We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but we feel the need to clarify a common misconception: There's no such thing as a "healthy" sugar. Or even a "less bad" sugar. Your body doesn't care if it's "organic" or "unrefined" or "all-natural," and it certainly doesn't care if Gwyneth Paltrow deems it suitable for her children's consumption.
Done hyperventilating? Now let's delve into the nutritional science behind this.
First things first: All sugar is sugar.
It's no secret that consuming sugar in large quantities has deleterious effects on your health—studies have linked it to obesity, diabetes and increased risk of heart disease, to name a few. Sure, you need carbohydrates, which include both complex and simple sugars, for your body to break down and convert to energy. But it's the added sugars that sweeten some of your favorite foods and beverages that you need to watch out for.
So why can added sugars like agave nectar, raw honey, or coconut palm sugar never really be deemed "healthy"? Because, as Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, put it, "Sugar is sugar, alas." Meaning: No matter what type of sugar you consume—whether it's table sugar or maple syrup chock full of "vitamins" and "minerals"—your blood sugar goes up. "Minerals don't counter calories or hormones."
And it's those pesky calories that link deceptively "healthy" sugars with the regular refined stuff. Dr. Jaimie Davis, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, explained, "Ultimately, they're all having similar effects on obesity and metabolic disorders. There's no data that suggests that if you consume more calories from honey, you store it differently."
And by "sugar," we mean a combination of fructose and glucose.
To understand why "sugar is sugar," one must know what it is in the first place. What we commonly refer to as table sugar is actually sucrose, a compound composed of 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose. Most caloric sweeteners, including the so-called "healthy" ones, contain some ratio of glucose and fructose, which trigger key reactions in your body.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told The Huffington Post that when you consume sugar, the metabolic process begins the minute the sugar reaches your mouth. But the majority is ultimately absorbed in the small intestine, where the sugar is metabolized and absorbed into your blood. Enzymes from the stomach then convert the sugar into glucose, your body's preferred energy source. While it can provide your cells with fuel, something your body and brain need for proper functioning, glucose can cause excess weight gain. It spikes your insulin and blood sugar levels, plus it's absorbed and used up quickly.
"Insulin is the chaperone that takes the sugar into your cells where—after your body immediately takes what it needs—it's transformed into glycogen, stored and ready to be drawn on by the body for energy," she explained, noting that this is a very basic explanation of the metabolic process.
Fructose, or "fruit sugar," is metabolized differently, since the liver does most of the metabolizing and your insulin levels don't spike quite as much as when you ingest glucose (this is due to the lower glycemic index of fructose). That can make fructose sound like glucose's better half, but it's not true: insulin triggers the hormonal response that tells your brain you're full. Fructose doesn't elicit this reaction, so it's easier to overeat. The effects of sugars higher in fructose is a controversial topic in the nutrition world, since fructose is often blamed for adverse health conditions—like increased LDL, leptin resistance, and uric acid increase—and fructose is the form most likely to be added to foods, Kirkpatrick explained. Fructose may be tolerable in small amounts but more and more research is being conducted to determine if even small amounts put you at risk for metabolic disorders like insulin resistance. It's worth noting that some so-called "healthy" sugars, like agave nectar, are even higher in fructose than table sugar.
While sugar is never "healthy," you can certainly adopt mindful sugar consumption habits.
The problem with calling sugars "healthy" is the health halo effect, which makes people feel better about eating more of it. But Davis conceded, "I have heard that people who use honey and agave are a little bit more health-conscious, so they might use less, which would have a beneficial effect." And that's the trick when it comes to sugar: just use less of it. Yup, Mary Poppins wasn't so off-base with that whole "spoonfull of sugar" theory, after all.
When incorporating sugar into your diet, keep in mind that the World Health Organization recommends that added sugars make up no more than 10 percent of your calorie intake, while the American Heart Association wants women to consume less than 100 calories and men to consume less than 150 calories of added sugars a day. And it doesn't matter if it's organic molasses or plain old Domino sugar—it's the quantity that makes all the difference.
So when it comes to trying to decipher between sugars higher in either glucose or fructose, it's very much a "choose your poison" scenario. You don't have to cut out added sugar altogether per se—the bottom line, according to Nestle, Davis, and Kirkpatrick, is to limit your sugar intake no matter what the source. And don't let yourself get too smug for choosing the raw, "all-natural" or "healthy" sugar du jour.