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Types of Sweeteners: 10 Ways Sugar Is Sneaking into Your Food

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    Types of Sweeteners: First Things First

    It's important to understand exactly how our bodies run on sugar, and whether or not we need it (hint: we do). To put it simply, "our bodies run on a very simple form of sugar called glucose," says Jessica Culnane, RD, nutrition specialist for Clif Bar. "Glucose is delivered throughout the body via the superhighway that is your bloodstream. It's what feeds your brain, muscles, and body. And like all things in nutrition, balance and moderation are key."

    In other words, sugar isn't all bad. In fact, your body needs it to sustain those high energy levels necessary for busting out burpees or crushing a 20-mile bike ride. It's sitting at your desk all day, reaching for the candy bowl—or your third protein bar—that causes problems. "If you're less active, concentrated sources of sugar are not necessary and could lead to weight gain and insulin resistance," says Culnane. And there are lots of non-processed foods that contain sugar, like fruit and unsweetened Greek yogurt. So it's easy to get what your body needs in a healthy way.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Agave

    Most people reach for agave to lighten up their morning coffee, or they add it to their baked goods. For a while, some believed that agave was a healthy sweetener alternative because it has a low glycemic index, meaning it takes longer to show up as glucose in your bloodstream. What they didn't realize, though, is that agave is mostly made up of fructose, a simple sugar that heads straight to the liver when you eat it—whereas glucose can be processed by many cells throughout the body for energy, inflicting less of a burden, says Culnane.

    Fructose gets metabolized multiple times to help the body get what it needs, but as it's processed, uric acid and free radicals can form—both of which can cause inflammation and damage cells. As an alternative, brighten up that cup of joe with unsweetened plant-derived milks, like almond or cashew, which have a sweeter flavor profile without any added sugar.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Evaporated Cane Juice/Sucrose

    No longer known as evaporated cane juice—the FDA mandated the names "dried cane syrup" and "cane syrup" because it was more obvious to consumers that it's a concentrated form of sugar, rather than a juice—this is essentially table sugar. It's the stuff lurking in most packaged foods, baked goods, and even some nut butters or breads. It breaks down in the body quickly, which could cause a hardcore sugar crash later in your day.

    When you eat, there's a rise in blood sugar because the sugar from the food is now entering your bloodstream. That rise tells your pancreas to release insulin, which helps move sugar from your blood into your cells, where it will be used as energy, says Culnane. Think of your cells as locked doors—the blood transporting sugar is traveling by each door, and when it comes knocking, insulin is the key that unlocks the door to let sugar in. If a sugar rise happens too quickly, your body tends to overcompensate, so too much insulin is released—meaning too many doors open—and it causes the not-so-fun sugar crash.

    How to avoid it? "It's smart to combine sugar with protein, fiber, and fat, because they help slow the delivery of sugar into the blood, giving your body time to react in smaller increments," says Culnane. Think: Greek yogurt and granola.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Dextrose

    Often derived from corn, this is another word for glucose or corn sugar, and it hangs out in starchy foods like potatoes, in sweets like cookies and ice cream, and in sports drinks. It's absorbed very quickly in the body. So again, it can lead to that undesirable energy crash, or hypoglycemia, if you're not using it to fuel activity, like a long run on the weekend. "When you experience that sugar crash, your body responds by saying, 'we want sugar,'" says DiSpirito. "So we cram more sugar down our throats, and the process starts all over again."

    Dextrose is also processed the same as glucose, so if it's being consumed without a purpose—meaning your body doesn't need it for energy—then it gets converted into fat and stored in your fat cells, which DiSpirito says can lead to weight gain. To halt the cycle, reach for natural foods high in sugar, like apples or carrots, so you get a more balanced release of sugar into your bloodstream.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Corn Syrup

    One common misconception that needs to be cleared up: This form of sugar is not the same as high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). "Derived from corn, this 'regular' type of syrup contains more glucose than fructose, and HFCS is the opposite—it has higher amounts of fructose," says Culnane.

