I was grabbing lunch with a friend the other day, and she was telling me about how she’s trying to eat a more healthful diet, and that her main focus is on eating organic and unprocessed foods. This diet she has put herself on includes staying away from refined sugar, but sugars such as honey, molasses and raw sugars are ok. Is honey the healthy option? Are all sugars the same, or are some better than others? What is the truth about sugar?
Sugars are common in most foods and are the energy source our body runs on the most efficiently. In fact, 100% of brain function runs on the sugar known as glucose. Literally, without sugar we would be brain dead! This is why sugars are found in many common foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, processed foods and more. Sugars are a type of simple carbohydrates, and include two major groups called monosaccharides (one units of sugar) and disaccharides (two units of sugar).
Some sugars occur naturally in foods, while others are added. Natural sugars include those found naturally in foods such as in a banana or a sweet potato. Added sugars are anything that is added to a food source to make it sweeter. This can include sugar cane sugar, brown sugar, honey and molasses. Both added and natural sugars provide excess calories, however, it is generally considered better to eat fewer foods with added sugars. In fact, the World Health Organization has a put a limit of 10% of your total caloric intake on how much added sugar people should eat. Though foods such as honey and molasses are naturally sweet, their addition to other foods automatically labels them as added sugars. Therefore, even as natural sweeteners one needs to watch out overeating on these ingredients.
But are natural sugars digested better? Currently, the research points to no, all sugar types (fructose, glucose, etc.) are digested the same. It does not matter if you get fructose from honey or from another food, it will be digested the same. However, what would change are the vitamin, mineral and fiber content. These changes could affect how these different sugars are digested, not the presence of the sugar itself.
The moral of the story? Your body can not tell a difference between these sugars, and process all of them the same way. The health value of all of these items boils down to the same thing: a sugar source will raise your blood-glucose levels and, in turn, stimulate the release of insulin, a powerful hormone that signals your body to store fat. This can put you at a greater risk for diseases such as diabetes and obesity if used in excess. All sugars should be seen as food sources to use sparingly when at all possible, and, when used, should be treated as a yummy treat.
Duyff, Roberta Larson. American Dietetic Association Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing; 2012.
Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.