Are ‘Natural’ Sugars Better Than Refined White Sugar? What You Should Know.
I’ve always maintained that sugar is sugar. And no matter which sugar you choose, you should just choose less.
It’s no secret that we eat too much sugar. The average American consumes around 77 grams of added sugar a day, which is around three times the 25-36 grams a day that’s recommended.
But what if you don’t eat the ‘average American’ diet? Is there room for sugar in an overall healthful diet?
Should you be choosing what some consider to be ‘healthier,’ ‘natural’ sugars like maple syrup, honey, and coconut sugar, over plain white sugar?
Does the glycemic index of sugar really matter? So many influencers talk about the importance of low GI sugars.
Can white sugar mess up your gut bacteria to the point of giving you inflammation and unbalancing your hormones?
So many questions, and I’ve got answers.
What is sugar?
All sugar is comprised of some combination of three different sugar molecules, in various ratios.
Galactose (Galactose is a monosaccharide that is joined with glucose to make lactose.
When someone is lactose intolerant, they lack the enzyme that breaks down galactose.)
These single molecules are called monosaccharides.
The sugars we eat consist of disaccharides (two of these molecules together).
(Starches, which we aren’t talking about in this post, are polysaccharides – more than two of these molecules).
For example, here are the chemical compositions of some of the more popular sugars. As you can see, they’re all very, very similar.
White sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Maple syrup is 51.5% glucose and 49.5% fructose.
High fructose corn syrup is 45% glucose and 55% fructose.
Agave nectar is 12% glucose and 88% fructose.
Brown sugar is 49.5% glucose and 49.5% fructose.
Honey is 44.5% glucose and 50.5% fructose.
Coconut sugar is around 80% sucrose, which breaks down to around 40% glucose and 40% fructose.
It’s pretty safe to say that we’re splitting hairs when we say that one sugar is better chemically than another, since they’re all pretty much the same chemically, and to our bodies.
When we consume sugar – any sugar – it’s broken down during digestion to monosaccharides.
And when this happens, sugars are all the same to your body. It doesn’t care if you’ve consumed white sugar or maple syrup. It just sees sugar molecules.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has not been shown to be any more ‘dangerous’ than other sugars. The animal studies on HFCS are done on mice who are overfed HFCS – not what anyone would recommend for humans.
HFCS is also lower in fructose than agave.
What is the glycemic index?
Glycemic index is a number out of 100, indicating how quickly a carbohydrate food or ingredient is absorbed into the body as glucose. The lower the number, the more stable your blood sugar should be after eating this food.
But it’s important to note that when looking at the GI of sweeteners, the number is calculated using the ingredient by itself. Adding fibre, fat, and protein to the sweetener impacts its rate of absorption, because those nutrients slow the sugar’s release into the bloodstream.
So, while some people make a big deal about how some sweeteners are lower on the GI than others, this doesn’t matter all that much, because nobody eats plain sugar by the spoonful.
Sure, coconut sugar is 35, honey is 50, and table sugar is 65.
But unless you’re eating these ingredients by themselves, and in large quantities, these numbers mean virtually nothing. Sweet is sweet, and the calories in sweeteners are similar.
Glycemic index might be helpful for some things, but to determine the relative healthfulness of foods, it’s faulty. Some things that are low on the glycemic index are peanut M&Ms (33), Snickers bars (41), and Pizza Hut supreme pizza (36).
Conversely, foods like baked potatoes (85), and watermelon (72) are considered to be high GI.
How about glycemic load?
Glycemic load determines how quickly a food, in specific portion sizes, will raise blood sugar. The calculation takes glycemic index and available carb (ie carbs mine fibre) content of that food into account.
Because larger amounts of any sugar is going to have more grams of carbohydrate, keeping the portion size down will lower the GL.
What I’m trying to tell you here in a roundabout, complicated way, is that sugar is still sugar, meaning that whether you choose a lower-GI version or not, if you eat a ton of it, it’s still not a great idea. USE LESS.
The glycemic index of a sugar doesn’t speak to its healthfulness or the effect it has on blood sugar, once the sugar is combined with other ingredients.
What’s the rest of your diet like?
How much sugar are you eating?
Also: don’t let someone tell you that a recipe is ‘sugar-free’ because it has honey or maple syrup.
The sugar refining process.
