Hola, party people! If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I’ve been traveling in the majestic Pacific Northwest and therefore have been MIA (and also EPICLY busy at work) for the past little bit here. I’m not sorry, it was amazing.
While I was in Seattle hangin out with one of my old college roomies she was kind enough to swing Brooks and I by a grocery store nearby to grab some pre-run fuel for the next morning. Some girl overheard us discussing what to purchase and she immediately said “Are you looking for granola? There is an AMAZING granola on the other side of this aisle, I pretty much lived on it for three months. It’s called Aunt Maple’s Crunchy Granola and is so delicious, I will take you there. AND it has no cane sugar.”
GIRL. I know you have no idea, but you have awoken the beast. I kept my mouth shut at the time, but MAPLE is still SUGAR. She was 100% correct about it being delicious, but she displayed a piece of misinformation that I find over and over and over again. Today’s post is about the fact that “natural” sugars are no more healthy for you than regular table sugar.
What is sugar?
Sugars are small molecules of carbohydrate. The simpler the carbohydrate, the sweeter it tastes. The smallest units of carbohydrate are monosaccharides (mono = one, saccharide = sugar). Glucose (blood sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose (milk sugar) are the biggies when it comes to dietary carbohydrate. These form the disaccharides (two sugar “units” form one molecule) sucrose (table sugar) maltose (like they use in beer) and lactose (found in milk). These little guys can be made into a bunch of different types of long chains, or polysaccharides – starches. These are no longer sweet like the sugars; think bread vs fruit. While each of the different sugars has a different chemical structure and therefore a different degree of sweetness, they all contain 4 calories per gram.
What is natural sugar?
Natural sugars are found in whole foods, like the lactose in milk and yogurt, the fructose in your apple, or the free glucose in your sweet corn. These sugars are produced by the plant, and nobody has done anything to the plant to remove the sweetness or concentrate it to add to something else. They’re naturally sweet! By this definition, maple syrup and agave nectar are not natural sugars.
What is refined sugar?
When most of us think “sugar”, we think of the pure white sucrose from the pantry that we bust out for making cookies. This sugar has been refined. Much like the way that oil is refined, raw sugarcane and sugar beets go through a series of processes that remove things that aren’t sugar, so that we are left with a pure product. You may not realize this, but the coating around the sugar crystals that is removed in the refining process is actually molasses, which is mostly made up of sugar but also contains some plant materials, minerals (remember this) and other non-sugars. There’s nothing super crazy about this process, which I learned a lot more detail about here and here, they just do some mostly mechanical things (like centrifuging) to separate out some components that you wouldn’t want to eat. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got yourself some white sugar that doesn’t have a bunch of extra crap in it that you didn’t want to put in your cookies!
However, this is just the “normal” sugar. There are plenty of different sugars that can be refined from all sorts of things, and that food companies will call all sorts of names in order to trick people into thinking they’re being healthy by doing something like buying a granola that doesn’t include cane sugar. For example, fruit juice concentrate, muscovado, panocha, brown rice syrup, tapioca syrup…they’re all just sneaky names for sugar. GIANT LIST OF SNEAKY NAMES FOR SUGAR – EDUCATE YOURSELF!
So what is added sugar?
Added sugar is when somebody takes a refined sugar and puts it into a food product. There are the obvious things, like frosted flakes or pop tarts, but then there are the sneaky ones like bread and pasta sauce. If you were to make those foods from scratch you wouldn’t put sugar in them, but for flavor, texture, preservation, or monetary purposes food companies sometimes include them. The tricky thing here is that you have to check the ingredients label and know all those sneaky names to look for, because the nutrition facts label does not distinguish between natural and added sugars. They’re working on adding that though.
Fruit on the bottom Chobani contains 20g carbohydrate, 19g sugars. Plain Chobani contains 9 grams of carbohydrate and 9 grams of sugar. The extra 10 grams of sugar in fruit on the bottom Chobani are from “evaporated cane juice” (i.e. sucrose) which is the second ingredient, and to a lesser extent the peaches (third ingredient). The 9 grams we see in plain yogurt are all lactose, which can be double checked by a quick scan of the ingredients, which include just milk and bacterial cultures.
