All About Sugar & The Low FODMAP Diet
This article will address all kinds of granulated and powdered sugars that we bake and cook with and address each one separately. Learn about the differences in types of sugar, how they are used in cooking and baking and what amounts are recommended for low FODMAP eating.
There are sections on White Sugar (all the various textures), Brown Sugars, Muscovado Sugars, Raw Sugars and Confectioners’ (Icing) Sugar as well as Coconut Sugar, Palm Sugar, Jaggery and Stevia.
We also have an updated section on Non-nutritive Sweeteners and Gut Health written by Kathryn Adel MS RD CSSD LD.
White Sugar In Particular
Also referred to as granulated sugar or simply “sugar” in our FODMAP Everyday® recipes, there are many questions revolving around sugar from a FODMAP perspective. It can be seen in the center of the image, above.
The entry in the Monash University Smartphone App originally suggested that a mere 1 (Australian) tablespoon equivalent to 14 g is “low in FODMAPs”.
As of Spring 2019 they have updated the amount to be ¼ cup (50 g).
How could they have quadrupled the accepted amount? Because their recommended amount is based on “healthy eating guidelines” and not FODMAPs, which we explain in more detail below.
For the record, we use Domino brand cane sugar in our Test Kitchen.
Is Sugar Low FODMAP?
Sugar is a disaccharide, due to the fact that it is made up of fructose and glucose. The “D” in FODMAP does indeed stand for disaccharide, however, sugar has equal amounts of fructose and glucose and therefore does not meet the definition of a FODMAP, according to Monash University.
Note that IBS symptoms can be triggered in some people when fructose is in excess of glucose, such as in honey, agave or mangoes.
How Are Recommended Sugar Levels Calculated by Monash?
In our emails with researchers at Monash University we asked some specific questions about sugar, as many of you have queried the amounts used in our recipes. Unlike carrots, which also have non-detectable FODMAP levels and which Monash recommends “eating freely and according to appetite”, the suggestion that an appropriate serving of sugar be held to ¼ cup (50 g) is based upon general healthy eating guidelines – not related to FODMAPs.
How Much Sugar Can I Eat?
The question, perhaps, should be how much sugar should you eat? From a FODMAP perspective, there are no issues according to Monash, but none of us is suggesting that sugar become a major food group for you. We eat home baked goods made with sugar, brown sugar, confectioners’ (icing) sugar as well as maple syrup, rice syrup and small amounts of molasses. That said, we do not eat cakes and cookies, muffins and scones every day, but when we do indulge, we do it without guilt and enjoy every last crumb. We tend not to eat packaged baked goods and sweets due to the fact that the labels and ingredients are nowhere near as clean and high quality as what we use to make our own – and hey, ours just taste better!
So, use your judgment. Enjoy a slice of birthday cake on your special day; have a muffin while you enjoy the Sunday paper; have a piece of chocolate every now and then – just not all the time.
Cane Sugar vs. Beet Sugar
While we use the term “sugar” to denote plain, white granulated sugar, let’s talk about what it is made from. Most sugar that you buy in the supermarket baking aisle will be derived from sugar cane, and most packaging will state this, however, some sugar is made from sugar beets. Neither have an excess of fructose, so there is no difference from a FODMAP perspective.
There is a .05% chemical differential between cane sugar and beet sugar and the variance is probably due to mineral content and the plant source, but since they are also processed differently, any dissimilarity could stem from that as well. Also note that beet sugar is often genetically modified (while cane is not) and contains sulfites, which can be an issue for those who are sensitive.
They taste the same, although there is discussion within the professional baking community about whether they are interchangeable. The argument is that although they are almost the same from a chemical standpoint, beet sugar melts and caramelizes differently and therefore is especially problematic for candy makers and confectioners. Some bakers also claim that beet sugar produces a coarser crumb.
When you think about the fact that sugar cane grows above ground and sugar beets below and that they are different plants, it isn’t surprising that certain variables can become apparent.
