Sugar and Sweeteners April 03 2015 1 Comment

When it comes to sugar and sugar substitutes, there’s an overwhelming amount of information out there, and making a healthy choice can be difficult. To help you make the best decision for you, we have compiled a list of some common sugars and sugar substitutes along with their benefits and disadvantages.

Before you delve into this list and begin to unravel the mysteries of the sugar universe, it’s important to remember that although some may be better than others, no sugar is good for you. All sweeteners increase your craving for sweets, and should be eaten in moderation – 15 grams or less daily. In case you were wondering, 15 grams of sugar is equal to a little less than 4 teaspoons. If you were to eat 15 grams of sugar a day, you would consume a little more than 12 pounds of sugar a year. Do you know how much sugar the average American consumes a year? More than 150 pounds. That’s about 185 grams per day.

Terms you should be familiar with:

  • Glycemic: Anything that causes glucose (sugar) in the blood. You may sometimes see sugars rated on a “glycemic index”: the lower the rating, the less it affects blood sugar and insulin levels, and that is generally a good thing.

  • Blood sugar / blood glucose: The amount of sugar in your blood. Over time, having too much sugar in your blood hours after you have eaten can cause serious problems.

  • Insulin: A hormone that helps our cells absorb glucose from the blood and use it for energy.

  • Glucose: A sugar found in fruits in small amounts. It is also a syrup made from corn starch.

  • Fructose: The naturally occurring sugar in all fruits. It is also called levulose, or fruit sugar.

  • Sucrose: “Table sugar” made from a low-sugar beet juice or sugar cane. It is made up of glucose and fructose. Sucrose includes raw sugar, granulated sugar, brown sugar, confectioner's sugar, and turbinado sugar. 


Pros and cons of some commonly used sugars and sweeteners:

Fructose (fruit sugar) is the naturally occurring sugar in all fruits and is sweeter than both glucose and sucrose. Honey, dates, raisins, molasses, and figs are made up of more than10% of this sugar, whereas grapes, raw apples, apple juice, and blueberries are only 5-10% fructose. Milk, the main nourishment for infants, has essentially no fructose, and neither do most vegetables and meats, which indicates that human beings had little dietary exposure to fructose before the mass production of sugar. Fructose is poorly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, and is metabolized primarily in the liver. A diet high in fructose may contribute to fatty liver disease, weight gain, and heart disease.

High Fructose corn syrup
Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup are sugars made from corn. It is called “high fructose” because it is exactly that: high in fructose sugars. High fructose corn syrup is often used in soft drinks, baked goods, and some canned products. It is a liquid that is made of maltose, glucose, and dextrose sugars. High fructose corn syrup is an industrial food product and is not a naturally occurring substance. Because of its unnatural chemical structure, our bodies cannot digest high fructose corn syrup like they do sucrose. As a result, high fructose corn syrup is rapidly absorbed into your blood stream. Fructose goes right to the liver and triggers the production of fats like triglycerides and cholesterol, causing liver damage and “fatty liver.” The rapidly absorbed glucose triggers big spikes in insulin, which disturbs the regulation of our blood sugar levels. These metabolic disturbances can lead to increases in appetite, weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more.

Organic dried cane syrup
Raw sugar is granulated, solid, or coarse, and is brown in color. It forms when the moisture from the juice of the sugar cane evaporates. Evaporated cane juice is made from sugar cane but undergoes slightly less processing than white refined sugar. The result is a product that is not completely devoid of vitamins and minerals, containing some small amount of B vitamins as well as some calcium. However, evaporated cane syrup is still sugar; it breaks down into fructose and glucose in the digestive tract just like regular sugar and needs to be limited in the diet to the same extent as refined white sugar.

Stevia is an herb that is virtually calorie-free that is 300 times sweeter than sugar, and is a natural, low-calorie sugar alternative. Stevia's taste has a slower onset and longer duration than that of sugar, and used in moderation, may be a good choice to help eliminate the use of processed and artificial sweeteners. It appears to improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce threat of hypertension and obesity. In addition, because stevia is an herbal sweetener, it metabolizes differently than sugar, and therefore is low on the glycemic index and does not elevate blood sugar. It is a better choice than most sugars and sugar alternatives as a sweetener; however, it does not work well for baking. 

Agave is a highly processed type of sugar from the Agave tequiliana (tequila) plant. It is mostly made up of glucose and fructose sugars. Agave nectar is about 1 1/2 times sweeter than regular sugar, and it is often substituted for honey or sugar in recipes. Agave is often considered a healthy alternative to sugar because it is low on the glycemic index, however, agave is also very high in fructose. Regular sugar is about 50% fructose, while agave is 70—90% fructose.

Honey is a combination of fructose, glucose, and water, which is produced by bees. Honey provides a source of vitamin B-6 and vitamin C, as well as fluoride, which is beneficial to dental health. It also contains anti-oxidants, which help fight cancer-causing free radicals and slow aging. However, honey is high in fructose, and like all sweeteners containing fructose, may be damaging to heart and liver health and should be eaten in moderation.

Maple syrup
Pure maple syrup is relatively unprocessed. Sugar maple trees are tapped for sap and the sap is boiled to concentrate the liquid into syrup. Pure maple syrup contains small amounts of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese. These minerals play essential roles in your body, including cell formation, immune support, maintaining healthy red blood cells, keeping bones and teeth strong, regulating muscle contractions and balancing fluids. Maple syrup is calorie-dense, however, and can cause weight gain. It is also high in carbohydrates, simple sugars that absorb into the bloodstream quickly and elevate blood sugar, so it is high on the glycemic index.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is found in many fruits and vegetables, including birch trees. It’s about as sweet as sugar, but only 1/3 the calories. It has antimicrobial effects with dental caries, sinuses, and ear infections. Xylitol made from birch is an acceptable sweetener to be used in baking, tea/coffee, and cold beverages in place of cane sugar; however, it is a sugar alcohol and metabolizes the same as sugar.  It can elevate your blood sugar, though less than cane sugar, and can cause digestive upset. It is not recommended that you use Xylitol on a regular basis.

This sweetner is also a sugar alcohol like Xyiltol. It occurs naturally in some fruit and fermented foods.[3] Erythritol is 60–70% as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), yet it is almost noncaloric, does not affect blood sugar, and is partially absorbed by the body, excreted in urine and feces. When compared with other sugar alcohols, it is also much more difficult for intestinal bacteria to digest, so is less likely to cause gas or bloating. Erythritol is tooth-friendly; it cannot be metabolized by oral bacteria, so it does not contribute to tooth decay. Often paired-up with stevia in foods and drinks. It looks just like sugar.


Elanie Girlando
Elanie graduated with a BA degree in Biology and Environmental Science from Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and an MS degree in Occupational and Environmental Health from the University of Iowa. Elanie is currently working towards earning an MS degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport. She enjoys all things biology, ecology, health, and science. Elanie is an amateur but avid chef, and she loves to find new ways to make healthy living the most accessible and exciting experience it can be.