Stevia started out humbly as a South American plant whose leaves tasted sweet. Today it is multimillion dollar industry based on isolating steviol glycosides from the plant and transforming these into an intense sweetener for use as a tabletop sugar alternative and food additive in packaged foods. This sweetener has experienced rapid growth in the marketplace and is used in numerous food applications including popular low-kilojoule carbonated beverages such as Pepsi Next and Coke Life. In its purest form, stevia is 20 times sweeter than sucrose so in order to be used as a tabletop sweetener most products use erythritol (sugar alcohol) as a bulking agent. This means products are often low in kilojoules, not kilojoule-free - Check product labels.
Agave syrup comes from several kinds of agave plant, which is a succulent (cactus) from Mexico. The sap is extracted, filtered and heated (or has enzymes added) to transform the fructans into their component monosaccharides: fructose and glucose. In a similar way to high fructose corn syrup, the fructose content of agave syrup varies, however it is usually high – 70-80% - which gives it a low glycemic index (GI). Agave syrup is 30-40% sweeter than cane sugar so you can use less. It is not an intense sweetener and contains about the same number of kilojoules per teaspoon as cane sugar. Similar to cane sugar variants, agave nectar products vary in colour and flavour from light to dark. In cooking, agave syrup can be used in place of honey or maple syrup.
Coconut products are very popular and coconut sugar is no exception. Coconut sugar comes from the sap of the coconut palm and looks like brown sugar. The sap is boiled down to thick syrup and then cooled into blocks and the powdered sugar is shaved off. It has the same number of kilojoules and sweetness as cane sugar and a GI of 54.
Rice syrup is very popular because it contains no fructose, and is recommended in anti-sugar diet programs. Also called rice malt syrup, it is malted grain syrup made from rice. It is composed of maltose, maltotriose (a trisaccharide of three glucose molecules) and glucose. As a liquid, it can be directly substituted for honey and dissolves well in liquids. It is about 70% as sweet as cane sugar so you will need to use a little more, and has a high GI of 98.
Less refined forms of cane sugar are increasingly popular, both for their flavour and texture as well as their 'closer-to-nature' status. Panela (also called jaggery, rapadura, dulce) is sugar cane juice that is boiled down to thick syrup and then poured into moulds and cooled in a process identical to coconut sugar. In the USA panela is called dehydrated cane juice. The blocks are then grated or melted to use in cooking. Panela is used traditionally in Latin America and the Caribbean and is called rapadura in Brazil. It is still cane sugar and has the same number of kilojoules as the regular refined kind, but with a little molasses that adds flavour. Use it in place of brown sugar - the caramel flavour notes work well in baking and marinades.
This edited extract is used with permission from The Ultimate Guide to Sugars and Sweeteners by Alan Barclay, Philippa Sandall and Claudia Shwide-Slavin (2014). The Experiment (New York).