review of this sweet, comforting and essential taste for our brain.

Where does sugar come from?

Sugar, or sucrose, is a carbohydrate that occurs naturally in all plants. Sugar cane and sugar beet are the only plants that produce enough sucrose for commercial production. However, it can be extracted from other plants, such as agave, cactus and maple.

Does sugar have any virtues?

Sugar is an essential energy fuel for the body, including our brain. If the brain does not receive enough glucose, neurotransmitters are not produced and communication between neurons is interrupted. Just like oxygen, our neurons need glucose all the time. Sugar becomes a problem when consumed in excess, causing numerous metabolic disorders (overweight, diabetes, fatigue, cavities, etc.). But not all sugars are equal. White sugar, for example, contains no nutrients apart from calories, whereas other natural unrefined sugars, such as whole cane sugar, provide valuable nutrients for the body as well as subtle flavours.

White sugar, the most refined

White sugar is the best known and most widely used sugar. It contains at least 99.7% sucrose and has a high glycemic index. Extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane, it is a product that has been so refined that it has lost the vitamins and minerals that were present in the molasses. Nutritionally speaking, it is an uninteresting sugar. On the other hand, it brings a lot of calories that will be stored as fat. Its extraction process makes it an artificial sugar, which is not directly assimilated by the body. It slows down the digestive functions and overloads the pancreas and the liver. White sugar comes in various forms:

  • Sugar cubes: The sugar crystals have been gathered into a square or rectangle shape. It is mainly used to sweeten tea or coffee.
  • Pearl sugar: This is sugar agglomerated into small pearls. It is used for chouquettes or Liège waffles, for example.
  • Granulated sugar: It comes in the form of powdered sugar but with fairly large crystals.
  • Granulated sugar : Also in powder form, but with smaller crystals. It is the most commonly used sugar in recipes.
  • Icing sugar: Icing sugar is obtained by grinding white sugar extremely finely, to which starch is added to prevent the powder from clumping.


Blond sugar

Halfway between white and brown sugar, blond sugar is a partially refined cane sugar with a little molasses left. Hence its blond colour and its flavour. In pastries, it can replace classic white sugar without altering the taste. From a nutritional point of view, brown sugar has no interest. It just brings a little amber touch compared to white sugar which has a neutral taste. It should be noted that many brown sugars found in the shops are in fact white sugar coloured with caramel.


Brown sugars

From a nutritional point of view, brown sugars contain slightly more minerals than white sugar. But the main difference between the two types of sugar is taste. Brown sugars have a caramel or cinnamon-like flavor.

    Brown sugar (from sugar cane)

    Brown sugar is a brown sugar extracted from sugar cane. It takes its name from the old word casson, which in the 16th century referred to raw, granular, crumbly sugar that "broke". The juice is extracted from the cane and then cooked. It is not the cooking process that gives brown sugar its colour, but the juice of the cane which is naturally coloured. The texture of the brown sugar is dry, with large yellow brown crystals. Its taste is similar to rum or vanilla, or even cinnamon. In northern France and Belgium, it is called brown sugar or simply cane sugar. It is used in all exotic recipes, such as banana flambé or crème brûlée. Read the labels carefully and choose products marked "pure cane", "raw cane sugar" or "100% cane". These labels guarantee that there is no colouring, that it is not coloured white sugar but real brown cane sugar.

    Our treat : Soft lemon cake with brown sugar


    Vergeoise (from beetroot)

    Very common in the North of France, vergeoise is a sugar with caramelized, even toasted notes. In the past, "vergeoises" were moulds in which sugar loaves were poured. This sugar comes from the refining of sugar beet syrup, so it is white. The vergeoise gets its reddish colour when cooked, a bit like caramelisation. There are blond and brown vergeoise, depending on the degree of cooking. Its texture is soft, slightly moist with small blond or brown crystals. The vergeoise is used in the preparation of speculos, waffles, and brings a little more when sprinkled on an apple pie, a pancake or a crumble. Here too, read the label carefully! Choose "vergeoise sugar" and not "vergeoise flavour" sugar, which is only a coloured white sugar flavoured with caramel.

    Our delicacy: Vergeoise pie


    Good to know :

    Today, most brown sugar on the market is coloured white sugar, sometimes with molasses added. So make sure you choose quality brown sugar with a wet look. The organic shelves offer a wide choice and more guarantees as to the quality of the products.


    Complete sugars

    Wholemeal sugar is a cane sugar that has kept all its molasses. It is therefore an unrefined sugar, which has kept its vitamins and minerals. To obtain it, we heat the cane sugar juice, we recover what has not been evaporated, then we reduce it to powder. This sugar contains 40 times more minerals than white sugar and 20 times more than brown sugar. It is rich in potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, fluorine, copper, manganese, zinc, provitamin A, vitamins B1, B2, B6 and C. Thanks to their nutrients, these sugars have remarkable aromatic and taste qualities.

