I’m not sure about you, but I for one have a sweet tooth. So much in fact, that I need to avoid it most days so it doesn’t become a habit. For many people, having something sweet is a craving they can’t avoid. So it is only natural to want to find something sweet that makes it feel guilt-free. But is it really guilt-free or is it no different than the table sugar we try so hard to avoid? I am not saying you should not eat honey, coconut sugar or some other alternative. Each has their place, and you may have a preference of one’s taste over another. After all, honey may be better suited with yoghurt, berries and granola than the other alternatives. But the bottom line: sugar is sugar – no matter its type!
Some alternatives are chosen because they supposedly are more natural or have extra health benefits including more antioxidants or minerals. But how much do you have to consume to get any benefit? The answer … a lot more than ordinary table sugar. You would be far better off having a piece of fruit and trying to stay clear of any types altogether. On a calorific note, they are all pretty much the same. Don’t be fooled by that health label or symbol, or natural packaging. Just because something is more natural or plant-derived, doesn’t necessarily make it any healthier. Table sugar comes from a plant too, in case you didn’t know.
How sugar works in the body
In order to have a better understanding of sugar, it is important to know how it works in the body:
The most simple forms of ‘sugar’ are glucose and fructose. There is also galactose found in milk and dairy mostly. These are called monosaccharides. Together, glucose and fructose make sucrose, a disaccharide (contains two linked monosaccharides) commonly known as table sugar (1). It contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose, and is broken down into these during digestion. Sucrose is naturally forming in fruits and vegetables, grains (starchy foods) and also added to processed food and drink. Many sugary foods contain glucose, fructose and sucrose in different proportions.
When a carbohydrate or food containing sugar gets broken down through chewing and digestion, it breaks it down into its most simple form, glucose. Sucrose will be broken into glucose and fructose by an enzyme called sucrase. And fructose will eventually be turned into glucose. But the body uses glucose and fructose slightly differently.
Glucose is your body’s preferred source of energy and is not as sweet as sucrose and fructose (2, 3). Only once a food (or carbohydrate) is converted to glucose, can it be used for energy by the cells. The glucose gets absorbed in the small intestine and enters the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the blood glucose levels will rise quickly. Insulin (a hormone used to control blood glucose levels) is then released to help lower the blood glucose level. Glucose is then sent to the cells to be used for energy. Any extra glucose not needed at the time, will be stored in the form of glycogen in the liver or muscles. When it is needed again, it gets converted back to glucose ready to be used. If your body doesn’t have any glycogen stores or glucose to use, your liver will make glucose from fat or protein.
In short … glucose is directly absorbed in to the bloodstream. It is used for energy and if it is not needed, it is stored as glycogen.
Fructose, commonly known as “fruit sugar” is another simple sugar form like glucose. But it’s sweeter and differs in the way it is used by the body. It’s found naturally in fruits, honey, syrups, agave and some root vegetables. But is also added to processed foods in the form of high-fructose corn syrup. Most refined sugars or “added sugars” are fructose. It also comes from corn, sugar beets and sugar cane. Because of its natural occurrence in some foods, it gets a reputation for being healthy, but its important to understand a bit more about fructose before making up your mind.
Like glucose, it also gets absorbed through the lining of the small intestine, but does not tend to raise the blood glucose levels as quickly (4, 5). This may sound like a good thing, and for a diabetic with poor glucose control, this could be helpful. However, there could be more negative long term consequences that could make things worse over time.
From the bloodstream, it goes to the liver where it gets converted to glucose if it is needed for energy. However, if it’s not needed, it gets stored as fat. Too much fructose can have a negative effect on long-term health. This may include high triglyceride levels (although more evidence is needed to conclude this), non-alcoholic fatty liver and metabolic syndrome, mostly in overweight or obese people (6, 7). In addition to this, having a diet high in fructose may increase your hunger and cravings for sugary foods (8).
In short … fructose is directly absorbed into the bloodstream. It is converted to glucose and used for energy when needed. But if it’s not needed (often the case when too much is consumed), it is stored as fat. So perhaps that “healthy sugar” you are having is not so healthy after all.
