When you’re looking for something to sweeten your cereal or yogurt, you probably reach for the sugar bowl. Certain foods may call for a dab of added sweetness, and at 15 calories or so per teaspoon a little extra sugar isn’t a huge deal—as long you use it sparingly. But maybe you’ve seen other forms of sugar on the grocery shelf, like agave syrup or barley malt, and wondered if there are any advantages to one over the other. From a nutritional standpoint, there’s no real ‘winner.’ For one thing, the calories in sugar, syrups, honey and the like are comparable. While it’s true that some might contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, they’re eaten in such small amounts that it hardly matters. In the end, what you choose may simply come down to a matter of taste.
Honey and maple syrup are minimally refined: what you buy is pretty close to what you’d find in nature. Bees make honey from the nectar of all kinds of flowering plants, which is why honey flavor and color can vary a lot, depending on the source of the nectar. Most honey you buy is simply heated and strained before it’s packaged; although, you can find raw, unprocessed honey, too. The sap produced by maple trees also undergoes minimal processing. It’s simply boiled to remove some of the water, which concentrates the syrup somewhat. Honey and maple syrup each have about 60 calories per tablespoon. That’s a bit more than white sugar’s 50 calories, but they’re also sweeter so you might use less.
Agave syrup is produced from the sap of the agave, a succulent plant related to cactus. Agave syrup has a very sweet but mild flavor. Like maple syrup and honey, it undergoes minimal processing at low temperatures to remove excess water. Agave syrup is a little thinner than honey or molasses, so it mixes well in liquids like iced tea. A tablespoon of agave syrup has about 60 calories.
Cane juice comes from sugar cane, a tall grassy plant native to the South Pacific. You don’t often find cane juice sold in liquid form as a sweetener, but there are various products that are made by evaporating the cane juice into crystals. The least refined is a product called rapadura, a moist, brown sugar-like product that contains some minerals—small amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium that are naturally found in the cane. As more liquid is removed, sugar crystals in the form of turbinado sugar and evaporated cane juice are produced. These have about 50 calories per tablespoon.
As sugar cane is further processed into white table sugar, the syrup that remains is the molasses—or treacle, as it’s called in the UK. The syrup is boiled several times to remove the sugar, and with each cooking the mineral concentration increases and the syrup gets darker. Molasses has a strong flavor, so it’s generally used in combination with other sweeteners. Molasses has about 50 calories per tablespoon.
There are also syrups made from grains, like barley malt syrup and brown rice syrup. Barley grains are allowed to sprout, which produces enzymes that convert the starches into sugar. Then it’s mixed with water so the sugary syrup can be extracted. These same enzymes can be mixed with cooked brown rice to produce brown rice syrup. Both have about 60 calories per tablespoon, but they’re less sweet than table sugar so you might end up using more than other sweeteners. They’re also a baker’s best-kept secret. Grain syrups are fantastic yeast food and make homemade bread incredibly light and flavorful.