Aren’t agave, honey, and maple syrup healthier for me?
I think when people say “healthier”, they assume it’s not going to make them fat. Refer back to the “what is sugar” paragraph: ALL THE SUGARS HAVE THE SAME CALORIES. Weight gain is a result of eating more calories than you burn. Whether those calories come from sucrose, HFCS, maple syrup, or a really big pile of kale doesn’t matter. It’s got the same calories.
For the earthy-crunchy type, the argument often centers around “toxins”, which is nothing but a nebulous term for self-proclaimed food and health gurus to throw around without actually pointing to something that is making people feel sick. The toxin discussion is one for another day, but it doesn’t hold water when it comes to sweeteners. As previously described, sucrose is pure sugar – no toxins allowed!
One might argue that they’re less refined, and in some cases that is true – honey is simply spun out of the honeycomb in a giant centrifuge and bottled. Maple syrup processing goes further, as the sap from a maple tree needs to be boiled WAY down before it’s usable syrup. Agave processing, however is more involved: the liquid from the plant is filtered, heated to break the natural starches into simpler sweeter sugars, and sometimes treated with enzymes or the fungus Aspergillus niger (flashback to microbio lab…*shudders*) before being packaged and sent to your neighborhood Whole Foods. These processes typically are doing two things:
1. Breaking down components found naturally in the plant rather than removing anything, like the processing of sucrose
2. Concentrating the sugar (except for honey, because bees do that for us!)
and excluding the third step from sucrose processing:
3. Removing non-sugars
So in a sense, the product is more “natural” than sucrose, but is it more healthy? Well, there are some minerals removed in the sucrose refining process that may be nutritionally beneficial, and no minerals are removed from these products. Maple syrup contains high concentrations of zinc and manganese, and local honey can help your body adapt to allergens from local pollens, reducing allergy symptoms. Sucrose does NOT have these beneficial properties that are a direct result of less refining of these sweeteners. HOWEVER, these sweeteners are by no means healthy.
What about high fructose corn syrup?
This stuff is also sugar, but in a different from than table sugar. You’ve probably seen corn syrup, which is refined from corn starch in a different process than the way that sucrose is refined from sugarcane, and this process may result in some contaminants. The high fructose content is important here, because fructose is the sweetest of the monosaccharides, so this product is extra sweet. This property (along with some economics stuff that I’m not going to get into) makes it especially adored by beverage companies, because it gives them a lot of sweetness bang for their buck. Currently, there is a lot of research going on to determine exactly the effect of including a lot of HFCS in the diet, and good body of evidence to suggest that HFCS does not signal satiety (a feeling of fullness) the same way that other sugars do which can certainly have implications for obesity.
HELP! I thought I was being healthy! WHAT SHOULD I DO????
Be cool, be cool. We all need to take a deep breath. The reason I get worked up about this topic is because I think people use the guise of “healthy” sweeteners to allow themselves to over-indulge. “Oh, this granola has no cane sugar, I can have it for breakfast every day!!” Uh, no you can’t. That granola also has over 500 calories and 13 grams of sugar per cup (compare to cheerios at 104 calories and 1.2 g sugar). You have much better options. The best approach to take is to limit sweets in general and not worry about what sort of nutritive sweetener is used.
Sugar is a problem in this country because it is consumed in mass quantities. It’s very easy to eat too many calories when you are consuming lots of sugar, no matter what the source of that sugar is. Overconsuming honey and maple syrup can also lead to weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a whole host of other diseases that plague the developed world. From an overall health standpoint, it’s not the type of sugar that matters, but the amount. When your intake of added sugars is limited, go for taste preference, cost, and availability over nutrition concerns, because the difference is very slight (if any).
All I’m sayin is, I use real fruit in my plain yogurt and my morning oats and I limit sweets, so when I was in Portland I sure as hell did not care what sweetener Ruby Jewel used in my cone of oh-so-perfect caramel with salted dark chocolate ganache 😉