The Truth About "Healthy" Sugars
  • Allison Fahrenbach

The Truth About "Healthy" Sugars


For years, we’ve been hearing about the risks of a high-sugar diet. And while I’m really happy that people are paying more and more attention to their sugar intake, as a coach and nutritionist I am not so happy about all the misinformation floating around about sugar, particularly the notion that there are "healthy" sweeteners, and that by choosing these sweeteners instead of table sugar, you can somehow find a work-around.

Sugar is sugar. I'm sorry but there it is. And many of the popular health-trendy "natural" sweeteners are NO more "healthy" then good old plain white table sugar.


Here are the facts you should know so you can be smarter about the sweet stuff:


Is there such a thing as a healthy sugar?


For starters: brown sugar isn’t healthier than white. Just like brown eggs may seem somehow healthier than white ones (they’re not), brown sugar sometimes gets a pass as a wholesome sweetener because of its color. In reality, brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added. THAT's IT. It's not "more or less healthy." And adding molasses does nothing to change the fact that brown sugar is still SUGAR. It's actually sugar with ADDED sugar...


Because molasses is not a health food. You may have seen molasses markets as a healthy food, largely because blackstrap molasses does contain iron and calcium, but blackstrap molasses is actually VERY bitter and not sweet. What the majoirt of Americans use as molasses is "unsulfured molasses." While unsulfured molasses does still have some nutrient value, you'd need to consume alot in order to take in an adequate amount (at least 2 TBSP), and in doing so would consume 32g of PURE sugar or 8 total tsp. To give you perspective the daily intake guidelines are NO MORE than 25g or 6 tsp of sugar.


Honey isn’t “natural” sugar. Some people may consider honey and maple syrup to be more “natural” compared to white sugar, likely because honey and maple syrup are "thought" to be "less processed". But when are told by a doctor or health professionals to eat less sugar, that means sugars like honey and maple syrup too. Honey is a straight form of fructose (which actually has been shown to contribute to fat storage) and maple syrup is pure sucrose. “Natural” sugars are actually the naturally occurring sugar in dairy (lactose) and in fruit (fructose). Things like honey, molasses, maple syrup, and white sugar are all considered “added” sugar because we add them in to other foods and drinks. So don’t be fooled by “healthy chocolate fudge” recipes on Pinterest that include a truckload of honey or maple syrup. They're sugar. Plain and simple.


Coconut sugar isn’t a superfood. Coconut sugar seems to have become REALLY trendy, thanks to claims that it’s healthier than table sugar. Table sugar comes from which comes from sugar cane or sugar beets, and by comparison, coconut sugar, in the past has been shown to have a lower glycemic index. But recently, its GI value has actually been disputed, and the official Glycemic Index website puts its value closer to table sugar. What's more, coconut sugar has the EXACT same number of calories and grams of sugar as white sugar—and despite internet claims that it’s packed with nutrients, like molasses, you’d have to eat a very large amount of it to get anything meaningful.


What about Agave? Agave in particular has an appeal to a specific health conscious crowd because it’s a great vegan alternative to honey. But it’s honestly not as healthy as you may think. Agave comes from the same plant that tequila comes from, particularly from the sap inside the plant called aguamiel. This sap, unfortunately is exposed to enzymes, chemicals, and heat in order to take it from an unappealing sap to the sweet bottled syrup that you purchase from the store. And while organic producers limit the usage of harsh chemicals and process the sap using lower heat, the bottom line is agave syrup is still a highly processed product that undergoes a lot of questionable treatment in order to make it fit for consumption. It's far from "natural" by the time it hits the shelves. Another point to keep in mind is that the aggressive processing it goes through strips agave of beneficial nutrients and antioxidants.

Lastly, agave is very very high in fructose, even higher than high fructose corn syrup. This is problematic for several reasons, one of which is that fructose, or fruit sugar is not as healthy as you may think. Even though it might be deemed as healthy, fructose molecules are not a natural part of metabolism and humans do not produce it. In fact, very few cells in the body can make use of it except liver cells (which is why fruit post workout is less optimal than other forms of carbohydrate, fruit replenishes liver glycogen, NOT muscle glycogen). When we eat a lot of sugar, most of the fructose gets metabolized by the liver. There it gets turned into fat, which is then secreted into the blood. Sugar is sugar and the more of it present in your diet the less likely you'll be able to sustain a healthy body weight.


The bottom line: Eating a lot of sugary foods and drinks isn’t healthy, no matter what kind of sweetener they’re made with. Sugar- ALL forms- should be used SPARINGLY.

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