Sugar is a topic that gets lots of attention, and divides opinion! We know that excess sugar has various negative health effects, but is it all evil, and are certain types better than others? Below I try to bust a few sugary myths and explain a little about the sweet stuff!
What do we mean by sugar?
Sugar comes in many forms and it is the source of energy in our diet, i.e, sugar is necessary for us! The key is understanding the forms sugar is found in and which ones you should try to limit.
When you think of sugar, you will probably firstly think of sucrose (refined or table sugar), and perhaps fructose (the form in which sugar is found in fruit). Fructose, along with glucose and galactose, are monosaccharides which is what the body likes to absorb, and what more complex sugars are broken down into.
However, sugar is also found in other foods such as dairy and carbohydrates (yes, even the healthy wholewheat varieties!) In dairy produce, sugar is in the form of lactose (which breaks down to glucose and galactose), while carbohydrates are polysaccharides – substances made of many sugar units, which are broken down into various combinations of fructose, glucose and galactose. So you see, you are getting sugar from many sources that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as sugar.
Whilst sugar is necessary for energy, if you are eating a healthy balanced diet, you will already be getting plenty of sugar through carbs, fruit and dairy, so there is no need to add extra in the form of refined sugar. However, we all like something sweet occasionally, so is there a best type of sugar to consume? There are dozens of alternatives to table sugar available and I list a few below that are most common. It is important to remember however, these are all still sugars! This means they are all still high in calories, too many of which we all know will lead to weight gain. Fructose especially, is easier for the body to turn into fat than glucose, which is what the body uses for energy (so keep away from anything with high fructose corn syrup!) Anything that contains glucose will also cause a rise in blood glucose levels which can cause energy highs and lows, and even lead to insulin resistance (in turn causing Type II diabetes). So, it is important that you try to limit added sugar in any form in your diet, especially if you are trying to lose weight.
The best sugar options from a nutrition perspective
The best way to consume sugar is in forms where it is bound to fibre or protein; i.e. in fruit (including dried fruit), wholegrains or dairy. These are often called non-free sugars. They are absorbed more slowly so don’t cause such a blood sugar spike, and these foods also contain beneficial nutrients.
The rest of this list are free sugars. They all break down into some combination of glucose and fructose, so essentially the body cannot tell the difference. As such, coconut sugar or any other alternative sugar, is no healthier than basic table sugar. Although some alternatives do contain trace nutrients, levels are so low that you’d need to consume a huge amount to get an amount of any benefit!
The only exception to this, is honey, which has been shown to have antimicrobial and antioxidant properties (I find a spoonful for a sore throat, or a little dabbed on a sore spot/wound very helpful). But you must be mindful of the type of honey you buy. Only raw (unpasteurised) honey has health benefits, and unfortunately much of the ‘honey’ for sale is little more than caramelised table sugar. Heating raw honey will kill off its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, so don’t use it for cooking! Like any free sugar, I wouldn’t advise using in large quantities. Honey contains a high concentration of fructose and there is still an ongoing debate about the impact this has on your digestive system in concentrated quantities (if you suffer from IBS you may be recommended to cut honey out of your diet altogether).
Other free sugars
Agave nectar/ syrup comes from the agave plant (where tequila also comes from!) and is an extremely sweet alternative. Agave is one of the cheaper options available but isn’t a good option if you’re trying to keep weight down given its high fructose content.
Maple syrup is another plant based syrup, this time from maple trees. It has a delicious flavour and contains trace levels of various nutrients, but is quite expensive, so I will generally use in recipes where the flavour can be appreciated. It is also high in fructose
Brown rice syrup is, unsurprisingly, derived from brown rice. It is the least sweet of the syrup options and is predominantly glucose based.
Coconut sugar is made from coconut palm sap and is high in fructose. It contains trace levels of some nutrients and insulin, a type of fibre which may slow down the glucose absorption into the bloodstream, although it is questionable whether the amount is of any real health benefit.