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Are natural sugars healthier?

We often see the recommendation that we should use brown sugar over white sugar. We also hear that sugar from fruit is ok, but sugar from cakes is not. In recent years we have also seen a surge in the use of so-called “natural” sugars like honey, agave, and maple syrup. This begs the question: Are “natural sugars” really healthier? And what is a natural sugar? And what are the differences between sugars from different food sources? In this blog we will discuss the differences between sugars from different sources and the evidence that one is better than the other.


Nutrition content of different sugars

Sugar in our diet

Sugar in our diet is usually divided into “added sugar” and sugar that is naturally part of our foods. In a previous blog we discussed the molecular differences between different sugars. Now we will turn to the different sources of sugar in the foods we eat. So, for example, sugar in milk and sugar in fruit are not added sugar, they are naturally occurring sugars. The sugar used to bake biscuits or cakes or the sugar in sauces are added sugars. There are also sugars that are often referred to as natural sugars (like honey and agave, but these types of sugar are referred to as free sugar together with added sugars. To avoid confusion about the terminology, here is an overview of definitions:


Added sugar

Added sugar refers to any form of sugar or sweetener that is added to food and beverages during processing, preparation, or cooking. It includes sugars such as white sugar, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and various syrups used in food production. Added sugars are not naturally occurring in foods and are typically added to enhance taste, texture, and shelf life. They contribute to the overall sweetness of food and beverages but offer little to no nutritional value.


Free sugar

Free sugar is a more modern term used to describe sugars that are added to foods and beverages by manufacturers, as well as those naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit concentrates. It includes both added sugars and sugars naturally found in foods but extracted, concentrated, or isolated from their original sources.


Natural sugar

Natural sugar refers to sugars that occur naturally in whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. These sugars are accompanied by other nutrients, including fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can affect their digestion and absorption in the body. While natural sugars are still considered simple carbohydrates, they are generally healthier options than added sugars because they are consumed as part of a whole-food package. However, it is important to note that even natural sugars should be consumed in moderation as excessive intake can contribute to calorie surplus and affect blood sugar levels.


While natural sugars are still considered simple carbohydrates, they are generally healthier options than added sugars because they are consumed as a whole-food package.

Refined sugar

Refined sugar refers to sugars that have undergone extensive processing to remove impurities and create a uniform texture and appearance. This process involves extracting sugar from its original source, such as sugarcane or sugar beets, and refining it through multiple stages of purification. The result is a highly concentrated form of sugar, typically in the form of granulated white sugar. Refined sugar lacks the natural components present in its original source, such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, and polyphenols rendering it nutritionally empty.


What is the difference between white and brown sugar?

White and brown sugars are two common types of sweeteners widely used in cooking and baking. They are derived from the same source: sugarcane or sugar beets. However, they have distinct characteristics and flavors that are a result of different processing methods.


White sugar, also known as granulated sugar or table sugar, undergoes extensive refinement. The process starts with extracting juice from sugarcane or sugar beets, followed by purification and filtration to remove impurities. This also means that other nutrients are removed in this process. The juice is then evaporated, leaving behind sugar crystals with a fine, white texture. The final product is pure sucrose with a neutral, sweet taste.


On the other hand, brown sugar retains some of the molasses (treacle in the UK) content present in the sugarcane or sugar beet juice. After the initial extraction and purification, the juice undergoes less refinement. Some molasses is added back to the refined sugar crystals, creating a moist and slightly sticky texture. The molasses gives brown sugar its distinctive caramel-like flavour. The amount of molasses added determines the darkness and flavour intensity of the brown sugar, ranging from light to dark brown. This also means that there are slightly more nutrients in brown sugar although the nutritional content of sugar, brown or white is very low in both cases. The amount of sugar you would need to consume of brown or white sugar to obtain meaningful quantities of nutrients is very high and would exceed any recommendation. Therefore, the health benefits of brown over white are merely theoretical.


