Are all sugars made equal? Let’s take a closer look as Nutrition Expert Mascha Davis examines our favorite sweet options to see if there is truly a ‘healthy’ sugar.
There’s a lot of confusion these days about different sugars or sweeteners. Some people say that agave is much better to use than honey. Others think maple syrup is superior to brown sugar. People looking to reduce their sugar intake are now turning to coconut sugar.
So why is sugar so terrible…or is it?
Sugar is not actually bad when consumed in moderation because it can give us quick energy. All carbohydrates (except for the wonderful nutrient that is fiber) metabolize into simple sugar molecules that our cells use, such as glucose.
While glucose and other sugars are the primary energy source for most cells in our body, it is when we consume them in excess that our blood sugar levels rise. Over time, this can increase risk for diabetes, inflammation, and cancer.
The most common sugar consumed is white sugar. Regular white sugar has 15 calories per teaspoon and composes of sucrose – a simple carbohydrate – which is 50% fructose, 50% glucose.
Sucrose digests rapidly, but has a relatively low glycemic index (GI) of 65 due to fructose, which produces a lower blood glucose response. Despite this lower response, fructose is by no means healthy and has been the subject of heavy scrutiny and debate in how it impacts health, particularly for the liver.
This has led to consumers looking for alternative sweeteners with a misguided belief that they may be ‘healthier’. So what exactly is the sweet truth behind these different beliefs, and are some sugars truly better than others? Let’s take a closer look.
Honey has about 60 calories per tablespoon – a bit more than the 50 calories from white sugar. It is, however, also slightly sweeter, so you may end up using less. While honey has been touted for its antibacterial and antifungal properties for centuries, sugar is still the predominant component in honey’s composition. Honey is made up of 75% sugar, of which half is glucose and half is fructose.
Sounds pretty similar to white sugar still, right?
Agave syrup is produced from a succulent related to cactus, called the agave plant. It has a thin consistency (more runny than honey), and a sweet but relatively mild flavor. Even though it is less viscous, it still has the same number of calories per tablespoon as maple syrup and honey: 60.
You may have heard that agave has a lower glycemic index than sugar and contains beneficial sugars called fructans. This is true, but if we look further into the composition of agave syrup, it’s clear that it’s not actually ‘healthier’. Agave still composes about half glucose and half fructose. The processing of agave nectar into its store-bought syrup form also breaks down those fructans into more…you guessed it, fructose.
Did you know that brown sugar is just white sugar mixed with molasses? Brown sugar has a tiny amount of nutrients like potassium, magnesium and some B vitamins. However, the nutrient amount is so small that it is nearly negligible. Brown sugar also has nearly the same number of calories as white sugar: 16 kcals / tsp in brown and 15 kcals/tsp in white.
Do you recall that regular white sugar is sucrose (50% fructose, 50% glucose)? Despite coconut sugar having a lower GI of 35, coconut sugar is still made of 70%-80% sucrose.
Because of this amount, coconut sugar supplies almost the same amount of fructose as regular sugar, gram for gram. It is very similar to regular table sugar, although the manufacturing process is more natural. It does also contain some trace amounts of nutrients. However, again, the nutrient amounts are negligible since no one consumes the cups of coconut sugar that would be required for a positive health impact (at least we hope they don’t!).
Maple syrup is made from the sugary circulating fluid (sap) of maple trees. And it’s true, maple syrup does contain a decent amount of minerals like manganese and zinc. But keep in mind that it also contains a whole bunch of sugar. Maple syrup is about 2/3 sucrose (as in table sugar), so therefore 100 grams will supply ~67 grams of sugar.
So how much sugar can I have?
Ultimately, at the digestive level, your body doesn’t differentiate the food sources of any of these simple sugars. The American Heart Association recommends that most men and women limit their intake of added sugars to no more than 150 calories for men and no more than 100 calories for women. That’s not a lot.
For example, one tablespoon of table sugar has approximately 48 calories and about 12 grams of sugar. So women should limit their intake to two tablespoons max and men, three tablespoons. How much sugar do you add to your morning coffee? How much is in the cereal you eat for breakfast? Many people are already in excess of their daily sugar intake before their mid morning snack!
So how do we minimize sugar intake? Just take a look at labels! Luckily, the new food labels coming out in 2018 will have a new section showing ADDED sugars. This is great news for consumers, because now it’ll be easier to differentiate between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar.
The sweet truth is that sugar is sugar. All sugars contribute calories without providing any significant nutrients and, as such, should be consumed in limited quantities.
The good news is that you can feel free to pick the texture and taste of your sweetener, but know that in the end, it is just sugar as far as your health is concerned.
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Mascha Davis, MPH, RDN is a Los Angeles-based private practice dietitian who shares her love of health and wellness through a unique global perspective. From world-class U.S. medical centers to rural villages in Africa, Mascha has dedicated herself to traveling the world, spreading her love of healthy living through both her humanitarian work and private practice. Learn more about Mascha at Nomadista Nutrition.