Humans are hardwired to seek out foods with the sweet flavor. Sweetness signals to our body that a food is dense in calories and energy, an important characteristic in hunter/gatherer societies where food was either feast or famine. Sugar provided valuable calories to help people get through periods of lean food. In fact, the sweet taste is tied to the reward center in our brain and actually “lights up” the same areas in the brain as drugs. Even breast milk contains sugars called oligosaccharides which feed the good bacteria in a baby’s gut. Sugar occurs naturally in many foods such as fruit, dairy products, starchy vegetables and honey. These sugars are usually fine because they come “packaged” with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. Unfortunately modern society has begun to over consume a diet rich in processed food which is frequently loaded with added sugar. With this increased burden on our pancreas to process all the sugar our pancreas can become taxed, leading to weight gain, insulin resistance, diabetes, inflammation, increased liver fat and heart disease. All types of sugar can lead to health issues if over consumed. The American Heart Association recommends 9 teaspoons of added sugar a day for men and only 6 teaspoons a day for women. Not all added sugars are created equal. This handout attempts to breakdown the common types of sugar.
Best Sugar Choices:
Honey: Honey has been a part of human’s diets since Paleo times. Raw, natural honey contains enzymes, trace minerals, flavonoids and other polyphenols. Honey is antibacterial, can lower LDL cholesterol and increased serum antioxidant levels. It contains 38% fructose and about 31%glucose. Darker honeys are usually higher in bioactive compounds.
Maple syrup: Maple syrup is concentrated from the sap of sugar maple trees. It’s rich in trace minerals manganese and zinc. Look for darker grade B maple syrup for more flavor.
Coconut sugar: Coconut sugar contains minerals such as Iron, Zinc, Calcium and Potassium, along with some short chain fatty acids, polyphenols and antioxidants. It also contains a fiber called Inulin, which may slow glucose absorption and explains why coconut sugar has a lower glycemic index than regular table sugar
Date Sugar: Date sugar is dehydrated ground dates. It contains many vitamins and minerals such as like calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, iron, copper, manganese, and selenium. It also contains some fiber. Unfortunately, it can be lumpy so it is best used as a replacement for brown sugar.
Stevia: Stevia is a natural sugar created from the leaf of the stevia plant, a plant related to popular garden flowers like asters and chrysanthemums. Stevia is about 100 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, but has no carbohydrates, calories, or artificial ingredients, if properly prepared. Be sure to read labels of stevia packages to ensure you are getting only stevia and not added fillers or flavors. The flavor of stevia does not appeal to everyone. (Some people find it has a bitter, metallic after taste.) You will have to determine for yourself if it appeals to you.
Sugar Alcohols: Xylitol, erythritol and sorbitol are sugar alcohols which have recently become popular as a sugar replacement. They occur naturally in many fruits and are also known as polyols. Sugar alcohols cause no appreciable changes in blood glucose or insulin in humans. For some people, eating sugar alcohols causes digestive distress if overconsumed.
Agave: Agave is an intensely sweet sweetener made from the leaves of the blue agave plant. Agave is mostly fructose which is more difficult for the body to digest, raising blood sugar levels. Look for raw, organic agave to get the least processed product possible.
High Fructose Corn Syrup: A highly processed sweetener usually made from non-GMO corn. It has been implicated in the obesity epidemic. Beside the shot of pure fructose and sugar it sends to our liver, as an added bonus, it contains other chemical toxins used during manufacturing.
Artificial Sweeteners such as Aspartame as Equal or Nutrasweet, Saccharin or Sweet n Low and Sucralose or Splenda: Artificial sweeteners are highly processed substances. In fact, Sucralose is table sugar modified via a complex chemical process involving chlorine and phosgene gas in a laboratory. Aspartame has been found in several studies to cause multiple kinds of cancers in laboratory animals. On the whole, artificial sweeteners are many times sweeter than regular sugar with few calories. Unfortunately, evolution has taught us that the sweet taste usually means calories are coming. Our bodies become confused when the artificial sugars taste so sweet but no calories are detected. Many people will continue eating to obtain those missing calories leading to weight gain. Recent studies have also found that people consuming artificial sweeteners developed marked intolerance to glucose after the artificial sweeteners altered their gut bacteria. Glucose intolerance, in which the body is less able to cope with large amounts of sugar, can lead to more serious illnesses like metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes.