Is there such a thing as “healthy sugar”, or is it just an oxymoron?
In our family, we went from using table sugar to brown sugar to raw sugar to raw cane sugar or Sucanat (dried and powdered, unprocessed cane sugar), to honey and maple syrup for sweeteners. Like going from white bread to whole wheat, we kept thinking the darker and more whole the substance, the healthier and better.
There is some truth to that nutritionally, and in terms of the quality of food substance. However, most of the good in any of that is too often damaged in the processing. Beyond that, the reality is that our bodies were not designed to consume such large amounts of fiberless sugar extracted from its original host.
“For thousands of years, human fructose consumption was limited to fresh fruits in season. In the past 100 years or so, there’s been a massive increase in our fructose intake, but we haven’t gotten any better at metabolizing it.” Harvard.edu
Sweet Tooth Downfall
If you’ve got a sweet tooth like I do, you’ve probably considered whether there was a “good” sugar option, or lesser of evils. Table sugar, artificial sweeteners or natural sweeteners…which is the best choice? With sugar being held responsible for obesity and artificial sweeteners questionable in terms of health, is there any sweetener that could be considered okay or even healthy?
Here’s what we’ve found.
Off the Plantation and Into Everything
Refined sugar, or sucralose, is table sugar. More than half of the world’s sugar is derived from sugar cane and the rest comes from beetroot, because it’s cheaper to manufacture. COOL! Beets are healthy, right?
Yeeeesssss…. but. Beet sugar is virtually chemically identical to cane sugar, where processing strips any nutritive content. Sugar contains approximately 45 cals/Tbsp with a GI of approximately 61 and zero nutritional value.
With Americans consuming 156lbs of sugar per year per person, and with all of it being not only nutritionally naked but also fat-feeding, disease driving calories, it’s important for us to take a look at less refined and healthier natural sweeteners. But first, it helps to know the difference between sucrose, fructose, glucose, and maltose.
The Fluff on White
Stripped of all substance and left with the fluff, this sparkly white substance is a virtual drug. Addictive and capable of causing violent mood swings, yet found in ever so many processed foods beyond the obvious and infinite number of alluringly delectable treats, sugar is the devil in disguise. Granulated sugar is 100% sucrose with a GI value of 61, so not a lot less than honey, but a lot less wholesome.
Sugar is the devil in disguise.
Glucose, Fructose, Sucrose and Maltose
The Woes of the Ose
Essentially sugars are carbohydrates composed of glucose, fructose, sucrose, and maltose.
- Fructose is known as the fruit sugar because it’s found in fruits, vegetables and honey.
- Glucose is known as grape sugar, blood sugar or corn sugar.
- Sucrose is known as table sugar.
Nutritionally, they are all the same.
Choose Light, Medium, Dark… or Not
What makes brown sugar brown? Molasses. So darker indicates more molasses, lighter means less. Oh GOOD! Molasses has iron and vitamin B, right?! Finally…a healthy sugar, right?
We wish! After processing, the residual molasses has been stripped to shreds, with no more than trace amounts of calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium, and the calories and GI are the same as straight sucrose.
Organic blackstrap molasses is highly nutritious, rich in copper, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6. So this could be a reasonably healthy sweetener used in moderation.
We like blackstrap molasses in our oatmeal with a few raisins for an iron boost.
Raw Brown Sugar
Not the Golden Child After All
If you thought that the “raw sugar” in brown packets at your local coffee shop was closer to nature…sorry to dash that hope. Turbinado sugar get’s it’s name from the turbines that “double wash” or “steam” it into that alluring golden color and distinctive flavor, not from an exotic tropical island. So basically it’s the same as brown or refined white sugar. Sigh.
Honey Do… and Do Not
Honey consists of 1.5g of sucrose and the rest is fructose and glucose with 60 cal/Tbsp and a GI of 58. Much more than a sweetener, honey has been used for its internal and external healing properties for eons.
Honey is packed with enzymes, antioxidants, iron, zinc, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, vitamin B6, riboflavin and niacin. Together, these essential nutrients help to neutralize free radicals while promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the digestive tract. 1)
However, the problem is that most commercial honey is pasteurized and filtered which means it has been stripped of most of the minerals and vitamins found in raw.
Raw honey is a bit more expensive and may be harder to find but well worth it, so whenever possible go honey in the raw!
For an especially healing and medicinal honey, we use Manuka honey like medicine. It’s expensive, so we save it for whenever our immune system needs a boost or we feel like we’re coming down with something. You may enjoy reading more about the healing properties of Manuka honey in this article.