    La Rapadura

    Native to Latin America, Rapadura is an unrefined cane sugar with notes of caramel and licorice. It is also called panela because the juice is cooled in bread-shaped moulds. Then it is cut or powdered. This sugar is similar to Muscovado but its sweetness is lower. Because it has not been refined, it is very interesting from a nutritional point of view. It has retained all its minerals, vitamins and amino acids. It is a beige-coloured sugar with a surprising texture as it is both moist and soft. Its refined taste goes perfectly with compotes, yoghurt or cottage cheese.

    Our treat: Papua vanilla cake with Rapadura sugar

    Muscovado sugar

    This sugar comes from Mauritius. Unrefined and high in molasses, it has a scent of sugar cane juice, with notes of caramel, licorice and vanilla. It is reminiscent of English fudge but spicier. It is a sugar rich in nutrients: potassium, calcium, magnesium, but also vitamins B3, B5, B6, B9. As it is not demineralising, this sugar would help to avoid cavities. Used in biscuits, cookies, cakes or muffins, its humidity allows to obtain a very soft texture. You can also sprinkle it on fruits or put it in your coffee. It is perfect for glazing carrots or turnips.

    Our treat: Muscovado sugar cake


    Good to know :

    Wholegrain sugars are very moist sugars, giving cakes and biscuits a lot of softness. Their strong aromatic and sweetening power makes it possible to have a light hand on the doses which one consumes.


    Alternatives to sugar


    Honey is the best known natural alternative to sugar. Honey is produced by bees harvesting sucrose from the nectar of plants and flowers. There are many different kinds of honey with very different tastes: lavender, forest, thousand flowers, fir, rosemary, chestnut, etc. Depending on the flowers from which it is made, its glycemic index varies. Its texture is also different according to its composition: the more fructose it contains, the more liquid it is, whereas more glucose crystallizes it. Less caloric than white sugar, honey has a higher sweetening power than traditional sugar.

    Our delicacy: Feta cheese with honey and roasted almonds

    Good to know :

    If you want to preserve all the benefits of your honey, do not heat it too much. Do not add the honey to a hot liquid.

    Coconut flower sugar

    Coconut blossom sugar is made from the nectar of the flowers of the Coco Nucifera, a coconut tree grown mainly in India, South America and the Pacific tropics. The Coco Nucifera produces coconuts from the age of 15 years and each coconut tree can produce up to 25 kg of sap per day for about 70 years.

    Contrary to white sugar which provides empty calories, i.e. devoid of essential nutrients for the body, coconut sugar contains vitamins, minerals (phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, copper), polyphenols and vitamin C. It also contains inulin, a prebiotic. Finally, its glycemic index is low compared to other sugars, because it contains mainly sucrose. Its sweetening power corresponds approximately to the values of white sugar. It can be used for pastry, to sweeten yogurt, tea or lemonade. Its caramelized taste will sublimate your crumbles, your baked apples or your fruit pies.

    Our delicacy: Madeleines with coconut sugar and orange blossom

    Good to know :

    This sugar surprisingly does not taste like coconut, but rather like brown sugar, with a slight hint of caramel.

    Date sugar

    Date sugar is produced from dehydrated and finely ground dates. All the nutritional benefits of the date are retained: natural fiber, tannins, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals. Date sugar is similar to brown sugar, but it is sweeter, with a subtle date flavor. It can be used in your pastry recipes or simply sprinkled in yoghurts or on pancakes. Its sweetness is not as strong as other sugars.

    Our treat: Date sugar pancakes

    Good to know :

    Date sugar does not dilute in drinks. In this case, use date syrup, which is also rich in nutrients.

    Maple syrup

    Indistinguishable from North American pancakes, maple syrup is produced mainly in Canada and is obtained from the sap of various species of maple trees. Unlike regular sugar, it contains more than 50 beneficial substances, including antioxidants, vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, calcium and potassium. The darker the syrup, the higher the concentration of these nutrients. Composed of fructose and glucose, maple syrup has fewer calories than other sweet nectars, and its glycemic index is lower than that of white sugar. Finally, you should know that it takes about 40 litres of maple sap to produce one litre of maple syrup.

    Our treat: Chicken with maple syrup

    Good to know :

    Beware of fake maple syrups, which are coloured glucose syrups (wheat, corn or rice syrup). Read the labels carefully, because maple syrup often contains sugar water!

    Agave syrup

    Agave syrup is produced from the juice of the agave plant, a large cactus that grows mainly in Mexico. Rich in manganese, zinc and vitamin B, its taste is fairly neutral, allowing it to be used in many culinary preparations. With its beautiful amber color and delicate aroma, it is a tasty alternative to standard sugar in many preparations, with a very low glycemic index, because it is rather rich in fructose. Its sweetening power is 1 to 2 times higher than white sugar. Because of its good solubility, agave syrup is ideal for yoghurt, tea, coffee, smoothies, pancakes, waffles and pancakes.