Also known as bar sugar, extra-fine or caster sugar, this is the finest textured of the granulated white sugars. It is popular with bartenders, as its fine texture means near-instant dissolving properties, even in cold drinks. This is also why some recipes for meringues call for it; it dissolves within the egg whites more readily than regular granulated. You can put regular granulated sugar in your food processor and grind it to a finer consistency and use it in recipes where superfine is recommended, such as some angel food cakes or meringue recipes. It will lose some of its crystalline sparkle, however, so if you need superfine sugar for its look to coat sugared fruit or candied orange peel, use commercially prepared superfine sugar.
Many resources will tell you that regular and superfine can be substituted cup for cup. Their density is different, however – more superfine sugar measures into a cup than regular granulated – but many recipes will work with either, although not necessarily giving exact results. This is where trial and error comes in with specific recipes and we leave it to you to decide on an individual basis.
From a FODMAP perspective, superfine sugar is the same composition as white sugar.
We use either Domino or India Tree brands of superfine sugar in the Test Kitchen.
The Monash app calls this “icing sugar” and a suggested serving is set at 1 (Australian) tablespoon or 16 g.
The very important fine print, however, tells us that it is not even moderate in FODMAPs until 500 g, which is a very large serving.
Also called powdered sugar by some, although confectioners’ and powdered sugar are technically different. Confectioners’ sugar usually has 3% cornstarch added, which some say leaves a raw taste when used in unbaked applications, such as when sweetening whipped cream. If your confectioners’ sugar contains cornstarch, don’t worry, as it is considered low FODMAP in 2/3 cup (100 g) amounts, which is a large amount.
In theory “powdered sugar” is just that, with nothing added, but that is not always the case in actuality. Read labels to know what you are buying and using. Sometimes labels say “10x,” which refers to the fact that that product it is 10 times finer than granulated sugar.
Simply put, confectioners’ sugar (icing sugar on the Monash University Smartphone app) is just more finely ground white sugar, so the statements at the beginning of this article apply to this powdered form as well.
- We use Domino brand of confectioners’ sugar in the Test Kitchen
This is also called icing sugar in the U.S. and elsewhere and is like super-duper fine powdered sugar, 1/100th of the size of most confectioners’ sugar. It dissolves quite rapidly and creates ultra-smooth fondants and icings based on powdered sugar.
Fondant sugar is also just more finely ground white sugar, so the statements at the beginning of this article in relation to FODMAPs apply to this powdered form as well.
- We use India Tree brands of fondant sugar in the Test Kitchen.
This sugar is used for decorating cookies, cakes and other baked goods and the granules are in-between regular granulated sugar and coarse sugar (see below) in size. Their larger size and irregular shape allows them to sparkle and also not melt when exposed to heat, such as when they are sprinkled on sugar cookies.
Sanding sugar is just another variation of white sugar and the same approach can be taken in relation to FODMAPs.
We use many different brands of sanding sugar but particularly like Wilton, as they are easy to find and they offer many colors, including metallic, such as gold and silver.
Coarse Sugar (Decorating Sugar; Decorative Sugar; Sparkling Sugar)
Coarse sugar, also referred to as decorating sugar, decorative sugar, sparkling sugar and sometimes crystal sugar is also used for decorating cookies, cakes and other baked goods. The granules are coarser than sanding sugar (above). Their larger size and irregular shape make them particularly sparkly. They will not melt when exposed to heat.
Coarse sugar is just another variation of white sugar and the same approach can be taken in relation to FODMAPs.
We use many different brands of coarse sugar but particularly like Wilton, as they are easy to find and offer many colors.
This is a highly specialized sugar that is used in some bakery applications. It is also referred to as Swedish pearl sugar, Belgian pearl sugar or nib sugar and it is very coarse and opaque and will not melt easily. It is most commonly seen in Belgian waffles, where the coarse sugar, when exposed to the direct high heat of a waffle iron, softens and caramelizes creating a unique crunch and texture.
Pearl sugar is just another variation of white sugar and the same approach can be taken in relation to FODMAPs.
Brown Sugars: Light & Dark
The updated Monash app sets their suggested serving for brown sugar at ¼ cup (40 g).
Both beet and cane sugars can be used to make brown sugar, but they are made differently.