The different varieties
Sugar and sugar alternatives come in multiple forms. From white or brown table sugar, to honey, agave and coconut sugar, there a few options to choose from. There is also high fructose corn syrup, sometimes found in fizzy soda drinks also added or hidden sugars.
1. White and Brown Sugar
Both the white and brown types are made from sugar cane or beets. They are made up of sucrose, with a 50:50 ratio of glucose and fructose. It comes in as white or brown forms, but both are very similar. Brown sugar gets its colour from added molasses (a sugar-derived syrup) and is sometimes mixed with white sugar (9). It’s ever so slightly lower in calories and higher in certain minerals. But the difference in calories additional minerals are so insignificant that these can hardly be counted as beneficial. Overall, this sugar like all others is not beneficial to your health and should be consumed in moderation.
2. High-fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has been used to sweeten processed foods, mostly fizzy drinks for decades. It came about, in the USA when sugar from sugar cane was expensive and corn was cheaper (10). It became increasingly popular from around the 1970s. Despite it being popular a few decades ago, it is not used as much in processed foods. But it is still a sugar type to be aware of. As it is much sweeter than regular sugar, less of it is used however it does contain more fructose, which is said to be harmful.
3. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is very popular in many health-conscious homes and cafes. The reason it’s believed to be healthier is that it’s natural and has additional nutrients that other types don’t have. It also has a slightly lower glycaemic index than table sugar. But does this make coconut sugar healthy and mean that you can eat as much as you like? No.
Coconut sugar contains minerals such as potassium, zinc, iron and calcium, as well as antioxidants, short-chain fatty acids and fibre (11). But despite these extra nutrients, it is high in calories, just as much as table sugar. It also tends to taste less sweet, thus some people may use more, which increases the total calories. As for the additional nutrients, you would need to eat a lot of it to get the extra benefit. You’d be better off avoiding it and getting the extra nutrients from fruit and other foods instead. Additionally, coconut sugar does have to go through a process to get to its form. This makes it no more natural than its competitor, table sugar (which also comes from a plant).
It also contains fructose. There are claims that coconut sugar is fructose-free, but it contains 70 – 80% sucrose, which is 50% fructose! So these claims don’t hold true. Although the total fructose intake might be a little less than table sugar if you eat the same amount, the difference is negligible.
Honey is another popular choice, often added to breakfasts, baking or hot drinks or smoothies. It does contain some minerals, but only a very small amount that is hardly beneficial. It is, however, higher in antioxidants depending on the type of honey you choose (12). This has been linked to certain health benefits including wound healing and heart health. But, it is important to note that although honey seems more natural and contains antioxidants, it is still is high in calories. The body will still treat the glucose and fructose in the same way as any other sugar type, so it must be consumed in moderation.
5. Agave Nectar
Agave nectar has been used to sweeten food and drink in South America for centuries. But is a recent addition to the ever-growing health list in the Western World. It comes from the agave plant which is also used to make tequila. This sweet alternative is another popular choice used by the health-conscious as well as diabetics. But is it as healthy as you think?
Agave nectar contains around 85% fructose, which is much higher than regular sugar and even higher than high-fructose corn syrup which is 50% and 55% respectively. But as it does contain a higher fructose content, the blood sugar levels don’t tend to rise as high compared to consuming glucose (13). This may be helpful for people with diabetes. However, often people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, and run the risk of the fructose being stored as excess fat which contributes to further health problems. If you want to choose a different sugar to regular table sugar, this would not be your best alternative.
6. Sugar from Fruit
Okay, so fruit is not exactly a sugar you can add to your coffee. But it is a much healthier alternative to processed sweet snacks such as biscuits, chocolate or cake. Too often I hear that fruit is bad because it contains sugar, yet those same people overload their coffee with agave, honey or another alternative. Yes, fruit does contain sugar, yet so did that slice of toast you had for breakfast.
