Are Sugar Alternatives Really Healthier?

Sugar is one of the most common ingredients used in foods and it comes in many forms. In fact, Dr Surinder Arora has even written a few articles about sugar here on The Wellness Insider. However, we do have our sweet tooth and there are foods that taste better sweet. Some experts have advised us to avoid sugar altogether and rely on alternative sweeteners that are supposedly healthier than their cane sugar counterparts.

Nowadays, there are many types of sugars but which are better than common cane sugar? Firstly, sugars are categorised into two: natural and refined.

Natural sugar (a.k.a. unrefined sugar) is the result of processing sugar by cutting and extracting it from plants such as cane, coconut or maple. This process usually results in the sugar retaining a lot of nutritional qualities from the plant, and due to the simple processing (normally reducing the juice to a syrup or until crystal form), it is also better for the environment.

Refined sugar, on the other hand, goes through multiple phases. These phases can vary, but they require the sugar to be crushed, cooked, filtered and boiled in an attempt to refine it further. The sugar then has its molasses, a honey-like substance that gives brown sugar its colour and flavour, taken out either entirely or gradually depending on the type of sugar. Pure white sugar (or table sugar) for example is known for having all of its molasses taken out, while pure brown sugar and plain brown sugar are made by adding the molasses in or taking it out and then adding it mid-process respectively.

Thus, the big issue with refined sugars is that their natural minerals and vitamins are removed.

So that’s “natural” and “refined” sugars as they are defined. Within these two groups of sugars, there are also much more to consider, such as maple and agave syrups which are treated as sugar alternatives and are said to be healthier than table sugars of any kind mostly because of their natural benefits alongside their sweetness.

But if that’s the case then how can we know which is healthier? Is refined sugar as bad as people say or are people overreacting by comparing it to its other counterparts?

Well, the easiest way to measure its health would be through its glycemic index. The glycemic index is the one in charge of defining how unhealthy a specific type of sugar is for the body. Glycemic Indexes also tend to be the thing most people base themselves on when deciding whether a kind of sugar is worth their time or not, as it can summarise thoughts very quickly.

However, there’s more to the story than just a number. Glycemic Index is derived by taking into account the glucose levels found in food and comparing them. As mentioned in a previous article on sugar, glucose is found in all types of products and our body uses it mainly as an energy source.

The other two types of sugar that are most common in foods are fructose and sucrose. Fructose can only be processed by the liver, which is why it takes longer for the body to digest. The bright side of this is that you also don’t get a sugar rush as it slowly breaks the fructose down into simpler glucose before releasing it into the bloodstream. This has led to fructose being referred to as “healthy”, especially since it is found mainly in fruit. Unfortunately, too much of it fills the liver with too much of it can lead to the creation of liver disease, gout and weight management problems.

Lastly there’s sucrose, which is a disaccharide made up of both glucose and fructose. It is digested rapidly due to the simple glucose and enters the bloodstream quickly, causing that ‘sugar high’. Your table sugar is mainly made up of sucrose.

So with the above mentioned, which source of sugar is healthier? Do all refined sugars fall so low on the list of healthiness when compared with these dandy sugar alternatives such as raw honey, maple and agave syrup? Well, let’s take a look.

Sugars and Alternatives Process Glycemic Index(gl) Added Sugars Calories
(per teaspoon)
Coconut Sugar Made by extracting sugar from coconut water. Unlike other types of refined sugar, it manages to conserve several nutrients such as Zinc, Iron, Calcium and Potassium. It also contains Inulin which helps in keeping glucose levels low.  35-45 70%-80% Sucrose


3%-4% Glucose and Fructose

Table Sugar Extracted from sugar cane before being crushed, cooked, boiled and then moulded. Because of this, most of the natural nutrients in it are erased.  63-69 100% Sucrose 49
Brown Sugar The process itself is similar to normal table sugar, except that the molasses are added back in when it’s refined, giving it a brown colour and allowing it to retain some of its nutrients. It’s used in some alcoholic beverages (such as mojito) to add flavour.  63-69 88% Sucrose 48
Light Brown Sugar Same as brown sugar except that fewer molasses are added. Because of this it has a bigger percentage of white sugar and sucrose  63-69 88% Sucrose 48
Molasses It’s a type of “honey” that’s taken out of the sugar cane once it’s refined. It is rich in minerals and vitamins and is also healthier than normal sugar. It’s mainly used in when making pastries thanks to its characteristic colour.

That being said, while molasses has more nutrients and is more natural, it isn’t that much better than sugar so consumption of it should be managed.

 55 50% Sucrose 58
Raw Honey Honey is produced by bees by extracting honey from flowers through pollination. It has been used since times immemorial and used for a lot of home remedies.

Honey is famous for its low level of sucrose, thanks to the fact that the enzymes added by bees help break down the glucose and fructose down, separating them and stopping them from increasing Sucrose levels.

 55-74 35% Glucose, 40% Fructose, 0.89% Sucrose 68
High Fructose Corn Syrup It’s a sweetener made from corn starch that’s had its glucose converted into fructose with glucose isomerase. It’s a lot of granulated sugar but is easier to handle. Unfortunately, HFCS is just as bad as table sugar and is one of the main ingredients that can lead to obesity, due to how often it is used in foods.  62 50%-52% Glucose, 42% Fructose (for HFCS42) and 55% Fructose, 48% Glucose (for HFCS55) 64
Maple Syrup Maple Syrup is extracted from the maple tree and has been used for some products, mainly medicine but also for consumption alongside pancakes and waffles.

There are different types of maple syrup, so much so that some are more high quality than others due to the way in which they were processed.

 54 67% Sucrose 52
Agave Agave nectar is extracted from agave leaves which resembles a cactus but is actually very similar to aloe vera. It originally comes from Central America and is treated as a natural sweetener.

Agave has been making waves in the wellness world thanks in part to the fact that it has a low GL index and comes with similar effects to those of aloe vera.

 15 70%-90% Fructose 60


And there you have it. Looking at the chart, it’s clear that all these types of sugar have varying levels of calories, Glycemic Indexes and even components that balance whether they’re healthy or not. While some of them definitely stand out, such as honey and agave in particular having lower GIs compared to other sugars, the fact remains that a lower GI doesn’t always mean healthier. For example, agave has the lowest GI level but has large quantities of fructose, which can put strain on your liver as we’ve mentioned earlier. Then there’s coconut sugar, which is heralded as a great, healthy alternative but it can have levels of Sucrose that are just as high as your typical table sugar.

Of course, when it comes to staying healthy you have some that you can pick over others, and there are even more that we didn’t take into account; but we have to remember that being a little healthier doesn’t always mean that it solves the problem and we also shouldn’t demonize or praise one as worse or better than the other. We believe that everything should be eaten in moderation and as long as you exercise and do not over consume in terms of calories, it is still considered a well balanced lifestyle.

Photo Credits: Rossana Nutrition, Dr. Axe, The Wellness Insider


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