I’m sure you’ve heard how bad refined sugar (processed sugar that comes from sugar cane or sugar beets) is for your health. But what about evaporated cane juice or raw sugar? Are these “natural” sugars any better for you than refined white sugar?
Calling white sugar “refined” and raw sugar “natural” is a little silly. All of these sugars are natural in the sense that they all come from plants, and all of these sugars are refined. They’ve all been extracted from cane or beet and dried into a crystalline form.
The sugar we call “natural” is just a little less refined. People try to make it sound as if these less-refined sugars are also more nutritious than regular white sugar. They claim more nutrients are retained from the original plant. And, although its slightly true, sugarcane doesn’t have many nutrients to start with. Any traces that remain in raw sugar are very minimal.
Nutritionally speaking, there really isn’t any difference between these kind of sugar. Even though some are less processed, they all have the same number of calories and when it comes to digestion and metabolism, your body cannot tell the difference. Bottom line, all concentrated sugars, whether natural or not, are foods that should be consumed in moderation.
The Different Types of Sugar
REFINED WHITE SUGAR: Can be produced from either sugarcane or sugar beets, but by the time it has been refined to a white crystal, the two are chemically identical—virtually pure sucrose.
BROWN SUGAR: Is refined white sugar with some coloring and flavoring added back into it.
EVAPORATED CANE JUICE: Is made from sugarcane (never sugar beets), it’s slightly less refined and so it retains a bit more color and flavor from the sugar cane. The tan-colored crystals have a slight caramel or molasses aroma.
TURBINADO OR “RAW” SUGAR: Is dehydrated cane juice that retains some natural “impurities.” It’s a little darker and the molasses aroma and flavor is a bit more pronounced.
And just for the record, nutritionally speaking, evaporated cane juice crystals and raw sugar are no better for you than regular white sugar.
ORGANIC CANE SUGAR: From sugarcane that’s grown without synthetic herbicides and pesticides. It may be lightly refined or almost pure white.
COCONUT SUGAR: Derived from the coconut palm tree. Coconut sugar contains small amounts of potassium and iron. It contains the same number of calories and carbohydrates as other sugar, but may have a lower glycemic impact.
Best Sugar Choices:
LEAST REFINED: raw sugar
BEST SUBSTITUTE FOR WHITE SUGAR: evaporated cane juice
MOST ECO-FRIENDLY: organic
Compared with sugar, liquid sweeteners like honey and maple syrup are a step closer to nature and somewhat higher in certain nutrients. Nutritionally, liquid sweeteners are in the same category as regular sugar: concentrated sources of sugar and calories. Liquid sweeteners can be used in place of sugar to sweeten cereal or beverages. In recipes, however, substitute with caution. Not only are there pronounced differences in flavor, but you will probably need to increase or decrease the amount to get the desired level of sweetness and may need to adjust the amount of other liquid ingredients.
AGAVE SYRUP: Higher in sugar and calories than the same amount of cane sugar but it tastes quite a bit sweeter, so you may be able to use less. Agave syrup causes a much smaller rise in blood sugar than other caloric sweeteners.
BROWN RICE SYRUP: Comparable to cane sugar in sweetness but higher in calories. It causes a somewhat smaller rise in blood sugar than other caloric sweeteners. However, rice plants have a natural affinity for the mineral arsenic, absorbing it from the soil into the plant. As a result, brown rice syrup may contain significant amounts of arsenic and should not be used as your primary sweetener.
HONEY: Higher in calories than the same amount of cane sugar, but because it tastes a bit sweeter, you may be able to use less. It causes a somewhat smaller rise in blood sugar than other caloric sweeteners.
MAPLE SYRUP: Contains the same amount of calories and sugar as cane sugar but tastes less sweet and causes a slightly smaller rise in blood sugar.
MOLASSES: Everything that is left behind when sugarcane is refined into white sugar. It contains small amounts of calcium, iron, and other minerals. Although it is higher in calories than the same amount of cane sugar, it tastes quite a bit less sweet and causes a slightly smaller rise in blood sugar
Should You Eliminate Sugar from Your Diet?
Some people think you need to completely eliminate sugar from your diet to be healthy. If this is something you want to do, do it. You definitely won’t be missing out on any nutritional benefits, since sugar doesn’t have any. In fact, when consumed in excess, it can have very negative effects.
On average people are consuming about a half cup per of sugar per day. Sugar is to blame for many of our fastest growing health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. If your diet is high in sugar, cutting back on sugar is one of the most important things you can do to improve your diet and your health. On the flip side of that, small amounts are not going to derail an otherwise healthy diet. The goal is to reduce that one-half cup to just a couple of tablespoons of sugar per day.
Certain sweeteners—such as agave nectar, brown rice syrup, and honey— have a higher proportion of fructose, a type of sugar that does not raise your blood sugar. Of all the liquid sweeteners, agave nectar is particularly high in fructose and, correspondingly, has a very minimal impact on blood sugar. However, there are some downsides: Large amounts of fructose can signal your body to store more fat. It can also raise your triglycerides, a type of blood fat that increase your risk of heart disease. The take-home message? All sweeteners should be consumed in moderation
Zero-calorie sweeteners offer no calories to your diet, dont cause tooth decay like artificial sweeteners, and have no effect on blood-sugar levels, which can be helpful for diabetics. But, zero-calorie sweeteners do have some downsides. First, some people find their super-sweet taste and bitter, chemical aftertaste unpleasant. Secondly, using sugar substitutes for baking is almost always disappointing because real sugar is crucial to things like texture and browning.
ARE ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS SAFE?
Despite the fact that artificial sweeteners have been approved and are considered safe for human consumptions, some people claim artificial sweeteners are toxic and cause cancer.
Truth is, there really isn’t a connection between their use and cancer. Nonetheless, people do report adverse effects, ranging from headaches, stomach aches to chronic fatigue. In these cases, the problems generally go away when people stop using artificial sweeteners. It’s easy to test whether or not artificial sweeteners are making you feel poorly, and if they are, then simply stop using them.
ACESULFAME K—(Sunnett, Sweet One) Synthetic, zero-calorie sweetener, approximately two hundred times sweeter than sugar. It retains its sweetness when heated but has a bitter aftertaste. Commonly used in combination with other zero-calorie sweeteners to mask aftertaste.
ASPARTAME—(Equal, Nutrasweet) Zero-calorie sweetener synthesized from amino acids. About 200 times sweeter than sugar, but loses its sweetness when heated, and has some bitter aftertaste.
ERYTHRITOL—(Swerve) Sugar alcohol produced from plant sugars. It’s about 70 percent as sweet as sugar and contains a trivial amount of calories but does not affect blood sugar. Erythritol retains its sweetness when heated but tends to dehydrate baked goods. It has no aftertaste and a “cool” mouth feel.
MONKFRUIT—(Lakanto) This fruit contains natural compounds which are intensely sweet but contain no calories.
SACCHARINE—(Sweet’N Low) Chemically synthesized zero-calorie sweetener about four hundred times sweeter than sugar. It retains its sweetness when heated but provides no browning. It has a bitter after- taste.
STEVIA—A green herb whose leaves are extremely sweet but contain virtually no calories. Dried stevia leaves are about thirty times sweeter than sugar but have a strong herbal flavor. It retains its sweetness when heated but has some aftertaste.
TRUVIA AND PUREVIA—Brand-name sweeteners containing a blend of stevia extracts and erythritol. Both are as sweet as sugar and retain their sweetness when heated, but doesn’t produce browning.
SUCRALOSE—(Splenda) Zero-calorie sweetener synthesized from sugar, about eight hundred times sweeter than sugar, with less aftertaste than saccharine, stevia or aspartame. Retains sweetness when heated but does not brown.
Do Artificial Sweeteners Help with Weight Loss?
The research on whether artificial sweeteners help you lose weight is mixed. Some studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners can increase your appetite, especially for sweets. Other studies have found that people who use artificial sweeteners lose more weight. As far as I can tell, the only time sugar substitutes seem to be helpful with weight management is when they are used in the context of a strict dietary regimen. Casual use of artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, is more often linked to weight gain. Unless you are paying close attention, you could end up unconsciously overcompensating for the calories you think you are saving by choosing artificially sweetened foods.
BEST ARTIFICIAL SWEETENERS
MOST NATURAL/SAFEST: monkfruit, stevia, erythritol
BEST (BUT NOT IDEAL) FOR BAKING: erythritol
LEAST AFTERTASTE: monk fruit, erythritol
WHAT’S A SUGAR ALCOHOL?
Sugar alcohols aren’t sugar (although they do taste sweet) and they aren’t alcohol—at least, not the sort of alcohol we drink. Sugar alcohols include maltitol, xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and others—the “ol” ending usually signals a sugar alcohol. They are lower in calories than sugar but not calorie-free. In addition, because the shape of the molecule is slightly different than a true sugar, sugar alcohols do not cause an increase in blood sugar, which makes them helpful for diabetics. Overdoing it with sugar alcohols can cause temporary but unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea, however, a sugar alcohol called erythritol supposedly minimizes this effect.
My final advice is that all sweet-tasting foods, including artificially sweetened ones, should be consumed in moderation.