Agave. Coconut sugar. Molasses. Brown rice syrup. It’s enough to make you wonder what ever happened to plain old white sugar? It seems like sweetener options are multiplying and growing more confusing every day. Between scouring food labels and navigating recipes, it’s hard to know which sugar is the healthiest and which you should avoid.
“There are about 60 different names for sugar that can be found on a nutrition label — nectars, cane juice, syrups, honey and maltose, to name a few,” says Susan Stalte, RD LDN. “There’s no doubt that it’s overwhelming.”
According to Stalte, these various sweeteners differ by their glycemic index (how quickly they impact blood sugar) and amount of fructose. These factors will determine how our bodies will process them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends limiting added sugars to 6 to 9 teaspoons a day, or no more than 10 percent of total calories from added sugar. But given that a single can of soda has as much as 10 teaspoons of sugar, most Americans eat 19 to 20 teaspoons of added sugar a day.
“In such excess, sugar is linked to obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic inflammatory conditions,” says Toni Fiori, RDN. “Due to these health concerns, it is important to stay mindful of the various sugars lurking in many of our day-to-day foods.”
What’s in a Name?
Fiori shares the science, pros and cons behind some of the more common sugar types you’ve likely encountered in a protein bar, Paleo recipe or packaged food:
High-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup is made from corn that has been processed first into corn starch and then into pure corn syrup. Because pure corn syrup is composed completely of the simple sugar glucose, it’s not sweet enough for use in food manufacturing. Food producers add enzymes to the corn syrup to convert roughly half the glucose into fructose, another simple sugar that is much sweeter. It’s used in highly processed junk foods because it’s cheaper and sweeter. Basically, your body absorbs the glucose, and the fructose passes on to the liver for fat production.
Coconut sugar. This comes from sap from the coconut palm and contains inulin, which is a non-digestible fiber to help fill you without providing calories. Inulin supports probiotic bacteria, which is good for your gut health. On the other hand, inulin can cause digestive distress (gas and bloating) in some people.
Pure maple syrup. It’s also a natural, more complex source of sugar with some trace vitamins and minerals. Maple syrup contains more glucose than fructose, so it is easily absorbed in most people, similar to table sugar. Warning: Because it’s not as viscous as honey or agave, it’s easier to consume high amounts.
Brown rice syrup. This sugar is derived from the starch in brown rice. It’s essentially concentrated glucose and has no more nutrition than regular sugar. It’s added to convenience foods (granola bars, cereals, etc.).
Agave. While it has similar nutritional benefits to honey, agave has a lower glycemic index, which means it does not raise blood-sugar levels as quickly. This makes it a better choice for diabetics. Agave is even higher in fructose than honey, so it also can cause abdominal discomfort.
Honey. More complex than sugar, honey has the fructose and glucose, but it also contains some minerals, vitamins and amino acids. Plus, it has natural antioxidants to support our health. Because it’s much sweeter than table sugar, less is needed to sweeten things up. It has more fructose than it does glucose, so for those who don’t tolerate or absorb fructose well, honey can cause symptoms of diarrhea and bloating.
Molasses. This is a byproduct from making sugar. The darker the molasses, the more concentrated the nutrients. Molasses is higher in vitamins and minerals than any of the other sweeteners listed, containing B6, calcium, potassium, iron and magnesium. Because of its bitter taste, it’s more suited for baking.
Table sugar. Its true name is sucrose (glucose and fructose), and it’s rapidly used by your body. Besides energy/calories, sugar does not provide any other health benefit, so in excess, it’s stored as fat.
Looking at Labels
When it comes to reading labels, Stalte warns consumers not to be fooled by the term “natural” or “organic” — of course, organic may be a good option if that’s important to the individual, but she says sugar is sugar.
Fiori warns that sweeteners hide in many places, including yogurt, crackers, condiments and dried fruit. Sneaky names for sugar include anything that ends in ‘-ose’:
- sucrose (table sugar)
- lactose (natural sugar in dairy)
- maltose (natural sugar in starches, like bread)
- dextrose (simple sugar derived from corn that’s chemically identical to glucose)
- glucose and fructose (the small sugars that make up sucrose/lactose/maltose)
- monosaccharides and disaccharides (the blanket name for all the ‘-oses’)
- syrups (corn, brown rice, etc.)
“It’s important to know that truly any of these sweeteners are OK to enjoy now and then while keeping in mind that the evidence-based research behind monitoring daily sugar intake of any kind continues to grow,” Stalte says.