If derived from sugar cane, a certain proportion of the molasses that is inherent in the plant may be left in during processing or it may be stripped away and added back to processed white sugar. The former is referred to as “boiled brown” and the latter is called “painted brown” (both industry terms). If you have heard that brown sugar is refined white sugar that has molasses added back in, that can be true and that is the so-called “painted” version.
If it is derived from sugar beets, it is always “painted brown”. To make things even more interesting (to me, anyway, since I am a sugar nerd) the molasses derived from sugar beets does not taste very good; it is usually sold off for use in animal feed. So, the molasses that is “painted” back onto beet sugar to make brown sugar is indeed molasses that has come from sugar cane production!
According to sugar-beet-industry experts from Michigan Sugar, the difference in light and dark brown sugars is not necessarily that there is more molasses added to the dark brown, rather that a different blend of molasses is used. There are different grades of molasses made during sugar production, and they will have different sensory profiles that affect color, taste and aroma. Different blends are also used for light and dark.
- We use Domino brand brown sugars in the Test Kitchen.
These have not been tested by Monash, but they are a type of brown sugar. You can try them on your own and assess their digestibility. Dark brown Muscovado sugar does appear in a product lab tested and certified low FODMAP by FODMAP Friendly, so we do know there is a low FODMAP amount.
This is a type of cane sugar that is sometimes described as unrefined (Billington’s uses this term, but they are essentially just less refined) and comes in light and dark versions. Muscovado sugars are natural, cane derived, brown sugars in the sense that the molasses they contain was never stripped away (some commercial brown sugars are made by re-combining refined white sugar with molasses that had been removed during the refining process, as described above). Muscovado sugars have a much stronger flavor profile than conventional brown sugars and usually a higher moisture content as well. You can see in the image above that the conventional dark brown sugar, front left, is about the same color as the light muscovado in the bag, rear right.
Light Muscovado: This version is closest perhaps to common dark brown sugar. It has more pronounced molasses flavor than commercial brown sugars and should be used when that strong, natural flavor can be showcased. Try it in a chocolate cake, lighter gingerbreads or spice cake.
Dark Muscovado: Also called Barbados sugar. This sugar tastes deeply of molasses with a bitter edge that works well in dark and sticky gingerbreads, barbecue sauce or anywhere you want a rich, pronounced molasses flavor.
We use Billington’s Muscovado sugars in our Test Kitchen.
How to Soften Brown Sugar
One problem bakers often encounter is hardened brown sugar. If it is kept in an airtight container, it will retain its moist, packable texture but if exposed to air it can become as hard as a rock! We transfer our brown sugar from the bag it is packaged in to glass, airtight containers to prevent this from happening. But if it does, you do have recourse! An old-fashioned approach suggests placing a slice of moist apple or a piece of bread in your container of hard brown sugar, closing it up tight and allowing it to sit over night or for a couple of days. The moisture from the fruit moistens the brown sugar, but the downside here is you would have had to plan ahead – and we never have high FODMAP apples around anymore.
A near-instant way to soften it is to lightly moisten a paper towel, seal it up in your container of hard brown sugar and microwave it in 10-second bursts on high power. Depending on the power of your microwave, and how hard your sugar is, this might take up to 30 seconds but probably not more. We like this trick a lot and it works every time. You can also try prevention and use a brown sugar saver – we love this little brown bear!. These are small pieces of terra cotta, often in decorative shapes, that you insert in your brown-sugar storage container after a brief soak in water. They work similarly to the apple, but they can live in your sugar storage indefinitely.Or, you can buy an airtight container that has the terra cotta piece built-in.
- Brown Sugar Bear Original Brown Sugar Saver and Softener, Terracotta
- Prepworks by Progressive Brown Sugar ProKeeper
You might come across ingredient labels or recipes calling for raw sugar, evaporated cane juice, turbinado sugar or other terms, which we will address briefly here.
Monash has tested and listed white, raw and brown sugars in their app. They have also told us that they contain no FODMAPs, therefore, by extrapolation, any of the sugars in this section should be free of FODMAPs as well, and also should be eaten in moderation.
