Sweet Stuff

Whether crystals, powders, liquids or syrups, there are plenty of options to enjoy a sweet taste in today’s marketplace. While high amounts of added sugar are associated with a greater risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, a little sweetener used judiciously can enhance sweet and savory dishes alike. Some sweeteners add more than just taste to foods. Sugar, for example, lends tenderness and a golden brown color to breads and stability to mixtures like beaten egg whites.

Sweeteners can be divided into two groups. Nutritive sweeteners contain calories, while nonnutritive sweeteners are either extremely low in calories or contain no calories at all.

Although they may differ in form, most nutritive sweeteners — honey, sugar or maple syrup — are similar in terms of calories and carbohydrates as well as their lack of nutrients. These types of sweeteners are often referred to as added sugars. While the body metabolizes added sugars and the natural sugars found in foods like fruit and milk the same way, foods containing added sugars are often higher in calories and lower in nutrients.

Nonnutritive sweeteners — sometimes called high-intensity sweeteners — sweeten foods with minimal or no carbohydrate and calories and can be a boon for those with diabetes or anyone looking to cut back on calories. However, nonnutritive sweeteners can’t always be used interchangeably with nutritive sweeteners in recipes, as their taste and cooking qualities may differ. Check packages and websites for sugar equivalent amounts when substituting in recipes and for preparation tips.

Types of Sweeteners

Monk Fruit: Native to Asia, monk fruit contains a supersweet compound called mogroside. It’s 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, but has no calories. You’ll find it popping up in a number of sweet foods and beverages, and as a standalone sweetener.

Agave Nectar: The juice from the agave plant is processed to make agave nectar, a thick syrup ranging from light to dark amber in color that’s about one-and-a-half times sweeter than sugar. Although often promoted as a healthier sweetener, agave should still be used sparingly.

Stevia: Offering calorie-free sweetness that’s 250 times sweeter than sugar, compounds extracted from the leaves of the stevia plant are highly purified and sold as sweeteners under various brand names. Whole stevia leaves must be sold as dietary supplements.

Brown Sugar: A combination of table sugar and molasses, brown sugar comes in light or dark varieties. Keep it moist by storing in a sealed plastic bag. To soften hardened brown sugar, heat in the microwave for 30 seconds or add an apple wedge to a tightly sealed bag for a day or two. Firmly pack brown sugar into cup or spoon when measuring.

Table (White) Sugar: Sugar cane and sugar beet are the main sources of this highly refined pantry staple, also known as granulated sugar. A teaspoon measures up at 16 calories, while a small sugar cube delivers similar sweetness for 9 calories.

Turbinado (Raw Sugar): Its light brown, coarse crystals have a slight molasses flavor. Raw sugar is made from the juice that remains after the sugar cane has been processed to remove the sugar crystals and molasses. Although its color and name suggest it may be a healthier alternative to table sugar, it’s not.

Pure Crystalline Fructose: This form of fructose derived from corn is found in some calorie-reduced foods and beverages. Since it’s 20 percent sweeter than sugar, you can use less. You’ll find it in some enhanced and flavored waters, energy drinks, yogurt, nutrition bars, powdered beverage mixes and baked goods.

Molasses: The liquid remaining after refining sugar cane or beets becomes molasses. Light molasses results from the first boiling; it’s lightest in flavor and color. Dark molasses, thicker and less sweet, comes from the second boiling. The third boiling produces blackstrap molasses, a very dark, thick and slightly bitter variety that’s an excellent source of calcium and magnesium.

Corn Syrup: Not to be confused with high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup is a concentrated solution of dextrose and other sugars made from the starch of corn. Check package labels to be sure you’re getting the real thing. Famous as a key ingredient in pecan pie, corn syrup keeps crystals from forming, so it’s ideal for candies, jams and frostings too.

Superfine Sugar: As its name implies, superfine sugar is more finely granulated table sugar. It dissolves almost instantly, making it ideal for whipping into meringues and stirring into cold liquids. Keep a box on hand or make your own. Just whirl table sugar in the food processor until fine.

Maple Syrup: Although often imitated, pure maple syrup is made by boiling down sap tapped from maple trees. The amount of sap needed to yield 1 gallon of syrup depends on the sap’s sugar content, but it can be upward of 50 gallons. A quarter-cup serving of maple syrup packs 216 calories — not including pancakes.

Powdered (Confectioner’s) Sugar: Made from granulated sugar crushed to a fine powder with a smidgen of cornstarch added to help prevent clumping, powdered sugar is sometimes used to decorate baked goods. Easily dissolved, powdered sugar is preferred for candy and icing.

Honey: With more than 300 varieties, honey’s flavor, color and aroma differ depending on the nectar of the flowers visited by the bee. Generally, the lighter the honey’s color, the milder the flavor. Honey may harbor botulism spores, so avoid feeding it to infants less than 1 year old.


Roasted Butternut Squash and Sweet Potatoes

Sweet Stuff

Developed by Jessica Siegel

Serves 6

1 10-ounce bag frozen cubed butternut squash
1 10-ounce bag frozen cubed sweet potatoes
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon raw blue agave nectar
1⁄8 teaspoon salt
1⁄8 teaspoon black pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon cinnamon


  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Allow frozen butternut squash and sweet potatoes to defrost just enough so that they can be separated easily.
  2. In a large bowl, combine olive oil, agave, salt, pepper and cinnamon. Add vegetables and mix well using your hands or a large spoon. Spread vegetables evenly on a baking pan and cook 25-30 minutes, until sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, stirring once about half way through cooking.

Nutrition Info: 1/2 cup. Calories: 106; Total fat: 4g; Sat. fat: 1g; Chol.: 0mg; Sodium: 52mg; Carb.: 18g; Fiber: 2g; Sugars: 2g; Protein: 2g; Potassium: 277mg; Phosphorous: 32mg

Honey-Sweetened Fruit Ricotta Toast

Sweet Stuff

Developed by Karman Meyer

Serves 1

slice of a hearty wheat bread, toasted
1/2 cup strawberries or peaches, sliced
1⁄4 cup fat-free ricotta cheese
pinch of cinnamon or to taste
1/2 tablespoon honey


  1. Spread desired amount of ricotta cheese on toasted bread and sprinkle cinnamon on top.
  2. Place sliced fruit on top of ricotta cheese, then drizzle honey over fruit. Sprinkle more cinnamon if desired.

Nutrition Info: 1 slice. Calories: 175; Total fat: 2g; Sat. fat: 1g; Chol.: 2mg; Sodium: 375mg; Carb.: 30g; Fiber: 3g; Sugars: 16g; Protein: 11g; Potassium: 235mg; Phosphorous: 141mg

Maple Bourbon Chocolate Mousse

Sweet Stuff

Developed by Holly Larson

Serves 4

2 ripe avocadoes
1⁄4 cup dark chocolate chips, melted
1⁄4 cup unsweetened cocoa
5 tablespoons maple syrup or honey
2 tablespoons almond milk
1 tablespoon bourbon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt


  1. Melt chocolate chips in the microwave or over a double boiler. Put all of the ingredients into your food processor or blender and blend until very smooth. Let the mousse chill in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Serves 4.

Nutrition Info: 1/2 cup. Calories: 295; Total fat: 19g; Sat. fat: 4g; Chol.: 0mg; Sodium: 53mg; Carb.: 36g; Fiber: 9g; Sugars: 24g; Protein: 4g; Potassium: 724mg; Phosphorous: 110mg

Kerry Neville
Kerry Neville, MS, RD, helps commodity boards and better-for-you food companies translate the science of nutrition into the good food that people eat.