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Are ‘Natural’ Sugars Healthier Than Regular Sugar?

July 28, 2014

Photo: Trunk Archive

Sugar’s a hot topic right now. America is obsessed with the stuff, and every week there’s a new article or study blaming it for our obesity epidemic, cancer, fatigue, or inflammatory reactions affecting your skin’s texture. As a result, so-called natural alternatives have hit the market in droves, offering the sweetness we crave with ostensibly better health benefits. But are they really better for you? There isn’t really a short answer, so I asked two nutritionists to weigh in.

Keri Gans, a registered dietician and author based in New York City, wanted to clarify that not all sugar is created equal. “Sugar that’s found in fruit and milk is natural. When sugar gets a bad rap, I think sometimes those foods get lumped into the same category and that’s misguided,” Gans says. “We’re talking about added sugars, [which] just means added calories.” From the sugar you add to your two (or five) cups of coffee, to the sweet snack you grab in the afternoon to keep from crashing, it all adds up. She recommends that no more than 10% of your calories come from added sugar. So for a woman on a 1,500 calorie diet, that’s only 150 calories, or approximately seven of the dozens of Swedish fish I eat in a day.

Here’s the skinny (sorry) on three popular sweet alternatives to sugar:

Honey: According to Gans, honey has 64 calories per tablespoon, compared to sugar’s 46. Honey does contain vitamin B6, but you’d have to eat a lot of it to get the benefit—and that’s a lot of calories. “Honey does have a small health benefit, but depending on how much honey you’re using, you’re going to override it [because of the calories]. Honey basically is just sugar,” Gans said.

Agave: If you stroll through the snack aisle at Whole Foods, you’ll find quite a few treats sweetened with agave—but beware. “Glucose raises blood sugar, which triggers insulin and can eventually lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes if it remains elevated. There is a more dangerous type of sugar: “Fructose,” says celebrity nutritionist JJ Virgin, CNS, CHFS, author of the The Virgin Diet and The Virgin Diet Cookbook. “Unlike glucose, which nearly every cell in your body can use, fructose goes straight to your liver, creating inflammation, metabolic havoc, and eventually converting to fat.” And guess what agave contains? “The reality is that it is often heavily processed and contains up to 90% fructose. There is nothing healthy about the agave syrups and agave-sweetened processed foods you find in health food stores,” she continues.

Coconut Palm Sugar: Coconut sugar—also called coconut palm sugar—is garnering a lot of hype lately, just like its powerhouse cousin, coconut oil. Like honey, coconut sugar contains some nutrients, but again, you’d have to eat quite a bit of it for any real benefit. “It contains about equal amounts of fructose and glucose (very similar to table sugar), though its nutrients and fiber help buffer its glycemic load [which is how quickly it raises blood glucose levels] somewhat,” Virgin says. “A small amount of coconut sugar would probably not create problems, but it’s definitely not an ‘unlimited’ sweetener.” In general, the data and studies on coconut sugar are very limited right now.

The message? Satisfy your sugar craving with a piece of fruit. But if you must add sugar to your coffee—natural is the lesser of two evils.