Evaporated Cane Juice/Raw Sugar/Natural Cane Sugar
These are all terms used for a finely granulated sugar that is pale beige, due to the remaining molasses naturally occurring in the sugar cane. Unlike what most people assume, these are very much a processed product. They can be used cup-for-cup in recipes calling for white granulated sugar. Look for brands such as Bob’s Red Mill and Costco’s Kirkland label.
Turbinado/Demerara/Raw Sugar/Sugar in the Raw
Monash has lab tested raw sugar and has given a Green Light to servings of ¼ cup (50 g). Please note that as of fall 2022 Monash added a new app listing for “Demerara” and stated that low FODMAP servings are 1 teaspoon or 4g, with the sugar becoming Moderate for FODMAPs at ⅓ cup, or 75 g.
Always remember that many serving sizes listed in the app, like the 1 teaspoon (4 g) suggestion above, have less to do with FODMAPs and more to do with Australian healthy eating guidelines.
These are all terms for a slightly less processed type of granulated sugar, all with a darker beige color than those listed above and of white sugar. “Sugar in the Raw” is a brand that many people are familiar with (it’s the little brown packets at Starbucks), and it is a turbinado sugar. The terms Demerara and turbinado are often used interchangeably, although in general Demerara is coarser. The larger crystals mean that they will take longer to dissolve – when creaming with butter, for instance – but they can be used as a white-sugar substitute with some changes in outcome, mostly textural.
A simple description of the manufacturing process is that the cane juice, which is rich in molasses, vitamins and minerals, is extracted from the plant (pressed out). Solids are discarded, and the cane juice is boiled, evaporated and crystallized. The crystals are then heated and the natural molasses separates out through a process that involves a centrifuge or turbine-like machine – hence the name turbinado. The result is a beige, natural sugar, which is then washed and steamed. You can see that these sugars are not raw, but they are considered only partially refined.
Monash lists Jaggery on the smartphone app with a suggested ½ (Australian) tablespoon or a 12 g serving.
Jaggery is typically made from palm, coconut, or java plants and comes compressed into a cake or cone. It has an earthy yet sweet flavor that we like with oatmeal and in some fruit crumble toppings. You will find it in specialty stores and those carrying Asian and Indian foods.
Monash lists Coconut sugar on the smartphone app with a suggested 1 teaspoon (4 g) serving. One (Australian) tablespoon is high is both fructans and fructose.
To be more accurate, this product should be labeled coconut palm sugar – which is not the same as palm sugar, below.
Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut palm (the same tree that gives you edible coconut). The sap is boiled down and dehydrated. It is a somewhat finely granulated product sporting a rich beige color. It is easier to find coconut sugar these days in stores such as Whole Foods or Thrive Market.
Monash lists Palm Sugar on the smartphone app with a suggested ¼ cup (40 g) serving.
Palm sugar comes from the sugar palm tree and common in Thai cuisine. It is made by boiling down and dehydrating the tree sap. It is also a somewhat finely granulated product with a rich beige color.
Monash originally listed stevia on the smartphone app with a suggested “2 sachets”/2 g serving. Now they state that a low FODMAP serving is 2 teaspoons (5 g).
Stevia is a sweetener and sugar substitute extracted from the leaves of the stevia rebaudiana Bertoni plant. It is native to South America, specifically Paraguay, but it is now grown in many tropical and sub-tropical climates.
The leaves are dried, then put through a water extraction and purification process. Stevia contains 8 glycosides, which are the sweet components of the plant.
The resulting product has zero calories, which is an attraction for many, and its sweetening power is commonly stated as about 150 times, and up to 350 times, sweeter than sugar, so very little is required. It can be used as an alternative sweetener for those with diabetes.
Monash has tested a granular form of stevia, but would not confirm the exact ingredients of the product testes, nor the brand that they tested.
Note that NOT all stevia products are the same and in fact some contain inulin, and/or fructose or sugar alcohols – all of which are high FODMAP. You must read labels.
Monash would not confirm or deny whether the stevia product they tested contained FODMAPs. Certain certified low FODMAP products such as some ketchup and Worcestershire sauce contain FODMAPs and yet, in small servings, are low FODMAP. Therefore, it is possible that the stevia product Monash tested and approved does contain FODMAPs.