    Our treat: Sparkling green tea with agave syrup

    Good to know :

    In terms of equivalence, count 75 g of agave syrup for the equivalent of 100 g of sugar.

    Xylitol, or birch sugar

    Xylitol, or birch sugar, is a sugar alcohol naturally present in small quantities in vegetables and fruits, as well as in the bark of certain wood species, such as birch and beech. In order to be produced industrially, the xylitol present in the birch bark is extracted by hydrolysis, then hydrogenated to crystallize it. It has the same sweetening power as white sugar, but is not as caloric. Associated with calcium and phosphate, xylitol would promote the mineralization of teeth. This is why it is commonly used in the manufacture of chewing gums and candies. With a very low glycemic index, xylitol can replace table sugar to sweeten drinks. But be careful when heating it, its sweetening power increases by 30 to 50%!

    Our treat: Raspberry mousse with xylitol

    Good to know :

    Xylitol is reported to be toxic to certain animal species, including dogs, cattle, goats and rabbits.


    A small plant from Latin America, stevia leaves contain stevioglycosides, molecules with up to 300 times the sweetening power of white sugar. Once picked, the leaves are dried and transformed into a fine powder. Stevia can be found in powder or liquid form. It is sometimes mixed with other sweeteners or sugar. Its great advantage lies in its glycemic index and its calories, which are both zero! Stevia has no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels. Furthermore, it does not attack the teeth and can be consumed in case of fructose intolerance. Although it can be used for baking, it is more suitable as an additional sweetener, such as in hot and cold drinks. It is an excellent alternative to chemical sweeteners, such as aspartame.

    Our treat: Chocolate zucchini cake, without butter and sugar

    Good to know :

    Stevia has a slightly bitter taste that does not please everyone.

    Cereal syrups

    Obtained from the fermentation of rice, barley or wheat, cereal syrups are rich in vitamins and minerals. Their sweetening power is lower than traditional sugar. However, be careful with the type of syrup you use: for example, white rice syrup has a higher glycemic index than brown rice syrup. In cooking, they are mainly used to sweeten yoghurts and compotes.

    Our treat: Chocolate cake with almond butter and rice syrup

    Good to know :

    These syrups liquefy when cooked, so you will need to remove some of the liquid from your recipes if you replace the sugar with syrup.


    A little lexicon to better understand sugar


    Indispensable for the proper functioning of our body, carbohydrates are the main energy nutrients in our body. They are also called "sugar" or "carbohydrate". We distinguish :

    • Simple carbohydrates (or fast sugars): these are small molecules that have a sweet taste and are very quickly absorbed by the body. They are glucose, fructose, sucrose and lactose.

    • Complex carbohydrates (or slow sugars): these are very large molecules without a sweet taste. They are mainly found in cereal products (bread, pasta, rice).


    The Glycemic Index

    The glycemic index (GI) measures the ability of a carbohydrate to raise blood sugar levels after ingestion. Foods with a high glycemic index will generate a peak of glucose in the blood. Energy will be released very quickly but over a short period of time. On the other hand, foods with a low glycemic index will generate a continuous release of energy over the long term. Not all sugars are equal in GI.



    Sugar or sugars?

    The term "sugar" means sucrose, also called white sugar or table sugar.

    The term "sugars" refers to all sugars, such as fructose, sucrose, glucose syrup, lactose, etc. They all belong to the carbohydrate family.

    • Sucrose: glucose + fructose. It is extracted from sugar beet or sugar cane. It is the traditional table sugar.

    • Glucose: not very common in foods, it is used in the composition of many other sugars such as sucrose, in crystalline form or concentrated syrup. It has a weak sweetening power.

    • Fructose: present in honey and fruit, it is also a component of sucrose. Used as a sweetener in pastries, its sweetening power is high but it does not induce insulin secretion.

    • Maltose: sugar extracted from malt starch. It has a slightly lower sweetening power than sucrose.

    • Lactose: glucose + galactose. It is a carbohydrate naturally present in cow, goat and sheep milk products.

    The sweetness of these different sugars varies. Globally, the sweetness of sucrose is 100 (white sugar), that of fructose reaches 170 and that of glucose 50.


    Refined and unrefined

    Refined sugar is sugar that has undergone a chemical process to remove the molasses that is naturally present. This process robs the sugar of its minerals, vitamins and other nutrients. Unrefined sugars are sugars that have not undergone any chemical processing. They are easier to digest and provide more nutrients to our bodies. These include honey, maple syrup and coconut blossom sugar.