Faced with rising health bills and soaring statistics for cardiovascular disease and other degenerative disorders, governments and consumer organisations are pushing for bakers and snack players, along with all other sectors of the food industry, to slice the 'empty calories' - calories with the same energy content of any other calorie but potentially lacking accompanying nutrients - from their food designs.
And in pace with the growing demand for healthly formulations, a swathe of recent nutritional research across the globe has focused on the antioxidant potential of foods.
Such research seeks to investigate the potential power of such foods to combat oxidative damage in the body, damage that has been implicated in the etiology - the study of causation - of degenerative disorders, like cancer.
Following this same trajectory, scientists in the US at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, investigated the antioxidant levels of refined sweeteners, such as corn syrup, compared to unrefined alternatives, like brown sugar and honey.
"Based on an average intake of 130 g per day refined sugars and the antioxidant activity measured in typical diets, substituting alternative sweeteners could increase antioxidant intake an average of 2.6 mmol per day, similar to the amount found in a serving of berries or nuts," report the researchers.
A range of alternatives to refined sugar are available on the market, including raw cane sugar, plant saps and syrups, like maple syrup and agave nectar, as well as molasses, honey, and fruit sugars such as date sugar.
The researchers hypothesised that unrefined sweeteners contained higher levels of antioxidants, similar to the contrast between whole and refined grain products, they write.
The ferric-reducing ability of plasma (FRAP) assay was used to estimate total antioxidant capacity. Major brands of 12 types of sweeteners, in addition to refined white sugar and corn syrup, were sampled from retail outlets in the US.
The researchers report that they found substantial differences in total antioxidant content of different sweeteners. Refined sugar, corn syrup, and agave nectar contained minimal antioxidant activity (<0.01 mmol FRAP/100 g), and raw cane sugar a higher FRAP (0.1 mmol/100 g).
By contrast, dark and blackstrap molasses had the highest FRAP (4.6 to 4.9 mmol/100 g), while maple syrup, brown sugar, and honey showed intermediate antioxidant capacity (0.2 to 0.7 mmol FRAP/100 g).
"Many readily available alternatives to refined sugar offer the potential benefit of antioxidant activity," the researchers concluded.
Source: Journal of the American Dietetic Association January 2009, Volume 109, Number 1, Pages 64 - 71.
‘Total Antioxidant Content of Alternatives to Refined Sugar’
Authors: Phillips KM, Carlsen MH, Blomhoff R