Updated: May 11
So we all know that sugar is bad for us. You're probably sick of hearing about it. Healthy fat is back in, sugar is out. Butter from grass-fed cows, coconut & olive oils are okay. (More info here). But sugar, in general, is a detriment to our health.
High sugar consumption has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and candida / fungal infections. It may even increase our risk of certain cancers.
But there are still many questions regarding this issue.
How about the refined white sugar alternatives such as coconut sugar, honey, real maple syrup, rice malt syrup (also known as brown rice syrup or rice syrup)? Are they just as bad?
What is fructose and what is all this business about fruit also being bad for us?
Fresh juice - a health drink or a health detriment?
How about dried fruits?
How much sugar is too much?
Artificial sweeteners and stevia, are they a better option?
This is my summary of this hotly debated topic. Hopefully, it will dispel some confusion and allow you to make up your own mind.
How much sugar?
Sugar has many names (see the infographic below). Most of the sugar we consume every day, especially those in processed packaged foods have no nutritional value and are empty calories.
Sugar is in almost everything. Tomato sauce, canned sweet corn, canned tomatoes, shaved ham, even some peanut butter and most yoghurts.
The World Health Organisation has a recommended daily intake of added sugars (this includes processed foods but not whole foods such as fruit). The amounts may surprise you.
Are there healthier alternatives to white table sugar? And what about artificial sweeteners?
When cooking and baking, or when a sweetener is added to coffee, tea or breakfast cereals there are other "healthier" alternatives to refined white sugar. These include 100% pure maple syrup, organic brown rice syrup, coconut sugar and honey. The alternatives are minimally processed or "unrefined". They are recommended only because they often have some nutritional value, and include some vital vitamins and minerals, and even antioxidants.
However, they will still spike blood sugars and the body still will react in the same way.
They are in no way healthy, just “less bad” than high fructose corn syrup and regular table sugar. This even includes artificial sweeteners, as they can also cause issues with the reward centre of the brain, creating addiction issues.
Stevia is one option that does not spike blood sugars, which is great for diabetics. It is derived from the leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, but does require heavy processing to reach us in its powdered form. (Check out my sugar comparison table here).
Artificial sweeteners are also called non-nutritive sweeteners as they add no nutritional value. Common artificial sweeteners include:
Aspartame (Equal, NutraSweet)
Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low, Sweet Twin)
There are very few long-term safety studies on artificial sweeteners and a number of studies have suggested some potentially dangerous side effects, such as glucose intolerance, diabetes & other metabolic disorders. (1, 2).
If you see a product labelled "sugar-free", it is bound to have some kind of artificial sweetener in there somewhere. You might be surprised to find it in your toothpaste, cough syrups, dressings and even chewable kids multi-vitamins!
Erin Elizabeth from Health Nut News doesn't have anything nice to say about artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame. Her well-researched book Sweet Deception states that aspartame is a neurotoxin and can lead to birth defects, cancer, and even brain tumours!
What about fructose and fruit sugars?
Many forms of sugar end with the suffix -ose. Such as lactose, glucose, maltose & fructose. Sucrose or table sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose.
Fructose has been tainted lately especially since the release of “That Sugar Film” and Sarah Wilson’s “I quit sugar” book. The argument is that although glucose is necessary for energy production, fructose has no benefit, and does not convert to energy as efficiently.
Dr Robert Lustig (a pediatric endocrinologist and specialist in childhood obesity) suggests that fructose does not suppress our appetite by decreasing ghrelin levels, so our caloric intake is usually exceeded.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a sugar processed from corn starch and is used in many processed foods, cereals and soft drinks. It is definitely one to avoid.
Honey, maple syrup, agave and coconut sugar all contain fructose which is why rice malt syrup or brown rice syrup, that are low in fructose, is sometimes recommended as an unrefined sugar alternative. However the mild sweetness of rice malt or brown rice syrup can mean more is used.
Agave has the highest content of fructose at a whopping 70%.
(You can view a table comparing the common sugar options here).
Fruit is also high in fructose (some more than others), so excess fruit consumption is not recommended by many. However, avoiding altogether doesn't make sense because of their high nutritional value and added fibre. Apparently fructose is not as detrimental when consumed with fibre and vitamin C.
Though we need to note that there was a time when fruit was only consumed in season. Over summer we would consume high fructose fruits to put on fat to get us through the winter. Now, these fruits are available year round and our body doesn’t get a break.
When juicing fruit, instead of consuming one whole fruit, we would consume many more. This is not ideal as we are increasing sugar consumption, spiking blood sugars and losing essential fibre. The fibre helps us feel full so fewer calories are consumed and let's not forget how beneficial fibre is for our gut. Think of how filling one apple can be, versus drinking the small amount of juice extracted from one apple.
Juicing of vegetables does provide a large number of valuable nutrients in one hit which can obviously be highly beneficial. But smoothies can also provide this, without the loss of fibre. Ultimately, you just need to watch how much fruit is being added to your juice or smoothie.
How about dried fruits?
Similarly, with dried fruits, sugar consumption is high and it is easier to eat 6 dried apricots than 6 whole ones. Also, they often contain a sulphur preservative (202) that some can react to, even just subtly. On the upside, they can contain many essential nutrients. Avoiding excess consumption appears to be the key.
What does it mean to eat low GI (glycemic index) foods?
The GI index gives an indication of how quickly a specified amount of food will cause a rise in blood sugar level. The slower the release and lower the number the better. Low GI foods are said to be less stressful on the body and provide energy for longer. Only foods that contain carbohydrates cause this spike in blood sugars, proteins and fats do not. Foods with a high glycemic index, include potatoes, white rice, white bread. Low GI foods include nuts, legumes, whole grains and low starch vegetables.
What's my verdict?
Ultimately sugar is sugar whether it is fake, artificial or natural. The body still responds the same. The natural unprocessed sugars contain some small nutritional benefits but are better obtained from whole foods.
If you have to have something sweet, reaching for a piece of whole fruit is obviously the best option. Making your own sweet treats using "healthier" sugar alternatives is preferable to packaged foods, even (or perhaps especially) if they state "sugar-free".
Choose unsweetened varieties for milk, yoghurts and cereals and if you must sweeten, do so with fruit or a natural sugar alternative like real maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey and stevia. You will then be able to monitor your sugar intake more closely and reduce whenever possible.
Most recipes can be adapted to reduce the sugar by at least half and easily swapped for an unrefined sweetener.