    That said, neither is great for your body, and overconsumption can cause metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions that include high blood pressure, excess fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol levels—which increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, according to the Mayo Clinic. Corn syrup is often found in cereal bars and canned fruit, while HFCS lurks in things like spaghetti sauces, soft drinks, and tonic water.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Barley Malt Syrup

    Barley malt syrup, which is derived from sprouted barley, is used in the beer-making process. Yeast feeds on this sweetener to actually create alcohol. "It tastes less sweet and generally takes longer to digest, so it's easier on your blood sugar levels," says Culnane. And thanks to its minimal processing, along with its vitamin and mineral content, it's the lesser of sugar evils. But it's not so great as an added sweetener in snacks. Because it tastes less sweet, many companies add more of it to get the desired taste.

    Of course, "vegetables are always a better option for getting vitamins and minerals," says Culnane, so head to the farmers' market to get your fill. That said, we won't scorn you if you pop a cold brew after your shopping is done.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Sorbitol

    This sugar alcohol, also known as glucitol, is commonly made from corn syrup and is "usually used when companies are looking to reduce calories, since it contains fewer—usually 2.6 per gram—compared to sugar, which has about 4 calories per gram," says Culnane. The biggest culprits? "Sugar-free" chewing gum. Because sorbitol is a sugar alcohol, which is simply a hybrid of a sugar molecule and an alcohol one, companies make the claim that there's no actual sugar in the product—and chewing gum companies often tout it to be better because sugar alcohols do not contribute to the development of cavities.

    Regardless, it enters the bloodstream. And while it affects your blood sugar less drastically, Culnane says it can result in gas, bloating, or diarrhea. You know, the fun stuff.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Treacle

    While treacle comes in a few varieties, the most commonly known version is black treacle—also known as molasses. "It has a slightly lower glycemic index than other sugars, so it's absorbed into the bloodstream faster, and it contains iron, calcium, and magnesium," says Culnane. It's commonly found in foods like baked beans, cookies, and barbecue sauce. Sometime it's added to vegetarian foods to increase the product's iron content.

    If iron is what you're after (and you still want a sweet kick), add more raisins to your diet. They have higher levels of the oxygen-boosting mineral than most other fruits.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Crystalline Fructose

    Crystalline fructose is usually created from corn, made into a powdered form. It's made almost completely of fructose (98 percent of it, while the other 2 percent consists of water and minerals)—which means more work for your liver. You're most likely to find it in flavored yogurts, sometimes as a substitute for high-fructose corn syrup, and in carbonated beverages or flavored waters, where it can replace table sugar.

    The upside? Crystalline fructose is typically sweeter than table sugar, so there's usually less needed—translating to fewer calories—to achieve the desired taste. Still, opt for foods like plain Greek yogurt for a bonus protein boost, and sweeten it with a smidge of honey or fresh berries.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Muscovado Sugar

    A partially unrefined type of cane sugar, muscovado sugar contains a strong molasses flavor. It's dark brown and is usually coarser and stickier than the average brown sugar, says Culnane. Some prefer to use it in baking recipes that call for brown sugar, as brown sugar is actually just white sugar that has had molasses added back in, while muscovado never had the molasses removed.

    But while many tout it as a "natural" product, don't be fooled into thinking it's healthier than standard table sugar—it only gets that label because each granule holds molasses, and traditional sugar does not. And as with other sugars, because there's no dietary fiber in it, high quantities of it can hit the bloodstream too quickly. This causes the body to overwork and store some of that sugar as fat, rather than use it as energy.

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    Types of Sweeteners: Maltodextrin

    Commonly made from—you guessed it—corn, maltodextrin is made by isolating the carbohydrate portion of the corn. It is technically a more complex form of sugar, explains Culnane. And while that may lead you to believe it'll take longer to digest, since it's bigger, the opposite is true. "Our bodies quickly break down the bonds between the units, so the sugar in this is usually absorbed just as quickly as glucose alone," she says.

    It's a mainstay in processed foods, especially sodas and candy, but you could also find it in things like "light" peanut butter. Companies often use maltodextrin here to reduce the fat content but keep the texture you know and love. Our advice? Keep portion control in check and reach for the all-natural nut butter instead—we love a good almond butter spread on a banana, which just so happens to have 14 grams of sugar for your hard-sought energy boost.


Samantha Lefave

Samantha is a writer who is living, eating and sweating her way through NYC. You can find her running half-marathons like it's her job, Instagramming her favorite food and fitness finds or, let's be honest, eating peanut butter straight from the jar.

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