Dr. Bianca Drennan ND
I get asked a lot about the different types of sugar and which one is best for health.
It is common knowledge that sugar is not the healthiest of ingredients, and so came about the industry of alternative sweeteners and the extensive interest in it. The truth is, sugar is sugar. Despite the fact that your body does process some sugars differently than others, the body recognizes it all as sugar. Anything in excess, sugar included, will be stored as fat and wreak havoc on your blood sugar. Sugar, in the form of starch, fruit, candy, etc – is addictive. Studies have demonstrated that sugar consumption triggers the same areas of the brain as cocaine. I tell my patients this not to scare them, but to educate them on what kind of substance we are dealing with. Many people struggle with reducing or eliminating sugar from their diets because we’ve been hard-wired to crave it, and it is found in almost everything. The more we feed ourselves sugar, the more we crave it, leading to a vicious cycle. If sugar is something that you regularly consume, considering alternatives may be a start to help you curb the craving. That being said, do not mistake alternative sweeteners as health products. Even though there are some benefits, they are not free passes to allow you to consume more.
RAW + BROWN SUGAR
I am starting with raw and brown sugar because I have realized that many people are not aware that these are simply white, refined sugars in disguise. Raw sugar is more “natural” in that it has not been bleached like white sugar, but from a metabolic and caloric perspective, it is identical to white sugar. Brown sugar is often thought to be healthier than white sugar (like whole wheat bread vs white bread), but unfortunately the colour is misleading. Brown sugar is white sugar with molasses added to it to give it a dark, caramel colour and flavour. Therefore, it has all the same properties of traditional white sugar.
Honey can be a miracle worker. Honey is a composed of fructose and glucose, and therefore affects your blood glucose. However, there are also several healing benefits to honey consumption. In its raw (unpasteurized) form, honey is antimicrobial and soothing. Naturopathically, it is used to heal wounds, cold sores, sore throats, and treat acne. Unfortunately, most of the honey sold and purchased is not raw. Pasteurized honey has been heated to a temperature that destroys it’s antimicrobial and healing properties. Always look for a raw honey which can come in several flavours and consistencies. It is normal for raw honey to crystallize at room temperature. It is recommended that raw honey not be given to children under the age of 1 due to their under-developed immune system.
I need to set the record straight on this one. Agave nectar emerged as the next best health product – a sugar that did not raise your blood sugar and therefore suitable for diabetics. The health industry blew this sweetener up and unfortunately led people to believe that it was good for them – and many people still use it today. This is a very clear example of how food trends are not necessarily based on research. Agave nectar is composed mainly of fructose, which has a dramatic effect on blood sugar. In addition, agave nectar does not provide any other benefit to health. Therefore, this is not the sweetener to ever use, diabetic or not.
DATES + DATE SYRUP
Dates are a magical fruit. Sweet, chewy, and caramel in flavour. I love to use dates as a sweetener because you get the benefit of a whole food. Dates are incredibly sweet and therefore quite high in carbohydrates. However, dates are also incredibly high in fibre, which mitigates their effect on your blood sugar. When fibre is present, your blood sugar is less affected. In addition, dates are also a source of magnesium, iron, and B vitamins. Dates can be eaten on their own as a sweet snack (great for athletes), or they can be blended into something else. Date syrup is concentrated and cooked down dates. It contains a lot of the same benefits as the whole date, with the added bonus of being in liquid form and therefore easier to incorporate in recipes. However, you do lose out on fibre when using date syrup rather than whole dates.
Stevia is relatively new to the market. It comes from a bush in South America and is not truly sugar – it is a sugar substitute. The advantage of using stevia is that since it is not actually sugar, it is calorie-free and does not affect your blood sugar. This makes it more suitable for diabetics. Stevia is available in powdered or liquid form. Stevia is 150 times sweeter than regular sugar, therefore much less is required. This makes using stevia a challenge in baking since it is difficult to determine the correct amount. It can also produce a slightly metallic taste.
Being from Canada, I have a soft spot for maple syrup. Maple syrup has a fantastic flavour and consistency, especially when you do not want to heat your raw honey to liquify it since you would be destroying it’s benefits. Maple syrup is composed primarily of sucrose and therefore does affect your blood sugar, but it has only a moderate glycemic index rating. There are some benefits to consuming maple syrup – it is fairly rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals including manganese, vitamin B2 (riboflavin), zinc, and calcium, among many others.
COCONUT/PALM SUGAR + COCONUT NECTAR
Coconut sugar is also known as palm sugar, and as the name suggests, comes from the coconut palm. It is mainly sucrose, however it has a lower glycemic index than most other sweeteners, meaning it has a lesser effect on blood sugar. Coconut sugar is the crystallized form of coconut nectar. Both are available and easy to use in recipes, depending on whether you want liquid or crystals. Coconut sugar is a great sugar to use in baking because it measures cup for cup to white sugar, and is therefore an easy substitute, however its flavour and colour is more like brown sugar.