Sugar, ah honey honey. You are my candy girl, and you got me wanting you! ♪♪ The Archies were on to something when they wrote that song. Not only do many people love sugar and honey, but they are often substituted for one another in cooking and baking. Why? They both are nutritive sweeteners.
Nutritive sweeteners can be categorized into two groups - natural and added sugars. As these names would suggest, naturally occurring sugars are found 'naturally' in foods such as fruits and milk, while added sugars are caloric sweeteners that are ‘added’ to products during processing, preparation or before consumption of foods. Foods that contain naturally occurring sugars are nutritious and should be included in your diet while consumption of added sugars (e.g. table sugar) should be limited due to poor nutrient content. The most common added sugar is white table sugar which is comprised of two molecules – glucose and fructose (simple sugars). The different proportions of these simple sugars affect the range of sweetness in foods. Fructose impacts the sweetness more and excessive amounts can have major health implications. Some added sugars (e.g. agave nectar, honey) have gained popularity due to the perception that they are a natural healthy option derived from a plant source. There is insufficient evidence to support this view. It’s true that while some natural alternatives contain small amounts of nutrients, the metabolism of all sugars is similar making no one added sugar healthier.
Maple syrup is similar to table sugar in that it contains roughly an even proportion of fructose to glucose (i.e. 50%). Similar to honey, maple syrup has a slight edge over table sugar in that it contains small amounts of minerals (e.g. manganese, zinc) and antioxidants. Its’ ability to slowly raise blood sugar makes this an appealing alternative; however, its’ nutrient profile is insufficient to make it a ‘healthy food.’
High quality honey is well known for its’ flavour, thickness, antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Although it is true that honey contains plant compounds and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals (e.g. potassium), it is 80% sugar by weight. The small provision of antioxidants provides a slight edge over sugar, but it is not enough to make this a ‘healthy food.’ There is room for honey in a well-balanced diet, as long as it is consumed in small amounts.
Raw Organic Cane Sugar
Raw organic cane sugar is table sugar’s identical twin – they have the same chemical composition and effect on metabolism. Don’t be fooled by the words ‘raw’ and ‘organic.’ They do not make this cane sugar advantageous, regardless of this sugar being processed differently.
Agave raises blood sugar slowly which gives the perception that this must be a healthy sweetener. Don’t be fooled though! Agave ranges from 70-90% fructose, and excessive consumption can have profound health effects. The trace amounts of iron, calcium, potassium and magnesium does not outweigh the amount of fructose in this alternative.
With everything else coconut related (milk, water, oil), it is not surprising that coconut sugar is perceived as healthy. Its’ lower amount of fructose (35-45%) and minute amount of fibre and nutrients can make this table sugar alternative appealing. Although coconut sugar presents as less unhealthy than table sugar, it’s still not considered a ‘healthy food.’
A less unhealthy added sugar is still an unhealthy choice. Like anything else we consume, moderation is essential when including sugar or sugar alternatives in our diet. To satisfy your sweet cravings focus on consuming whole foods (e.g. fruit) that are naturally sweet and provide other important nutrients like fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Want to make fruit a dessert option? Try the following: grill fresh fruit like peaches, pineapples or pears; bake apples, pears or bananas and sprinkle with cinnamon; freeze banana to make popsicles; make fruit skewers with a yogurt based dip or drizzle some dark chocolate on your favourite fruits!