by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.D./N.
I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about how bad refined sugar is for your health—enough to think twice before putting that bag of white sugar into your grocery cart. Right next to the white sugar are some options that seem like they might be just a bit healthier. There’s evaporated cane juice, for example. Or, what about raw sugar? Are these “natural” sugars really better for you than refined white sugar? Or, at the very least, are they a little less bad for you?
What are the Different Types of Sugar?
First, let me give you a quick run-down on who’s who in the sugar aisle. For this episode, I’m not including natural sweeteners like honey and maple syrup (I already covered the health benefits of honey here). I’m focusing on sweeteners produced from sugar cane or sugar beets. These include:
Refined white sugar is pure sucrose. It can be produced from either sugar cane or sugar beets, but by the time it has been refined to a white crystal, the two are chemically identical.
Molasses is what’s leftover from the sugar refining process. It’s everything that gets taken out when you refine sugar cane into white sugar.
Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into it. In fact, if you ever run out of brown sugar, you can make your own by adding 1 tablespoon of molasses to 1 cup of sugar. For dark brown sugar, add 2 tablespoons molasses.
Evaporated cane juice (such as Florida Crystals) is, as the name implies, made from sugar cane, never sugar beets. It’s slightly less refined and so it retains a bit more color and flavor from the sugar cane. The tan-colored crystals have a slight caramel or molasses aroma. If the crystals are large and coarse, it’s also known as Demerara sugar.
Turbinado or “raw” sugar, is also a dehydrated cane juice. It retains a bit more of the natural “impurities,” so it’s even a little darker and the molasses aroma and flavor is a bit more pronounced.
Organic cane sugar simply means that the sugar cane was grown organically, without synthetic herbicides or pesticides. It may be lightly refined or almost pure white.
The idea of calling white sugar “refined” and raw sugar “natural” is a little silly. All of these sugars are natural in the sense that they all come from plants. And all of these sugars are refined. They’ve all been extracted from cane or beet and dried into a crystalline form. The ones that we call “natural” are just a little bit less refined. They are not 100% pure sucrose, like white sugar. They might be only 99% pure.
Are There Any Advantages to “Natural” Sugars?
Pure sucrose, or white sugar, is bland—other than being sweet, it doesn’t really have much flavor at all. Evaporated cane juice and other less refined sugars have a warmer, richer flavor profile that a lot of people enjoy. The color of the crystal is a good guide to how pronounced the molasses overtones will be.
And, as I mentioned, organic sugar—no matter what color it is—is produced without synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Not only will the sugar itself be free of residues from these chemicals, but choosing organic products also reduces the overall pesticide load on the environment.
Are Natural Sugars Better For You?
Advertisers claim that raw sugar retains more of the nutrients from the original plant. But sugar cane doesn’t have many nutrients to start out with.
Advertisers try to make it sound as if these less-refined sugars are also more nutritious than regular white sugar. They claim that they retain more of the nutrients from the original plant. And, technically, that may be true. But sugar cane doesn’t have many nutrients to start out with. Any traces that remain in raw sugar are so trivial, they can barely be measured.
Nutritionally speaking, there really is no meaningful difference between any of these kinds of sugar. Although some are definitely less processed, they all provide the same number of calories, and when it comes to digestion and metabolism, your body cannot tell the difference.
In other words, if you prefer a less-processed product (and you don’t mind the premium price), raw sugar or evaporated cane juice is great. But you’d want to limit your intake of these natural sugars exactly the way you would limit your intake of refined white sugar.
How Much Sugar Can You Have?
The World Health Organization recommends that you limit your intake of added sugars to no more than 10% of your calories. If you’re an average-sized adult, ten percent of your calories is around 50 grams of sugar, or the equivalent of 3 tablespoons of granulated sugar. The American Heart Association would like to lower the bar to just 5%.
What counts? Added sugars refers to any sugar (natural or otherwise) that you use in your own cooking or add at the table as well as sugar that’s been added to packaged and processed foods and beverages that you consume. It doesn’t include sugar that is naturally present in fruits, dairy products, and other whole foods.
Stay tuned, because in a future episode I'll be covering high fructose corn syrup to see how it compares to sugar. Or, for my Quick and Dirty take on artificial sweeteners, check out this episode.
This is Monica Reinagel, reminding you that these tips are provided for your information and entertainment but they are not intended as medical advice.
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Have a great week and remember to eat something good for me!