Although the sugar in fruit contains fructose, it is only unhealthy in large amounts. It would be difficult to reach this from eating fruit alone. Fruit also has the benefits of fibre, which help keep you full and helps reduce sweet cravings (14). It also slows down the digestion process giving the liver more time to convert the fructose, and it is unlikely that this will convert to fat. This is unlike the fructose that get absorbed quickly from the likes of coconut sugar, honey or agave. If you are trying to cut sugar for weight loss, ditch adding any type to your intake. Have fruit instead, which is far more effective in helping with weight loss (15).
Fruits also contain loads of vitamins and minerals in a substantial amount, which are important. So don’t cut this out as an excuse that it contains sugar. The only time to avoid fruit is if you have a medical condition that fruit could make worse such as IBS or renal disease. Even so, there are only some fruits that affect these conditions. And there are plenty of fruit options available that are safe to consume. Aim to have at least 2 portions of fruit a day (or more), which is part of your minimum 5 fruit and veg daily intake.
7. Hidden sugars
Beware, the hidden sugar! We hear about added sugar to some foods, but there are many foods that contain hidden sugars. Many sauces such as BBQ sauce, ketchup and tomato-based pasta sauce often contain a large amount of added sugar. Some low-fat products can have it too, to make up for the loss in taste from removing the fat. A good example of this is fat-free flavoured yoghurt, so opt for low-fat or full-fat, Greek or plain yoghurt instead.
Many drinks contain hidden sugars too. These include ice-tea, Vitamin Water, ready-made smoothies, flavoured milk drinks, protein shakes, flavoured coffee drinks and some sports drinks which have more than a can of Coke! Don’t forget about the so-called healthy cereals, protein bars, condiments and tinned foods too. Many cereals, tinned fruit and baked beans, ketchup, BBQ sauce and some pre-made soups contain hidden sugars too. It is best to try and make your own at home where possible. At the very least, check the label and make sure the sugar is in the green.
Which sugar option is best?
Although some sugar varieties differ from their source, colour, texture and taste, all contain similar amounts of calories. They all contribute to weight gain and other health issues. Although some have benefits such as antioxidants or extra minerals than others, these are often negligible and are outweighed by its harmful effects. It is also important to be aware of the fructose and glucose content when making your decision.
If you want something sweet to eat, choose fruit, ideally in its whole form. Or if not then the whole fruit blended up into a smoothie will do as a runner up. But avoid overdoing it on fruit juices and dried fruit if you can. These have a much higher sugar content and sometimes added sugar too. As for adding sugar to tea, coffee or cereal you best choice is no sugar at all! Perhaps it’s time to reduce the amount you have. You can do this by trying to wean off it slowly if it’s too hard to give up in one go. But if sugar is a must, pick whichever option you prefer and stick to smaller amounts. Remember that all sugars contain similar amounts of calories, so the type you pick won’t make much difference.
Tips to reduce sugar
Whether you are overweight or a healthy weight, you should still try to limit your sugar intake. This will be easy for some, but will require thought and discipline for others.
- Reduce sugar is tea or coffee: if you have any type in your hot drinks, try to reduce this or ideally cut it out altogether
- Eat well: have a nutritious diet with balanced meals including lots of veg, some protein and some complex, high fibre carbs can help you cut the cravings
- Choose high fibre foods: high fibre foods can keep you fuller for longer and less likely to snack on unhealthy foods during the day
- Snack on fruit: fruit is not only high in fibre and water, but also naturally sweet. It is the perfect sweet snack if you want something sweet to munch on and a much healthier option to chocolate or biscuits
- Stay hydrated: often that feeling of needing to snack is caused by lack of hydration. Ensure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to help curb that sweet tooth
The Final Word
Adding sugar to your intake, be it to make your coffee sweeter or choosing a food with added sugar is not a necessity. Whatever sugar type you choose to have, know that it all has a similar effect or result (and amount of calories) with little to no extra nutrition value or benefit. Rather than wondering which sugar type is healthiest for you, try to cut it out where you can. If you do want something sweet to snack on, opt for a juicy orange or cup of strawberries instead!