As much as I love The Rolling Stones I’m not sure Mick Jagger is the best person to go to for nutritional advice. And by the way, have you ever read the lyrics to that song:
“Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should”
WTF springs to mind, I shall be boycotting that song from now on! But what about brown sugar itself? Should we be boycotting that too? Is brown sugar better than white? What about coconut sugar, agave, honey? Argh, it’s all so confusing! Actually, it’s really not. Here’s the sugary low down …
As far as sugar in the diet is concerned there is only one distinction you need to make and that’s between sugars occurring naturally in foods, for example the fructose found in fruit and vegetables and the lactose in milk, and those that are added or ‘free’ i.e. they come in a packet, bottle or jar. Although products like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, agave syrup etc. are often marketed as being ‘natural’ they aren’t really much different to regular table sugar – after all, even your bog standard granulated is extracted from plants (sugar cane or sugar beet) so in that sense they are all ‘natural’.
The confusion occurs because white sugar is often referred to as ‘refined’ sugar and other forms like brown sugar or honey are thought of as ‘unrefined’ (actually brown sugar is refined, it’s raw sugar that isn’t). It’s tempting to think that because they are unrefined, or let’s say less refined, they are better for you because, to take another foodie example, brown rice is healthier than white rice right? But brown rice is healthier because it is higher in fibre, which is removed during the refining process. Brown sugar isn’t brown because it is higher in fibre but because it contains molasses, which is simply another form of brown sugar. The takeaway here is that just because it’s brown doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier!
So, to quickly recap any kind of sweetener in granulated or liquid form is what’s known as a free sugar and those are the ones to keep an eye on. Free sugars are usually added to processed and packaged foods so it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the different names used for sugar on food labels, here’s a handy infographic from The British Heart Foundation:
Most food labels will specify how much sugar the product contains per 100g, according to the NHS more than 22.5g per 100g is high, less than 5g per 100g is low. I would say 22.5g is quite a high threshold, I personally aim for under 15g per 100g.
Right, so we know to be aware of sugar levels in processed foods but what about making a cake at home? Do we have to be careful there too? The short answer is yes. If you use any kind of sugar in a recipe be it brown, coconut, honey, maple they are all classed as free sugars so although your cake may well be healthier because it’s free from loads of added preservatives etc. the sugar in it still counts as ‘free sugar’.
But surely, I hear you cry, honey and maple syrup have additional nutrients that make them healthier than white sugar? And coconut sugar is lower GI so it must be healthier?
Not really … honey, for example, is often touted as having various nutritional benefits, and yes it does contain some vitamins and minerals, but the thing is they are contained in such small amounts that you’d have to be eating a lot of honey to get them in anywhere near significant levels and at that point the negative effects of the sugar consumption far outweigh the miniscule nutritional value. If you want nutrition it’s far better to eat an apple!
As for coconut sugar, it does have a slightly lower GI than regular table sugar but again not low enough to warrant any health claims. Better by far to reduce free sugars in your diet overall. In my opinion the best reason to use the different forms of sugar is for flavour, maple syrup just works on pancakes, honey is great on Greek yogurt and I love the caramelly flavour that brown sugar gives to certain bakes.
So, is there a healthier way to sweeten? Yes, there is! Any sweetener made from a wholefood is going to be more nutritious – I like to use dates, either chopped up or made in to a puree or if you can find it (but it’s expensive!) date sugar, which is just whole, dried dates pounded to a sugary powder.
So, if you can’t get no satisfaction (had to bring Mick back in for the finale!) just remember, there’s no need to get in a tizz over sugar. Naturally occurring sugars are fine, don’t give them any further thought, and even free sugars aren’t as ‘toxic’ as the headlines would have you believe. The odd slice of cake is a beautiful thing and nothing to worry about as part of a diet that is healthy and balanced overall*.
I’m aware I haven’t covered sugar-substitutes like stevia, aspartame, xylitol etc. but this post relates just to actual sugar and its various forms. I will do a post on sugar alternatives at some point in the future.
*As ever, there are some exceptions, for example if you have a medical condition such as T2D then a supervised low carb diet which is very low in sugar may be appropriate. If you are ever in doubt check with your GP or ask for a referral to a dietician.