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Is There Such Thing as ‘Healthy’ Sugar?

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianOctober 4, 2018

For years, we’ve been hearing about the risks of a high-sugar diet. And while I’m happy that people are paying attention to their sugar intake, I’m not so happy about all the misinformation floating around about sugar, especially the notion that by choosing “healthy” sweeteners instead of white table sugar, you can somehow find a work-around. I like sweets as much as the next person (actually, probably more than the next person!), so I wish that were true—but it’s just not. Here are the facts you should know so you can be smarter about the sweet stuff:

Brown sugar isn’t healthier than white. Just like brown eggs may seem somehow healthier than white ones (they’re not), brown sugar sometimes gets a pass as a wholesome sweetener because of its color. In reality, brown sugar is white sugar with a little bit of molasses added for color and flavor. But that doesn’t add extra nutrients per serving or make brown sugar a healthy sweetener.

Desserts made with honey aren’t “sugar free”. You may see recipes online for “sugar free” cookies and brownies because they’re made with honey or molasses instead of white sugar. But all of those sweeteners are considered added sugar, and those brownies will still have a hefty amount in them. (And it may go without saying, but brownies, no matter what kind of sweetener is used to make them, are still dessert.)

Honey isn’t “natural” sugar. Some people may consider honey and maple syrup to be more “natural” compared to white sugar. But when you hear advice from health professionals to eat less sugar, they’re talking about honey and maple syrup too. “Natural” sugars are actually the naturally occurring sugar in dairy (lactose) and fruit (fructose). Honey, molasses, maple syrup, and white sugar are all considered “added” sugar because we add them to food and drinks, and all of them should be limited. So don’t be fooled by “healthy chocolate fudge” recipes on Pinterest!

Coconut sugar isn’t a superfood. Coconut sugar has become trendy, thanks to claims that it’s healthier than table sugar (which comes from sugar cane or sugar beets). That’s because it’s lower on the Glycemic Index (GI, a measure of how quickly a food affects your blood sugar) than white sugar. But its GI value has actually been disputed, and the official Glycemic Index website puts its value closer to table sugar. Coconut sugar has the same number of calories and grams of sugar as white sugar—and despite internet claims that it’s packed with nutrients, you’d have to eat large amount of it to get anything meaningful (it’s also pricey).

Molasses isn’t a health food. You may have seen molasses billed as a healthy food. Blackstrap molasses does contain iron and calcium, but it’s bitter and not very sweet. Unsulfured molasses, the kind people use in baking, still has some nutrients– but again, you’d need about a tablespoon to get meaningful amounts—and that’s about half the daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association. It’s wiser to look to other foods for iron and calcium than pouring on molasses.

Bottom line: Eating a lot of sugary foods and drinks isn’t healthy, no matter what kind of sweetener they’re made with. Choose the sweetener that tastes best to you—but use it sparingly.

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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a “no-judgments” zone all about feeding families.

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