The amount of brown sugar you would need to consume to obtain meaningful quantities of nutrients is very high and would exceed any recommendation.

Honey, maple, and agave syrup versus refined sugar

Sometimes sugars like agave, maple syrup and honey are marketed as healthy versions of sugar. The main difference is their sugar composition, in particular the ratios of glucose, fructose and sucrose. However, it is a stretch to say that these versions of sugar are healthier than refined sugars, at least not in a meaningful way.


Agave

Agave syrup is derived from the agave plant and is known for its high fructose content. Although it is low on the glycemic index, it contains significant energy (or calories) and carbohydrates, primarily in the form of fructose. However, it lacks essential micronutrients and fibre.


Maple syrup

Maple syrup, extracted from maple trees, offers a distinct flavor. It contains sucrose, glucose, and fructose, providing a moderate amount of calories and carbohydrates. Maple syrup also contains some essential minerals such as manganese and zinc, but the quantities are relatively small.


Honey

Honey is a natural sweetener produced by bees. It comprises mainly of fructose and glucose, with smaller amounts of sucrose. Honey provides calories and carbohydrates while offering trace amounts of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, potassium, and iron.


White sugar (refined)

White sugar, often derived from sugarcane or sugar beets, is highly processed and lacks significant micronutrients. It primarily consists of sucrose, providing empty calories and carbohydrates.


Brown sugar (refined)

Brown sugar is essentially white sugar combined with molasses. Although it retains some minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium from the molasses, the amounts are negligible.


What is the difference between added sugar and natural sugar?

Strictly speaking natural sugar found in fruit is not different from added sugar. Glucose or fructose found in fruit is chemically identical to glucose or fructose from sugar that is added to various foods. The human body does not distinguish between glucose coming from fruit or added sugar or any other source.


What is different is the other nutrients it comes with and how this affects absorption and metabolism. For example, the fat in milk will slow down the absorption of the milk sugars.

Fruit does not just contain sugar, it also contains fibre, many micronutrients and various polyphenols. The structure of that food is quite different and the way it is absorbed as well. This food matrix determines how rapidly the nutrients are absorbed. Ultraprocessed foods with added sugar, don’t contain many nutrients and are also usually low in fiber. Absorption is usually very fast (great for sport nutrition products that aim to deliver carbohydrate and fluids).


Blood glucose spikes

Oranges versus orange juice

An orange contains sugar but also fibre and many nutrients (not just vitamin C which the orange is so famous for). Orange juice is more processed, contains far fewer nutrients and with most (or all) pulp (fibre) removed it is essentially sugar water with some flavour. Despite this, it is still consumed by many people for health reasons because of the vitamin C stigma. It is interesting that some people drink orange juice because it is healthy (i.e. it is a great source of vitamin C) and others avoid it because it is unhealthy (large amount of sugar). People love good or bad answers, healthy or unhealthy… but in reality the answer is usually “it depends on how much you consume as well as a number of other factors” (who consumes it? When? How often? What else is consumed, and what is the level of physical activity?). But if the question is: what provides more nutrients: 10 oranges or the equivalent as a carton of orange juice, the answer is the likely oranges.


Conclusion

In summary, ultraprocessed food contain a lot of empty calories. Although such foods can play a useful role in some sports situations, as part of the general diet it is recommended to keep intake low (below 5-10%). To make sure fibre intake and nutrient intake is plentiful, it is recommended to choose sources of foods that are less processed and are relatively high in fibre and other nutrients. Sugar intake in general should be minimised unless this is specifically used for sports purposes (performance or recovery) (As we discussed previously in the blog: Is sugar bad for athletes).


The health benefits of natural sources of sugars, such as agave, honey, maple syrup are often exaggerated. Most fruits contain significant amounts of fibre and other nutrients and those nutrients have health benefits that outweigh any negative effects of sugar (at least in “normal” and recommended quantities).

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