What is the healthiest sugar? (Part 2)
May 09, 2011, Updated Sep 20, 2018
(Last week in in Part 1, I gave a quick primer on sugars and introduced some of emerging research that fructose may be worse for us than glucose.)
By now, I know you’re all at the edge of your seats, wanting the answer to The Big Question: What kind of sugar should I eat?
Dodging the question by telling you not to eat any sugar is, although certainly the best answer, unrealistic. Look at the ingredients list on just about any food: Odds are pretty good it has some type of added, refined sugar listed there. So even if you were to be completely gung-ho about doing so, the only way (in America, at least) to do so would be to cook all of your meals from scratch. (A laudable goal, and one I certainly encourage!)
Note that this isn’t intended to be definitive coverage of all types of sugars — to do so would take volumes — and my hope is that this really becomes a launching point for further discussion and research.
I should also point out a quick disclaimer: If you have any specific health-related concerns, particularly if you’re diabetic, please consult your healthcare professional. I say this especially because my investigation so far is leading me to favor glucose over fructose, but the long-standing advice for diabetics is to avoid glucose (fructose doesn’t cause the “blood sugar spike” as powerfully as glucose does). All this is to say: Continue to do your own research, ask questions, and keep up on the latest nutritional findings.
(Gee, after all that, simply eating less of the stuff sure sounds a lot easier!).
Table Sugar (Granulated Sugar, White Refined Sugar, Cane Sugar, Beet Sugar)
Let’s start with regular table sugar, since it is one of the most common sweeteners available. These ubiquitous white granules are just about everywhere, in packets at the coffee shop and in five pound bags at the grocery store. When an ingredient list simply says “sugar,” this is (probably) what you’re getting.
Table sugar is most commonly derived from sugarcane or sugar beets. After the sugar is extracted from the plants (using hot water), it is concentrated into syrups, and from there the sucrose can be crystallized. The remaining, uncrystallized syrup is then removed using a centrifuge (see molasses, below). The process is slightly different depending on the source, so check out wikipedia’s good overview if you’re interested in how sugar is refined. Once it’s fully refined, it’s difficult to tell the source of the sugar, and certainly you won’t be able to do so in your home kitchen.
The Bottom Line: Table sugar is pure sucrose. That means it’s made of bonded pairs of glucose and fructose molecules. In other words, it is exactly 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Regular “Brown Sugar” (the kind you get in the box at the grocery store) is usually just refined table sugar with a small amount (3.5% to 6.5%) of added molasses (which is a byproduct of the sugar-making process in the first place). The molasses imparts a unique flavor and texture, but it doesn’t make it more healthful.
The Bottom Line: Brown sugar is sucrose.
“Natural” Brown Sugars (Turbinado, Demerara, Muscovado)
I’ve seen many articles refer to these sugars as “unrefined” or “raw,” and that’s a bit misleading. They may be raw if they haven’t been heated, but they’re certainly not “unrefined” — they are simply less refined than other crystalline sugars. They start with sugar cane, extract the juice, then heat it to evaporate the water. Once the sugar crystallizes, it is spun in a centrifuge (hence the name turbinado) to further dry the sugar and remove some impurities. (Demerara sugar is similar, but is originally named for the Demerara colony in Guyana. It’s now produced in Mauritius.)
Muscovado sugar (also known as “Barbados Sugar”) is similar, but is dried without using a centrifuge.
The health claims of these products can be quite infuriating (for skeptics like us.) The brand Sugar In The Raw uses misleading (and completely meaningless) language, such as: “Nature’s own sweetener is gently converted into the natural crystals…” The Wholesome Sweeteners brand (the name alone is misleading) says “Organic Turbinado Sugar is made by crushing the freshly-cut sugar cane to squeeze out the juice, rich in, vitamins and minerals.”[sic]
Of course, the next sentence tells us it’s evaporated and spun in a centrifuge — which means that they’ve just gone ahead and removed any of those “rich” vitamins and minerals. (I also didn’t realize that sugar cane was so amazingly high in vitamins and minerals. Oh,wait — it’s not.)
If I had to choose between regular table sugar, brown sugar, or one of these, I’d probably go with the Muscovado. Not because it’s any more nutritious (the sugar is the same, and there’s no significant vitamins, minerals, or other beneficial nutrients), but because it’s less processed — which means it hasn’t been bleached or boiled — which is probably better for the planet. I hesitated even writing that last part, since it’s still not an endorsement — but there are degrees to all things, and I think Muscovado is probably an improvement, no matter how slight, over the above options.
The Bottom Line: These sugars may have more flavor and have other desirable properties for cooking but don’t be fooled by nutritional claims. They’re still all sucrose that’s been isolated from its natural source.
Often called “Agave Nectar” (thus giving it a more healthful tone), this sweetener comes from several species of agave plant.
I’ve heard people sing agave’s praises, specifically thinking it’s significantly less-processed than other sweeteners. That may or may not be true, as the sugar is extracted and processed through a few different methods, depending on the type of plant. It always requires more processing than honey, too.