Here are the ingredients of some popular stevia brands and products:
Kiva Organic Stevia
- Lists erythritol, which is a FODMAP (polyol) as the first ingredient. Monash has said that this specific polyol “is also well absorbed in the small intestine, so does not normally have side effects. Erythritol is also more difficult for bacteria in the large intestine to break down, so is far less likely to cause gas or bloating symptoms than other sugar polyols (even when it is malabsorbed).”
- Contains erythritol; see above.
Pyure Organic Stevia
has a few forms:
- Organic Liquid Stevia Extract contains water, organic stevia leaf extract (Reb A) and natural flavors.
- Granular Sweetener Packets contains erythritol, organic stevia leaf extract (Reb A) and natural flavors.
- Pyure Organic Stevia Blend, suggested for baking and cooking, contains erythritol, organic stevia leaf extract (Reb A) and natural flavors. Pyure Organic Stevia Extract, granular form (seen above and below), only contains organic stevia leaf extract (Reb A).
SweetLeaf brand has many forms:
- SweetLeaf Sweetner that comes in packets and a shaker contains inulin, a FODMAP, as the first ingredient.
- SweetLeaf Drops contain stevia leaf extract, natural flavors, and purified water.
- bulk SweetLeaf SugarLeaf product is what they recommend for baking and it contains cane sugar and stevia leaf extract.
- SweetLeaf SteviaTabs include cellulose, which is not fermentable and not a FODMAP.
- SweetLeaf Organic Stevia Extract is a powder that contains no additional ingredients other than the pure extract itself.
Stevia In The Raw
is packaged in a few different ways and the ingredients differ:
- Their product in jars, tablets or packets contains corn derived dextrose, which is low FODMAP.
- Their Stevia in The Raw “Baking Bag” blend contains maltodextrin and this is not as clear-cut. Maltodextrin might be low FODMAP or might not be, depending on the source it has been made from and how it was processed. It might be best avoided, or at the very least, tested and challenged for yourself with caution. Speak with your registered dietitian about the best approach for you.
READ LABELS. NOT ALL STEVIA IS LOW FODMAP!
We do not use stevia in the Test Kitchen so we do not have information as to how it would work as a substitute in our recipes.
Non-Nutritive Sweeteners and Gut Health
Non-nutritive sweeteners are sugar substitutes that have a low-calorie content and are usually several hundred thousand times sweeter than regular white sugar. Their consumption is growing because of their low-calorie content and the health concerns about products with high sugar content.
They include synthetic sweeteners such as acesulfame K, aspartame, cyclamate, saccharin and sucralose as well as natural sweeteners like stevia. Although non-nutritive sweeteners are considered safe and low in FODMAP, their effects on glucose intolerance, the activation of sweet taste receptors, and alterations to the composition of the intestinal microbiota are controversial. According to studies, only saccharin (found in Sweet’N Low and SugarTwin), sucralose (found in Splenda) and stevia have been found to change the composition of the gut microbiota.
While it is possible that this might cause glucose intolerance and dysbiosis, more human studies are needed. It is also interesting to know that only 15% of the consumed saccharin reaches the colon, compared to 85% for sucralose, so saccharin needs to be consumed in large amounts to potentially alter the gut. Also, sucralose is not metabolized by intestinal bacteria, while stevia directly interacts with the intestinal microbiota and needs bacteria to be metabolized, so stevia might cause greater alteration to the bacterial population in the gut.
Takeaway Message Re: Non-Nutritive Sweeteners
Since we still don’t know how exactly saccharin, sucralose and stevia affect gut health, and that there is a possibility that they can negatively impact it, it is preferable to use caution and consume those sweeteners in moderation, even if they are considered low FODMAP.
How to Buy Sugar
We have offered some information throughout this article as to the brands of sugars that we use and we encourage you to use whatever sweetener is recommended in individual recipes.
How to Store & Measure Sugar
We transfer granulated sugars from their packages and store them in glass or plastic airtight containers. This makes them particularly handy to measure, as we use a dip-and-sweep method in the Test Kitchen for loose granulated sugars. For moist brown sugars, we pack firmly in the specific size measuring cup that is called for (¾ cup, ¼ cup etc.).