Sweetness and Light

How sweet it is depends entirely on you. Whether you reach for the sugar bowl, the honey pot or a packet of artificial sweetener, it's all a matter of taste and calories.

Sugar fuels the body and every cell in it. The more you eat it, the more you want.

A variety of foods naturally contain sugar. The most common sugars are in fruit (fructose) and milk (lactose). No matter how sugar starts out, your body turns it into glucose.

Table sugar, whether it's white and granular, or brown and sticky, comes from refining sugar cane or beets. Beyond sweetness, sugar has taste and texture and properties that affect cooking and baking. It also has calories and carbohydrates for dieters and diabetics to count.

The 2005 US Dietary Guidelines recommend choosing nutrient and fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and grains often and choosing and preparing foods with little added sugar.

Honey very similar

Studies suggest honey may contain antioxidant properties. However, since the actual health benefits of honey are debatable, the use of honey as a sweetener is really a matter of preference. One teaspoon of honey has more calories than sugar (64 calories versus 50 calories) but it is sweeter than sugar.

The non-nutritive sweeteners that come out of laboratories have no calories. Gram for gram, they can be much sweeter than sugar; that's why the packets are so small. They don't cook the same way as sugar, and they can have some added tastes. From the ADA to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the Food and Drug Administration, the pink, blue and yellow packets are generally regarded as safe.

Do sweeteners make you want more sugary foods? Not necessarily, but more sugar -- especially the high fructose corn syrup in many prepared foods -- may trick people into thinking they're hungrier than they should be. That can encourage them to eat more than they need.

The sweet life

  • Be fruitful. Whole fruits offer more than sweet taste. Along with fructose, the natural sugar in fruit, which has the same calories as table sugar, but fruits also offer you vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals (plant chemicals that have health benefits), and dietary fiber.

  • Train your tongue. You can learn to enjoy food that's less sweet. Buy unsweetened cereals and add fruit, sugar or sweetener to your taste. "There is habit in what we select, and it can be trained."

  • Read labels. They'll tell you total carbohydrates and what sugars are in a serving. Sucrose, levulose, dextrose, maltose, fructose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup or fruit juice concentrates are added sugar.

  • "Sugar free." Products labeled "sugar free" have plusses and minuses. The calorie-free sugar alcohol in sugar-free chewing gums can aid dental health. But very high levels of sorbitol, often found in sugar-free chocolate candy, can cause gastric distress, bloating, gassiness and diarrhea. Too much high fructose corn syrup can also cause diarrhea.

  • Cooking tips. Sucralose (Splenda) stays sweet when cooked into a recipe. Stir aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) into a cooked food after it's removed from the heat.

  • Baking bits. Cakes and cookies have different texture, depending on how much of each ingredient you use. Sugar helps cookie dough spread and become crisp; a substitute will puff. The amount of flour, type of flour and addition of an egg also change the texture.

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