The pros? You may not use as much. Agave tends to be sweeter than honey or regular sugar, so there’s a chance you’ll use less of it. I also love Marion Nestle’s pragmatic perspective: “Agave is more expensive so you probably won’t use as much of it.”
The Bottom Line: Depending on the type of agave syrup, the composition can vary. Some may contain 56% fructose and 20% glucose (and the rest is other sugars). Others may have as much as 92% fructose.
This (usually liquid) sweetener comes from sprouted barley (through the process of, you guessed it, malting), and looks similar to molasses. Its primary sugar is maltose, and I’ve seen the maltose content reported as anywhere from 42% to 65%. Maltose is a pair of bonded glucose molecules (which are then broken apart into individual glucose molecules by your digestive system).
It is about half as sweet as regular sugar, so you might be inclined to use more of it (which may also mean more calories). However, it also has a rich, “malty” flavor, so you might find you need less “generic” sweetness because of the increased flavor.
I have tasted barley malt when helping my homebrewing buddies, but until now I hadn’t considered using it as a sweetener in my foods. Next time I’m at a specialty market, I’ll see about picking up a jar of Eden Organic’s Barley Malt Syrup.
The Bottom Line: Containing no fructose at all, and up to 65% maltose, Barley Malt Syrup is a promising alternative… if you like the taste.
Brown Rice Syrup
Brown Rice Syrup is created by soaking/cooking brown rice with enzymes (usually from dried barley sprouts — meaning: barley malt) to break down the starches into accessible sugars. The liquid is then strained off and reduced to a syrup. It may also be produced by cooking brown rice flour (or brown rice starch) with enzymes — so your mental picture of simply boiling a pot of brown rice isn’t necessarily accurate.
Nevertheless, the end result is a sweet syrup that is about 45% maltose. It is similar to honey, but much less sweet, and has a nutty flavor with an aftertaste that’s similar to that of soy milk. Just like Barley Malt, you may be inclined to use more of it because it’s not as sweet.
The Bottom Line: Containing no fructose at all, and about 45% maltose, Brown Rice Syrup is a promising alternative. Just remember that it’s still a highly-refined and concentrated source of calories.
Made from dried dates that have been ground into a powder, this is a sugar option that’s appears similar to traditional brown sugar. Although at first glance it seems more “natural” (there’s less processing involved), the resulting sugar from the date fruit is primarily sucrose.
It also does not melt like granulated sugar, or dissolve in liquids — so it probably wouldn’t be great in your morning coffee. It may, however, work well as a “finishing sugar” on top of baked goods. Oh, and it’s expensive, too.
The Bottom Line: Containing mostly concentrated sucrose, it’s not a great option. However, since it includes the entire date (dehydrated along with the sugars), it may be a good alternative for some uses.
Want to know more about dates? Check out this thorough 1993 bulletin, Date Palm Products, from The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Made from the sap of maple trees (the sap is collected and then boiled down), the process is fairly similar today to many years ago. The up-side of maple syrup is that it’s significantly less processed than most other sugars — and does contain small amounts of nutrients. Then again, all of those nutrients can be easily found in other less-calorie-dense foods, and you’d have to consume a lot of maple syrup to make it worthwhile.
The Bottom Line: Containing mostly sucrose, it’s best to limit your consumption of maple syrup.
Maple sugar is what you get if you boil down maple syrup until it’s a solid sugar, or powder. It’s about 90% sucrose (with the rest being glucose and fructose). It may, however, be significantly sweeter than regular table sugar, so you’d end up using less of it.
The Bottom Line: Containing mostly sucrose, it’s best to limit your consumption of maple sugar.
Made from the sap of various palm trees (much like maple syrup), powdered palm sugar can be used in a similar means as regular cane sugar. It may be marketed as “Coconut Palm Sugar,” or simply “Coconut Sugar,” though that’s misleading because the sugar doesn’t come from the coconut itself. It may also be called “Palm Honey.”
I couldn’t find details on the exact type of sugar found in Palm Sugar, unfortunately (anybody have info on this?). I do like that it’s significantly less refined — some manufacturers don’t even boil it, they simply let it evaporate. One thing to watch out for, though, is that some manufacturers may “cut” the palm sugar with regular refined table sugar.
My hunch is that we’ll be seeing this one more and more frequently as a “healthy alternative,” only to find out once again it doesn’t pan out. I already found one website claiming that palm sugar is good for “asthma, anemia, leprosy” and for accelerating the growth of young children. (!?!). Another uses the slogan “Nature’s Perfect Sweetener.” Sure seems like a red flag to me.
The Bottom Line: Jury’s still out, but I’m guessing it’s mostly sucrose.
Fruit Juice Concentrate
I get really frustrated when I see fruit juice concentrate listed as an ingredient. First, they’re not telling us which fruit is being concentrated (usually it’s apple, pear, or grape). More importantly, this is essentially as refined a sugar as any other — but it sounds healthier because hey, it comes from fruit!
