Think that swapping out white sugar for brown or coconut sugar is earning you nutrition points? Think again. Surprisingly, “alternative” sugars aren’t necessarily healthier than the real thing. “Sugar and its alternative forms, like maple syrup, agave, coconut sugar, etc., primarily contribute empty calories, meaning there’s very little nutritional value in them,” says Kacie Barnes, Master of Clinical Nutrition, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and author of the ebook No Sugar, Still Sweet. “Honey does have health benefits — it has antibacterial properties and can soothe a sore throat — so I’d say that’s the one main caveat. But it depends how you consume it. A teaspoon of honey is no big deal. But telling yourself it’s healthy to eat something just because it has honey instead of white sugar kind of misses the point.”
The body processes different types of sugars differently, but this difference is usually not what people think. Many assume that “alternative” sugars like maple syrup and honey are processed in a better way than more refined sugars, and while it’s true that there are differences between glucose, fructose, and sucrose, and the body processes those differently, the main difference is just in how quickly the glucose enters the bloodstream, Barnes explains. “The body converts the sugar to glucose regardless of the source,” she says. “The more significant difference comes in when you look at what the sugar is consumed with. Refined sugars (of all kinds) digest quickly and enter the bloodstream rapidly. But if the sugar is accompanied by other nutrients (like an apple, which contains both sugar and fiber), the fiber will help with fullness and will slow the digestive process, and help prevent overconsumption.”
That’s why it’s much easier to overeat foods that have high amounts of added sugars, since when they lack nutrients like fiber, sugar isn’t filling. “It’s not that sugar or alternative sugars are ‘evil,’ because small amounts are not unhealthy for us,” Barnes says. “The problem is with the amount that gets consumed when we eat foods that are high in any form of sugar.”
To stay healthy, keep tabs on you and your family’s sugar intake. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than nine teaspoons of added sugar per day for adult men, no more than six teaspoons for women, and for children over 2, no more than six teaspoons. Children under 2 should have no added sugar at all. “Added sugar is any sugar that doesn’t occur naturally in fruit or dairy,” Barnes says. “Natural sugars found in fruit and dairy do not have a limit, and I encourage both adults and kids to eat these foods freely because they are healthy options, despite having sugar in them.”
Barnes’ strategy is to make your sugar count. For example, swap out high sugar foods and drinks for healthier options, such as trading soda for sparkling water. “Some protein bars and yogurts are way higher in sugar than you would expect, because they seem like health foods,” she warns. “So, find the foods that are high in added sugars that you can swap with a lower sugar option. That way, when you do come across an amazing dessert, or want to end your day with a few bites of chocolate, you haven’t already had a bunch of sugar throughout the day on top of that. I want women to know that it’s okay to enjoy foods that they like. Choose a sweetener based on what you like and will be satisfying to you, not what you think will be healthier.”
One common thing people get wrong about sugar is that it’s always bad for you. “Sugar itself does not cause cancer, it does not make you fat, it is not the unhealthiest thing you could eat,” Barnes says. “The problem is the amount of sugar that is consumed. Sugar of any kind can be a problem when routinely overconsumed. When there is already a high amount of glucose in the blood, the body does not have a need for it and struggles to use it, so it typically gets converted to fat. Also, consuming high amounts of refined sugar at one time causes blood sugar levels and insulin levels to skyrocket, and it’s not good for our body to have that huge spike in blood sugar occurring all the time. But no one should feel bad about indulging in an occasional dessert, or adding a sprinkle of sugar to their coffee if they prefer it like that.”
To set the record straight, here’s just how healthy these popular alternative sugars really are.