I know it’s a big selling point right now to say how ‘natural’ and minimally processed a food is, but the refining and processing of sugars aren’t as scary as some wellness bloggers want you to believe.
First of all, let me say that most foods are processed in some way. Milk is pasteurized. Peanuts are ground for peanut butter. Almonds are ‘milked’ for almond milk. Just because something is processed, doesn’t make it bad.
Also: all sugar is ‘natural.’ Whether it’s honey, white sugar, brown sugar, or agave, they all come from nature. Processing doesn’t change that.
White sugar often gets a bad rap because it’s refined. Here’s what that process looks like in both sugar cane and sugar beets, in a couple of infographics.
Contrary to popular belief, white sugar is not bleached. Sugar is actually white when the molasses is removed from it.
There’s nothing scary about the refining process of sugar, and it’s definitely not a legit reason to believe that white sugar is ‘worse’ for us in any way than other types of sugar.
Nutrients in ‘natural’ sugar?
I hear this one a lot, and the truth is that while some sugars have trace nutrients in them, you’re hopefully not eating enough of these sugars that these trace nutrients add up to anything significant.
So yeah, the fact that maple syrup has a tiny bit of potassium shouldn’t be a selling point.
Sugar and gut bacteria.
While it’s true that naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables come with a side of gut-friendly fibre, added sugars of any type, in reasonable amounts, don’t really hurt or help gut bacteria.
Sure, the Standard American Diet is full of sugar, but nobody is recommending you eat a diet full of sugar. The SAD has been linked to a proliferation of bad gut bacteria. But the sugar part of that equation is just that: a PART. We don’t know exactly how this affects us.
People love to blame sugar for everything that’s wrong with our health, but the reality of the situation is that eating some sugar has never been linked to poor health. A decline in health may be multifactorial, including diet AND lifestyle factors.
In fact, I’d argue that although we don’t need sugar to survive, the pleasure that we derive from food and enhance our lives…and sugar can be a part of that.
Eating too much sugar, just like eating too much of anything, isn’t good. Just don’t overdo it.
Sugar and hormone ‘balance.’
I recently had a little kerfuffle on Instagram over another dietitian’s post about hormones.
Her claim was that avoiding refined sugar can help balance your hormones.
Hormones are the darling of the integrative/functional set, but so is these peoples’ chronic overreaching beyond what science has shown us up until now.
Her reasoning was this:
‘White sugar is high on the glycemic index. This means that is causes blood sugar to rise quickly…more quickly than low-glycemic sweeteners….A rapid elevation in blood sugar has been associated with increased inflammation in the body….This inflammation and the resulting effects on our gut bacteria affect our estrogen levels and can lead to ‘unbalanced hormones’ and estrogen dominance.
The research doesn’t support this hypothesis.
First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that the glycemic index of sugar has anything to do with inflammation in humans.
Second, there is no evidence to suggest that moderate amounts of any sugar harms gut bacteria in humans.
I turned to the experts to see what they had to say about these claims.
The gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem, and because of the numerous variables and bidirectional interactions between microbial and human cells, no causative relationships have been established between the diet-microbiome interactions and human health or disease. Furthermore, dysbiosis itself is not an answer, but a question: it describes a change in the microbiome–a population of organisms adapting to survive.
And lastly, there is no human evidence to suggest that dysbiosis (an increase in harmful gut bacteria) can impact estrogen levels and cause hormone imbalances.
Endocrinologist Disha Narang, MD agrees.
These are only theories that have been overall disproven. There are no human cohort studies suggesting a change in estrogen levels based on gut bacteria.
And AGAIN: GI doesn’t make sense when you’re not eating sugar on its own. And, you shouldn’t eat eating a ton of sugar anyhow. How many times am I going to say that?
A lot. So everyone reading this understands that this is the main point!
Cutting added sugar out of your diet, choosing the lowest-GI sugars, buying only ‘natural’ sugars…all of this is unnecessary. JUST EAT LESS.
The minute differences between different types of sugars aren’t going to make or break your health; it’s what you’re eating overall that matters.
There’s a lot of noise out there about sugars, hormones, the gut, and so much more, by people who are jumping ahead of the science in order to sell something.
Unfortunately, some of these people should be more evidence-based than they are…I guess there’s a few in every profession.