Antioxidants in Sweeteners

as slow as molasses

as slow as molasses photo by technicool

Are you avoiding white sugar because it is just empty calories? And using agave, honey, or date sugar because they are less refined and have more nutrition?

You might be surprised by a scientific study named Total Antioxidant Content of Alternatives to Refined Sugar, printed in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association January 2009. It tested the antioxidant levels of many sweeteners.

What was tested?

agave nectar (light, amber and raw)
blue agave nectar
brown rice syrup
brown rice malt syrup (not gluten free)
barley malt syrup (not gluten free)
corn syrup (light)
date sugar
maple syrup (100% pure)
molasses (dark and black strap)
sugar (white, light brown, dark brown, turbinado, raw cane)

How where they tested?

Sweeteners where purchased from major retailers, health food stores, and online distributors. From one to 53 samples were tested for each sweetener. Honey had the most samples, representing mostly refined clover honey as it is most available.

Results- a few surprises!

In order of antioxidant levels, high to low.

Sweetener Relative amount of antioxidants
date sugar xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx                       
molasses, blackstrap xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
molasses, dark xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
barley malt syrup xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (not gluten free)
brown rice malt syrup xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx (not gluten free)
sugar, dark brown xxxxx
100% maple syrup xxxx
sugar, light brown xxx
sugar, raw cane xx
honey xx
sugar, turbinado x                                                                                     
agave nectar
corn syrup, light  
sugar, white                                                                             

Notes: White sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar had almost no antioxidants. 

These are composite results. The study did show some variability of antioxidant levels between samples of the same type of some sweeteners.

My graph is a crude representation of the results.

How does this compare with other foods?

broccoli, raw xxx
milk chocolate candy xxxxxxxxx
red wine (merlot) xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
blueberries xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
walnuts xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Note: Common serving sizes where compared.

Walnuts where way off this chart. One ounce of walnuts have about twice the antioxidants of one ounce of date sugar.

Can we switcheroo?

It is not possible to use some high antioxidant sweeteners measure for measure in place of white sugar in many recipes. A cup or more of black strap molasses in a cake will not be good. Date sugar is delicious, but will change the flavor, color and texture in recipes with lots of sugar. It is also expensive and not readily available. Some recipes successfully use these sweeteners though.

It is pretty easy to substitute dark brown sugar for white in many recipes. Did you know that brown sugar is simply refined white sugar mixed with molasses? The darker the sugar, the more molasses.

Stir 1 tablespoon molasses into 1 cup of white sugar to make dark brown sugar.

Using averages, the researchers concluded that substituting high antioxidant sweeteners for white sugar can increase the antioxidants consumed as much as having a serving of blueberries. That is because we eat so much sugar.

To much sugar

The average American eats 31 teaspoons of added sugar a day. Yikes!! While it is useful to use high antioxidant sweeteners, it is also important to simply use less sugar. And according to this study, using agave is not much better than white sugar.

Not tested yet

I like sorghum syrup and have used palm sugar too. They were not tested, so I do not know the antioxidant levels of these sweeteners. If anyone has this information, please share.

palm sugar1

palm sugar photo by vsimon

The study authors are Katherine M. Phillips, PhD; Monica H. Carlsen, MSc; Rune Blomhoff, PhD.

8 thoughts on “Antioxidants in Sweeteners”

  1. Brown rice malt syrup is naturally gluten free. The malt is from the brown rice and not from the usual source of malt–barley. Admittedly there could be a tiny amount of contamination if the facility is not dedicated to gluten free; but gluten has no antioxidant or oxidant activity.

    1. Hi John,
      Thanks for your comment. There are gluten-free brands of brown rice syrup. But there may be brands with gluten too.

      The writers at Gluten Free Living magazine are great investigative journalists when it comes to gluten free ingredients. I like that over the years, they have cleared some ingredients, and broadened our choices. Here is what they have to say about brown rice syrup.

      Brown rice syrup is a sweetener made by fermenting brown rice with enzymes. Barley enzymes, which are often used, make brown rice syrup that is not gluten free. However, if fungal enzymes are used, then the brown rice syrup is gluten free. Several brands are labeled GF, including Lundberg Farms’ Sweet Dream and Nature’s Flavors’ Organic Rice Syrup. If you see brown rice syrup on a mainstream label and the source is not listed, you must check with the food maker. (Information taken from Gluten-Free Living magazine, March 2008.) 11/08

    1. Thanks JJ!
      I like scientific studies where ingredients are all tested the same way, rather than info from the company that sells the product. But that is not always possible and the company knows their product.

      Palm sugar is simply processed and it makes sense it could retain some antioxidants if they are there in the first place. I also like that palm sugar is a cottage industry. Families gather sap and cook it down. For us in the US, there are substantial transportation costs and effects to get it here though.

      Responding to a comment in the link- the palm sugar I have used has very fine granules, solidly packed together. You need to cut it with a knife. It does not fall apart like white sugar or even brown sugar.