Let's forget about the sugars found in vegetables and fruits--I'm not in the business of discussing those. I'm in the business of discussing the wellness community's fervent obsession with finding a "healthy" sugar substitute by opting to use honey over white sugar or using coconut sugar or whatever the latest fad sweetner is. Even I was momentarily swept up in the idea that honey is a more healthful alternative than processed sugar, or anything unprocessed and/or raw. Granted, honey has a little bit more nutritional value than sugar; however, that's negligible.
There are three major classes of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. These carbs are classified based on their level of complexity. Let's concentrate on just monosaccharides and oligosaccharides, as these types of carbs contain sugars we are very familiar with. Monosaccharides can be classified as glucose, fructose, galactose, mannose, and ribose. Oligosaccharides can be classified as sucrose, maltose, lactose, and trehalose (Berardi, 2016, p. 145).
In easy terms, you have simple and complex sugars. Simple sugars are quickly digested by the body while complex sugars take longer. Mono- and oligosaccharides are generally considered simple sugars.
Let's start discussing these sugar substitutes.
According to "Carbohydrates and the Sweetness of Honey," honey is primarily composed of glucose and fructose, both of which are simple sugars. There are also some oligosaccharides present, but since there is no fiber, complex carbohydrates do not exist in honey. Yes, fruit contains simple sugars as well, but it's bound to fiber, a complex carbohydrate, which blunts the effect of glucose on the blood, and it also has a higher nutritional value than does honey.
Coconut sugar is another highly praised natural alternative to table sugar. It's sugar made from the sap of a coconut tree. It does retain several vital nutrients, but, just like with honey, the amounts are negligible and you'd have to eat a lot in order to meet your micronutrient needs. Now The Phillipine Department of Agriculture claims it has a lower glycemic index than table sugar does (sucrose) due to the inulin, which is a partially digestible complex sugar (Berardi, 2016, p. 146). Even so, coconut sugar is still high in calories.
Coconut sugar is also about 70%-80% sucrose, while table sugar, which, again, is sucrose, is 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Knowing this, we can reasonably conclude coconut sugar still contains a fair amount of fructose, which is what makes table sugar so bad in the first place: fructose causes insulin resistance. It's only marginally better due to the trace amounts of nutrients and inulin, but it will still present the same problems that regular sugar does when consumed in excess.
Another alternative sugar is agave nectar, which is a syrup made from the agave plant and contains even more calories than regular sugar. It's popular because of its low glycemic index, but, like coconut sugar, this is really only beneficial for those who are diabetics. Even then, there's not much research supporting this idea that agave nectar has a low GI.
Agave nectar is still primarily made of fructose and some glucose.
Maple syrup is another substitute, one with varying grades. A study titled "Sugar Profiles of Maple Syrup Grades" reveals that fructose, glucose, and sucrose are present in varying amounts depending on the grade of the syrup. Lighter-colored syrups tend to contain more fructose than darker-colored syrups. Yet, if you've ever looked at the price of pure maple syrup, you'll know that it is not an inexpensive replacement for regular sugar. If anything, you're throwing money down the "I'm-a-sucker" drain if you believe it's a fantastic replacement.
If you're starting to connect the dots, you should be realizing by now that many alternative sweetners really aren't alternative. There's absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to try different sweetners for flavor's sake, but let's stop pushing these sugars as a more healthful alternative to regular sugar. This is simply not the case.
On a more personal note, I'm bothered by people's attempts to make sweets more healthful in the first place. Sweets were never created to be healthful to begin with! They're treats, desserts to be eaten in small amounts and only for enjoyment. If you want something healthful that is sweet, put down your cookies sweetened with maple syrup and pick up an apple. Stop trying to seek nutritional value in desserts by wasting your time with alternative sugars.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
I help people perform without pain.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
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