We’ve known for a long time that eating sugar wont’ exactly further our weight loss goals, but increasingly, studies and media reports are telling us that sugar is actually toxic: It fuels cancer growth, speeds aging, and contributes to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The good news is that many health-conscious consumers have already started to proceed with caution when buying sweetened products. The bad news is that, with so many so-called “healthy” or “natural” sweeteners on the market, it can be pretty hard to figure out which, if any, are okay to consume.
So you know to run from foods that list sugar or high-fructose corn syrup as ingredients, but what about agave or brown rice syrup? Or calorie-free stevia? All of those claim to be natural, and better for us than the stuff you’ll find in a can of coke, but…if they still contain sugar, are they?
Tricia Williams, nutrition educator and founder of Food Matters NYC explains that first you need to understand the different types of sugars:
Not all sugars are the same. Sugar in candy is generally made from high-fructose corn syrup or highly refined white cane sugar. Fruit contains a natural sugar called fructose.
And the difference isn’t only in name: Our bodies absorb them differently, too.
Fructose (fruit sugars) and glucose (blood sugar) are the two types of molecules that all carbohydrates and sugars are built on. Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are made of long chains of glucose molecules that require digestive enzymes to break down into single molecules that can be absorbed and turned into energy (i.e. blood sugar). Table sugar (sucrose), on the other hand, is a “simple carb”—one that’s simply made of glucose linked to fructose, which is extremely easy for the body to break down and absorb, which also means a faster and bigger spike in blood sugar levels—and it’s that blood sugar spike that’s so problematic for our health, and even makes sugar addictive according to many.
Williams explains that she agrees with new assertions that sugar should be thought of as a drug:
Sugar is completely addictive. It feeds the liver and can cause an addiction similar to alcohol. I think refined white sugar/corn syrups are most guilty of this. I think if you eat sugars in their most natural form, the way nature intended them to be, like in fruits, vegetables and small amounts of maple and honey, you’re on the right track.
“Small amounts” being key:
No eating as much as you want of anything (except greens) is not a good thing. Even honey and maple can cause a glycemic spike, so you need to watch how much you have.
Don’t fool yourself: Alternative sweeteners all have an impact on your blood sugar level, and none should be thought of as a “health food.” But some are better than others: Some, like honey, have built-in vitamins and nutrients, while others are mostly empty calories. And some cause greater spikes in your blood sugar when eaten. Here’s what Williams thinks of some of the most popular options:
Photo: Tasty Kitchen