Your Favorite Tree Sap
The clear, almost tasteless tree nectar tapped from the sap of red, black and sugar maple trees does not resemble the lusciously sweet amber nectar draping your pancakes so enticingly. From tapped to tampered, the processing concentrates the natural single digit sugar content to more than 60% while leaving just a trace of the minerals Manganese and Zinc, and more removed from natural than most consumers realize. At about 60 cals/Tbsp and a GI of 54, you can use less maple for the same degree of sweet as sugar but maybe a tad more nutritional value.
Dr. Oz Says to Stay Away from Tequila’s Sweet Sister, Agave
Extracted from the same Mexican perennial that also produces tequila, agave syrup has been touted as one of the best natural sweeteners because of its low GI of 15-19. However its calorie count is high at 60 cal/Tbsp, and 84% fructose, so agave is NOT as close to nature as you’d expect. “Agave contains more fructose than any other common sweetener, including high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).” DrOz.com
“Agave contains more fructose than any other common sweetener.”
Brown Rice Peel-off
A nutty-flavored, whole grain food based syrup that sounds healthy, brown rice syrup is also highly refined and concentrated. Maltose is rice syrup’s sugar name and it has one of the highest GI’s at 85%, so it’s no wonder that it is known to cause spikes in blood sugar and thus is not recommended for diabetics. Also fattening at approximately 75 cals/tbsp., this may be one sugar substitute to check off your list.
Rice syrup has one of the highest glycemic index ratings at 85%.
From Beer to Barley
Malted barley is more commonly used in the brewing process to produce beer, but it is also made into barley malt syrup. Both use a similar malting process of soaking and sprouting barley to make malt, then combining it with more barley. This mixture is cooked down until the starch is converted to a sugar mash, which is then strained and cooked down to syrup. Half as sweet as sugar, barley malt has a rich malty flavor and looks very similar to molasses, with a GI of 42 and 60 cals/Tbsp.
Dates with Substance
Date sugar is produced by grinding dried dates into a coarse powder that’s very sweet, but which does not dissolve. So, while you may not want to use it for your coffee, Date sugar can add texture and sweetness in addition to substance and sweetness in some baked foods and snack treats. Dates contain the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium as well as potassium. We couldn’t find the GI on date sugar but it’s approximately 44 GI for dates and approximately 33 cals/tbsp for date sugar.
The Healthiest Sweetener is a Plant
Sweet Auntie Stevia
The sweetener of the decade is stevia. Gardeners are growing it and grocers are stocking it, and it’s to even showing up at Starbucks. Stevia leaf is turning up everywhere and in all kinds of flavored varieties. Derived from the stevia bush, this native of Central and South America is considered a non-nutritive sweetener because it contains zero calories. Once crushed into powder the result is a sweetener 200-300 times that of sugar where 1 cup of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of stevia powder! Not only does stevia not raise blood sugar levels with an incredibly low GI of less than 1 (!!!), it’s said to reduce cavities by retarding plaque growth, and is beneficial in reducing inflammation! Stevia, (rebaudiana Bertoni) may just become your new favorite sweetener.
You can get stevia in powdered or liquid form. The powdered stevia is best for baking that calls for sugar and the liquid for adding to your tea, coffee, traveling or for when the recipe calls for honey or maple syrup. Just be sure to modify the amount used as the liquid stevia is usually a concentrate, requiring just a drop or two.
Stevia vs Truvia
Don’t be deceived.
Analysis of Truvia ingredients, a product made by Coca Cola, reveals that only 1% of Truvia is made up of a molecule from the stevia plant. 1) In 2013, a court awarded a $6.1M cash settlement to four class action suits against Cargill’s misleading labeling of Truvia as “natural”. 1)
This reminds me of when I worked in sales, ages ago, for a national manufacturer that added fruit juice to its hard candy. We went to an elaborate sales meeting at an upscale hotel, were treated well, and excited at the new product release. The marketing division had come up with a glossy campaign around how convenient it was to now take your juice with you, without spilling it… no matter what you were doing because the juice was in the candy at “10% real fruit juice concentrate.”
Fruit juice concentrate, is another way of saying, “flavored sugar”. The implication was that it was healthy. The ad agency did a great job with their marketing campaign. The commercials made you think that if you ate one of these candies, you’d be consuming healthy fruit juice.
There’s more than sugar to consider. For optimal health and weight management, we definitely need to minimize sugar intake as well as high carbohydrate and high glycemic foods. Here’s a glycemic chart put out by the American Diabetes Association.1)
The bottom line…?
Eat the foods, not the extracts. Eat from the garden more than the package. Eat sweets as nature provided them: in fruit, certain times of year. Sugar is highly addictive, and it’s bad for you. Wean from the bad with the better, and steadily move toward the good. 💪🏼
Glycemic Index of 62 Common Foods
Published by The American Diabetes Association on the National Institutes of Health, (NCBI)