Let's face it. I think we all know by now that sugar isn't great for us. But there is a lot of confusing information out there about what is okay, what sweeteners are "healthy" and how much we are supposed to have. So let's try to break it down right here.
First, let's look at regular table sugar. Sugar is a disaccharide made up of a 50/50 combination of fructose and glucose and usually comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. The disturbing thing here is that most of the sugar that we eat here in the U.S. comes from genetically modified sugar beets. I prefer to stay away from anything that has been genetically modified anyway, let alone the fact that sugar itself is not good for you. Excess sugar intake, as we know, will clearly lead to weight gain. Not to mention, heart disease, tooth decay, accelerated aging, increased risk for certain cancers, can cause insulin resistance which can eventually lead to Type II Diabetes, has no nutritional value whatsoever, and can be highly addictive. This causes a downward spiral of bad health. Clearly not a great option.
So what about sugar in the RAW? This may sound like a more natural option, yet the differences in processing are very minor. Raw sugar does not undergo bleaching so it is darker in color, but the result on your health is pretty much the same. No winner here.
How about raw honey? Now here's one of my favorites. Now don't get me wrong, honey is still a source of sugar, and all sources of sugar will cause an insulin spike and have the potential to cause weight gain if over consumed. Honey contains more fructose than table sugar, but not by much. But let's look at some of the benefits of raw honey for why it could be a better sweetener choice for you. Raw honey contains antioxidants, has antiviral and antibacterial properties, contains phytonutrients that can be anti-inflammatory, has potential to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms (I am proof of this!), can help a relieve a cough or sore throat, and can even help you sleep better. It works great in baking recipes, and it just tastes good! And why raw honey as opposed to processed honey? It is pure, unheated, unpasturized and unprocessed. This protects all the nutritional elements in the honey.
Let's look at pure maple syrup. Pure maple syrup contains some vitamin B, zinc, calcium, riboflavin and magnesium as well as some antioxidants... but only tiny amounts in a spoonful. You would likely need over 1/4 cup of maple syrup to get any real nutritional benefits (which is probably more sugar than you need!). It has the same number of calories as table sugar with an equal ratio of fructose to glucose. But PLEASE do not buy imitation maple syrups found on grocery store shelves. Most of them are filled with high fructose corn syrup which is NOT natural or good for you. If you are going to use maple syrup, make sure it is PURE.
Agave syrup - Heard of this one? It was pushed as being a "healthy sweetener" for a while, but if we look closely at the facts, we will see why this is not true. Agave syrup is derived from the agave plant. It is higher in calories than white sugar and it is 84% fructose rather than 50% as in white sugar. This was originally thought to be a good thing since fructose itself is less likely to cause insulin spikes in the short term, thus making this a supposedly better choice for diabetics. However, fructose can only be processed by the liver, and if the liver is overloaded with more fructose than it can handle, the extra gets turned into fat, and this could eventually lead to "fatty liver disease". Fructose disrupts normal liver metabolism. This is similar to how high alcohol consumption can disrupt the liver. This is not something we want, nor is this good for us. Plus, the way this is processed from the agave plant, all of the "natural" health benefits of the plant are stripped away before it ever gets to you.
Coconut sugar - This is made from the sap of coconut palm trees. It has a taste similar to brown sugar and contains less fructose than white sugar (making it easier for liver metabolism and has less potential to turn into fat). However, this is higher in sucrose so it will still cause a significant rise in blood sugar. It does contain trace minerals like potassium, phosphorus, magnesium and calcium. Certainly not a health food, but not a terrible option to keep in mind.
Sugar alcohols -What are these? You may recognize the names xylitol, glycerol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, or erythritol. These are most commonly found in foods and candy labeled "sugar free". Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring in plants like berries, other fruits, corn husks and birch. These are supposed to pass through the body unmetabolized, causing no sugar imbalance whatsoever. Are they harmful for us? The short answer is no. However, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts, and if it comes from corn husks (like most xylitol does) it could very likely contain GMOs. Just to be aware....
Then there is Stevia! This seems to be a popular one right now. This is derived from the leaves of the stevia plant. The concentrated extract is filtered into a powder or liquid form. It is 200-300 times sweeter than sugar! A little goes a long way here. It is a natural zero calorie sweetener, but also contains no nutrients at all. Using the dried leaf form would be the most natural choice, and always try to look for organic. The white powdered stevia usually goes through much more processing and bleaching making it not so natural anymore. So since it causes no blood sugar spikes at all, it sounds good... BUT. There is the question being raised that because it is so sweet, this causes the body to expect a blood sugar change, yet it doesn't happen. Some question whether this could actually be stressful to the body and actually cause some harm.. yet I have not seen any studies yet proving this. Just something to think about...
Now here's the big NO-NO!!! Artificial sweeteners are NEVER a good choice. These zero calorie sweeteners may seem like a good idea for weight loss, yet it is one of the WORST mistakes you can make for your health. The risks of these dangerous chemicals far outweigh any benefit you think you might be getting. And the kicker is, most people who become addicted to these sweeteners (and yes, they make you want more and more) actually end up GAINING weight in the long run. Why? Because foods or beverages with these sweeteners provide zero sense of appetite satisfaction. How often do we see someone order a diet soda and then drink it down with one of the most heavily calorie dense items on the menu? These sweeteners can also cause you to have an increased craving for carbohydrates. They have been linked to multiple adverse health effects and are just a bad choice.
So what can we take away from all this information? The bottom line here is that no sweetener is a health food. All sugar of any form will have some negative affects on your body, so they are to be used sparingly. However, I hope that this information helps you to be able to make some informed decisions next time you think about sweeteners you may choose to use. I personally love using raw honey and pure maple syrup for sweeteners at home in certain recipes. I am okay with that, and I make sure to keep the amounts in check. As long as you are careful with how much and how often, make your own choices based on the above information and be smart about it! And what about sugar in fruit? Simple sugars from fruit are not as concerning simply because you are also getting a high amount of antioxidants and fiber along with it. Free sugar that is not bound to fiber in fruit is what can lead to inflammation, blood sugar instability and possibly even Type II Diabetes. Hope this helps!
Terri Wentzell is a registered nurse with more than 20 years of experience. She is also a certified personal trainer, wellness coach, fitness nutrition coach, and sport yoga instructor.