The trick is, if it’s sugar directly from fruit, it’s going to contain mostly fructose and sucrose. Once it’s been extracted (in the form of juice) and then concentrated (through heating), effectively all we’re left with is the isolated sugars.
The Bottom Line: Don’t be fooled by the healthier-sounding name, this is nutritionally no better than regular table sugar.
No Wikipedia page exists for fruit juice concentrate. Here’s the page for Juice.
In terms of taste, honey is hard to beat. Unfortunately, it’s about 38.5% fructose (and 31% glucose) — which means it’s a fairly similar fructose-glucose ratio to regular table sugar. There may be added benefits to honey, especially if it’s unrefined and consumed raw.
Indeed, entire books could be written on honey, so I can hardly do it justice in this short space. Having said that, if I’m going to consume honey, I’ll try to find a source that’s as close to the hive as possible. My favorite brand so far is Really Raw — it’s a creamy, rich honey that even has bits of pollen and honeycomb floating on the surface. (The downside is that it’s quite expensive).
The Bottom Line: Honey can be “closer to nature,” and may have some benefits, but unfortunately it’s about as high in fuctose as regular table sugar.
Invert Sugar, Inverted Sugar Syrup
Unless you’re a baker, you probably won’t have invert sugar in your pantry — but you still might see it in ingredient lists. Quite simply, it’s sugar that’s had the sucrose split apart (“inverted”) into the individual glucose and fructose molecules. It’s a little sweeter than the original sugar, because the “free” fructose is sweeter than the sucrose or glucose components. It’s often called “artificial honey.”
The Bottom Line: It’s effectively the same stuff as table sugar.
Molasses is a thick, syrupy byproduct of the refining of sugar cane or beets into table sugar. Since the whole point is to extract the sugar — and this is what’s left over — there’s significantly less sugar in this resulting syrup.
There may be up to three boilings in the sugar extraction process, and the result of each produces a darker and darker molasses, with less and less remaining sugar. The molasses that comes from the last one is known as “blackstrap molasses.”
Blackstrap Molasses has long been heralded as a sweetener that’s actually good for you — and I’m having hard time debunking that notion. It’s high in manganese, copper, iron, calcium, and other nutrients, while being fairly low in sugar. The taste, however, may be a turnoff for some — it’s quite strong. Personally, I like it spread on toast — adding some variety to my morning — but I certainly wouldn’t use it in my tea or coffee.
The Bottom Line: The nutrient-to-sugar ratio on molasses — especially blackstrap molasses — is far better than other sweeteners. However, molasses has such a strong, specific flavor that it may not be an acceptable substitute to many.
Blackstrap Molasses Info from “The World’s Healthiest Foods” site
Corn Syrup & High Fructose Corn Syrup
I’ve been saving the corn syrups for last, of course.
Produced from the starch of corn, the resulting first step is usually very high in glucose (and may have a fair amount of maltose as well). Because corn syrups are produced very specifically for different requirements, I can’t really say the exact amount of glucose. However, what I can tell you is that regular corn syrup is primarily glucose.
As a result, it’s less sweet than other sugars — but it also may be “less bad” for you.
High fructose corn syrup, then, is corn syrup that’s had some of the glucose converted (via enzymes) into fructose. The most common HFCS is about 55% fructose and 42% glucose (give or take) — which is nearly the same ratio of sugars that you’ll find in regular table sugars (there are other types out there, too, going all the way to about 90% fructose).
In general, though, “high fructose” is somewhat of a misnomer — which is why the corn refiners’ association wants to change the name to “corn sugar.” (I’ve written about this before, taking an unpopular position, but as far as I can tell, it’s the most factual one. In the same breath, I’ll remind you once again that I don’t eat the stuff, regardless of what it’s called.)
There are, of course, myriad other issues surrounding corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup. Genetically modified foods, corn subsidies, crop monocultures, big agribusiness, amount of processing… these are all serious considerations. However, from a purely nutritional standpoint, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between high fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar.
The Bottom Line: I still can’t escape the fact that as we’re learning that glucose may be less-bad for us than fructose, regular corn syrup may be a viable alternative to other sugars.
Putting it all together
What it all comes down to is this: We don’t know what we don’t know. But what we do know is that limiting added sugar intake can make a huge positive impact on your overall health.
We also know that when we do use concentrated sweeteners, there’s a chance that glucose and maltose may be better choices than fructose or sucrose. But again, I stress that there really isn’t enough data yet to back that up with certainty.
My hunch is that over the next few years, the nutritionists’ mantra of “sugar is sugar is sugar” will evolve and be able to become more specific. I’m guessing we’ll start focusing on intrinsic sugars (such as what’s already in that whole apple) over refined sugars (such as that apple juice concentrate), just as we’re realizing the benefits of whole grains over refined grains.
In the meantime, my suggestion is that next time you do use sugars, give barley malt, brown rice syrup, and blackstrap molasses a try. At the very least, you’ll be trying something new, which is always a good thing.
Photo by Umberto Salvagnin.