on 2 February 2016
Brown rice syrup has a glycemic index (GI) of 98, similar to glucose and much higher than refined white sugar (GI of 65). Several sources on the internet state that it has a GI of 25 – this is wrong. But forget about the GI – it can be very misleading: sweeteners that are high in fructose, such as agave nectar, have a low GI because fructose doesn’t spike blood sugar. Sounds good? No! A high fructose diet can lead to belly fat, high triglycerides, free radicals (cancer risk), insulin resistance, and eventually liver damage. So a low GI isn’t necessarily better than a high GI (ice cream has a low GI because it contains a lot of energy in the form of fat!). Brown rice syrup is typically composed of 3% glucose, 45% maltose, and 52% maltotriose. Maltose is two glucose molecules linked together and maltotriose is three glucose molecules – both are quickly broken down into glucose after you eat them. Glucose is one of the most familiar and easily managed forms of energy in our body – as long as you eat it in moderation of course!
For comparison, regular (“light”) corn syrup is very similar to brown rice syrup – the starch from the grain is converted to maltose (i.e. glucose) – they are both essentially glucose syrup. This is very different to high-fructose corn syrup in which a lot of the glucose has been converted to fructose (boo!). Agave nectar is around 2:1 fructose to glucose (also boo!) while sugar, coconut sugar, honey and maple syrup are all around 1:1 fructose and glucose (when you break it down). Some of these, raw honey, maple syrup, raw brown sugar, also contain minerals or phytonutrients that may be beneficial.
Fructose is the most common form of sugar in fruit. Eaten in a piece of fruit, the fructose is not a problem – the problems start if you regularly ingest large amounts of fructose without the fiber and other nutrients that come with it in fruit (e.g. in a soda or certain processed foods). Even sweet fruit like apples and grapes are less than 10% fructose. So when it comes to sweeteners, reducing your intake and balancing the sugar with other components such as fiber, protein, fat, etc., in each meal/snack is the most important thing. But if you are making something that’s quite sweet (> 10% sugar) such as cookies or a cake, then glucose is a better choice than fructose.
There was a bit of a scare about arsenic found in rice and rice syrup – the amounts found were the slightly higher than the U.S. EPA limits for drinking water, but your actual intake of the syrup is going to be so low (relative to drinking water) that I don’t think it’s significant.
One criticism of brown rice syrup is that it tastes less sweet than sugar syrup or honey, so you end up using more of it. Lundberg recommend using 1 ¼ cups where one cup of syrup would be required. I used mine to make homemade granola bars and they turned out fine, but I used raw honey to make the next batch and thought they were better – the honey costs more than the brown rice syrup but since the honey is sweeter I could use half the amount and the cost balances out. Organic honey is arguably the most eco-friendly natural sweetener, but if you are vegan or allergic to honey then maple syrup is also great, but pricey of course. Brown rice syrup is a decent alternative (see below for more details) and has the benefit of no fructose – and the same goes for corn syrup.
In terms of overall environmental and social impact, compared to other sweeteners and other companies, I think the product deserves 4/5 green stars (matching the 4/5 regular gold stars for quality and value). The brown rice syrup is made from rice grown organically in California, so it’s probably more local to you than, say coconut sugar. But it’s higher in terms of water-requirement: Rice is comparable to most other grains and requires moderate watering (more than coconut palms and sugar beets – 55% of the sugar sold in the U.S. comes from beets, incidentally). Converting the rice to syrup takes energy and materials (enzymes, and acid / base) so there’s more involved here than producing maple syrup or honey. Lundberg publish a comprehensive report each year, a requirement of their Sustainable Food Trade Association membership, which covers things like energy and water efficiency, diverting waste from landfill, worker treatment, etc. You can view the report by clicking a link on the “About” page of their website. Even their non-organic rice is sustainably farmed and they also introduced certified biodynamic rice in 2014. They employ crop rotation (with nitrogen fixing crops), water conserving irrigation schemes, habitat conservation (e.g., for migrating waterfowl), and natural pest control. They also study and practice methods for methane reduction and carbon sequestration (such as returning rice stalks to the field after harvest) and also have a rice breeding program where they study and cross rice varieties with goals such as shorter seasons and water conservation. They generate some of their electricity from their large solar panel arrays and offset the remainder with carbon credits.