It is clear that sugar, the kind found in all types of processed foods, has no nutritional value except for supplying calories. Processed sugars, the two main types being sucrose (think table sugar) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), are ubiquitous in the Western “food” supply. What is also clear is that as the intake of sugars has increased, leading to extra calorie intake and/or a displacement of other foods that are nutrient dense, the occurrence of many health problems has significantly increased. Therefore, for health reasons, it is very important to keep the intake of processed sugars to a minimum. The realization that processed sugars should be avoided has lead to some interesting techniques or justifications to use other concentrated sweeteners instead of the processed sugars because they are natural or less processed, therefore having the halo effect of “healthy” being attached to them. The question is; Are these “natural” or less processed concentrated sweeteners really any better for us? Can we really “have our cake and eat it too”?
Before explaining if there are differences between natural and processed sugars, there needs to be a basic understanding of the chemistry of sugars. I just lost you, didn’t I? Bear with me, this will help you understand the topic much better and will allow you to make an educated decision about these different products.
Carbohydrates are made up of three different types of sugars, technically termed monosaccharides. The three individual (mono) sugars are glucose, fructose, and galactose (only found in milk). All the carbohydrates (foods) we ingest, except for dairy, are made up of glucose or fructose or some combination of the two. If there are just a couple of these sugars linked together we call these types simple sugars. If many, often hundreds, of these sugars a linked together we call them complex. The following chart should help you understand this concept.
|Food||Simple or Complex||Type of sugars (approximate amounts)|
|Sucrose (table sugar)||Simple||Glucose (50%) Fructose (50%)|
|HFCS||Simple||Glucose (45-50) Fructose (50-55%)|
|Grains/Beans/Most Vegetables||Complex||Glucose (100%)|
|Fruits||Simple||Glucose (65-50%) Fructose (35-50%)|
|Root vegetables||Complex||Glucose (90-80%) Fructose (10-20%)|
What is important to realize is that the body, during digestion, needs to break all the carbohydrates down to single sugars before they can be utilized by the body. Also, glucose is the type of sugar (carbohydrate) that the body prefers to use, think blood glucose levels. The other sugar, fructose, can be used by the body, but it has the potential to have very negative effects on the body if it rises above a small intake, regardless where it comes from, i.e., real fruit, fruit juices, agave syrup, honey, HFCS, sucrose, etc.
Concentrated sugars come in many disguises. The following is a list of the names of concentrated sugars that can be found in many products or sold individually, some with packaging highlighting its “naturalness”.
- Agave Nectar
- Corn sweetener
- Corn syrup, or corn syrup solids
- Dehydrated Cane Juice
- Fruit juice concentrate
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Rice Syrup
- Sorghum or sorghum syrup
- Turbinado Sugar (natural brown sugar)
When it comes to all of these types of sugars they are ALL basically the same. What this means is the chemical make-up of them is basically the same, they are simple sugars (*maltodextrin is actually still a relatively complex carbohydrate, but acts like a simple sugar) that have relatively equal amounts of glucose and fructose. The body does not see them as table sugar or maple syrup. It sees them as the sugars that they are composed of. However, there are two aspects about this topic that require special clarification.
First, the natural sugars, such as honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, raw sugar and molasses, are often considered healthier because they will contain a higher level of vitamins and minerals than the more processed sugars, i.e., table sugar. It is true that these products will have higher amounts of vitamins and minerals. This is not very hard seeing that HFCS and white sugar are devoid of any vitamins and minerals, so it is not tough to have higher amounts. But, doe the amounts of vitamin and minerals justify a “healthier” status for these products?
It seems that agave syrup is so processed virtually all of the nutrients that were present in the whole agave plant are gone. The next table lists the nutrients found in honey, maple syrup, and unprocessed cane juice powder.
|Unprocessed cane juice powder (1 tbs)||White sugar
|All vitamins||0||0||0, except .12mg B2 & .15mg B3||0|
The nutrients found in these sweeteners are so small that that they have no real affect on nutrient intake, unless you are willing to eat cups of this stuff, which would have many negative effects, even if you were getting a few nutrients in an amount that would actually have some significance. Related to this aspect is the potential for refined sugar to contain harmful ingredients which are added during the process of refining, including phosphoric acid, sulfur dioxide and formic acid. This is a common statement but I was unable to find if these chemicals actually remain after the processing of the sugar.
Second, the sweeteners that have higher levels of fructose, such as pure fructose (100% fructose), agave syrup (~90% fructose), honey (~50% fructose) are considered healthier because they have a low Glycemic Index (GI). The GI is a rating of how quickly a carbohydrate will be digested and absorbed into the blood and effect blood sugar levels. The GI of pure fructose is 20, which on a scale of 0-100 is very low. In fact it is the lowest GI of any carbohydrate/sugar. However, here is the bad news; fructose has the potential to have many negative effects on the body. Therefore, even though a low GI is usually a good thing, in this case the overall effect on the body is negative.
So do not be fooled by the “natural” or “unprocessed” sweeteners. There are no real nutritional differences between them. However, there is often a big difference between the cost of these products (see chart).
|Sweetener||Cost per lb|
|Raw (brown) sugar (sucanat)||~$4|
|White (table) sugar||~$1.50|
There is a definite disadvantage for your wallet. However, I think there is an argument for supporting the little guy. Honey, maple syrup and some types of raw sugar and molasses are typically made by smaller companies and by buying their product you are supporting the small business owner and potentially a local business. I think that is great. But, when it comes to your health, there is no real health advantage in using the “natural” or “unprocessed” sweeteners. But, if you are going to use a more natural sugar, it seems that an unprocessed, dried cane juice is likely your best overall choice. However, the take home message; when it comes to concentrated sweeteners, less is better, no matter what the source is.