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Liquid Sweeteners: A Comparison

With so many different "natural" sweetening agents available today, it's easy to get confused about where each one comes from, its nutritional content, and culinary ways to use it. Let's take a look at several different types of liquid sweeteners and sift through the science and the hype to find the sweet truth.

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Agave Nectar

This syrup comes from the Agave cactus plant. Unlike honey, agave nectar won't crystallize. Because it taste 25% sweeter than table sugar, you may use less because the flavor is more concentrated. It works well in a variety of recipes and mixes easily in liquids because it's thinner than honey. One tablespoon provides 64 calories and 14.1 grams of sugar.

Honey

Likely the world's oldest natural sweetener, honey's flavor and color varies wildly based on what flower nectar was collected by the bees. It is about twice as sweet as regular table sugar and contains several trace minerals and B vitamins. Honey, particularly raw honey, may bolster your immune system and can exhibit antiviral properties. One tablespoon has 64 calories and 17.3 grams of sugar.

Maple Syrup

Pure maple syrup is made from the extracted sap from sugar maple trees and tastes twice as sweet as table sugar. Maple-flavored pancake syrup (usually made from corn syrup) does not compare to the the distinct, delicious taste of maple syrup. Pure maple syrup is not cheap, but use it as an occasional special treat on top of whole-wheat pancakes, whole-wheat French toast, or whole-grain waffles. Go easy on the serving size -- pure maple syrup has 52 calories per tablespoon. If you use a 1/4 cup serving, you could easily be taking in more than 208 calories. To reduce the amount of syrup used, pair a small amount with some berries or other chopped fruit.

Corn Syrup

This is an invert sugar--meaning it won't crystallize. Corn syrup is often used to make candy and ice cream, as well as jams, preserves, sauces, and glazes. Light corn syrup contains 62 calories and 16.9 grams of sugar per tablespoon. Dark corn syrup contains 57 calories and 15.5 grams of sugar per tablespoon. A tablespoon of high fructose corn syrup contains 53 calories and 14.4 grams of sugar.

Evaporated Cane Juice

A tablespoon provides 56 calories and 15.4 grams of sugar. It's approximately 99% sucrose and is used in a plethora of food products. It's made from the sugar cane and is less processed than table sugar. It has a very small amount of B vitamins and calcium.

Brown Rice Syrup

This mild sweetener is made when rice starch is converted into the complex sugar maltose, which is absorbed more slowly into your bloodstream. It's often used in Asian foods and works well in unbaked granola bars or other treats because of its sticky consistency. One tablespoon contains 55 calories and 12.5 grams of sugar.

Molasses

There are actually several different types of molasses, each with a different flavor profile and culinary use. Molasses is what is leftover after juice is extracted from sugar beets or sugar canes, which is boiled and then crystallized. It tastes about 65% as sweet as table sugar. When possible, opt for unsulfured molasses. One tablespoon of molasses contains 58 calories and 15 grams of sugar.

  • Light molasses: The syrup leftover after the cane is boiled the first time.
  • Dark molasses: The syrup leftover after the second boiling.
  • Blackstrap molasses: thick, dark molasses leftover after sugarcane is refined into table sugar from the third boiling. Its flavor is described as bittersweet and it works well in chilis, baked beans, cookies, and roasted chicken or turkey. A sweet note -- this type of molasses contains calcium, iron, copper, potassium, magnesium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6.

Sorghum Syrup

Made from sorghum cane juice, this sweet syrup is commonly used in baked beans, BBQ sauces or gingerbread cookies. A tablespoon contains 61 calories and 15.7 grams of sugar.

Barley Malt Syrup

The sweetening agent is often used in the production of beer, but it is also used in breads and baked goods. The dark-colored, thick syrup has a bold flavor and provides B vitamins and minerals in trace amounts. One tablespoon provides 67 calories and 15 grams of sugar.

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Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children.

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