Whether or not we have a sweet tooth, almost all of us consume sugar in some form or another everyday, throughout the day - some naturally occurring like those in fruits and vegetables, some added by the manufacturer to prepared foods (including ketchup, bread, yogurt, breakfast cereal, and baked beans) and some added by us, like table sugar or honey.
The downsides of excess sugar consumption are well-documented: it can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, cancer, tooth decay, depression, fatty liver disease, and more (1). So, why do we eat it? Well, firstly, because it is delicious! Also, it has short term hedonic effects and activates our brain’s reward systems (2), and, we are biologically programmed to seek it out because naturally sugary fruits helped our ancestors survive when food was scarce (3). While eating sugar is not technically essential because our body can make it for us, the reason we are able to make our own is because it is so important for energy production.
These days there is no real food scarcity problem in the Western world, and sugar in all forms abounds in our diet. We have learned how to isolate it from natural sources, process it, add it to other foods, as well as learning how to manufacture substitutes in the lab. For the average European adult, sugar accounts for 15-21% of daily energy intake (75-105 grams) (4), while adults in the USA reportedly get a whopping 25% of their daily energy from sugar (126 grams), topping the global charts (5)!
For reference, the World Health Organization recommend limiting added sugars to <10% of daily energy intake; ten percent of a 2000 calorie diet would be 200 calories, which is 50 grams of sugar per day, or 12.5 teaspoons (6). The American Heart Association is even more austere, suggesting no more than 36 grams (9 tsp) for men and 25 grams (6 tsp) for women per day (7), which is just 5% of daily energy intake, and a lot less than we are currently consuming.
Available raw or partially refined, honey is produced by bees and is a minimally-refined natural sweetener. It is slightly sweeter than table sugar, meaning less can be used. Honey contains trace minerals, as well as antioxidants and some amino acids; it also has antimicrobial properties and is an effective first line defense against coughs (ref). There are also highly filtered honeys on the market - these will have lower levels of these beneficial components. Honey is around 38% fructose, with a GI around 50 (low). This means that it slightly better for blood sugar than table sugar, with less fructose, a slightly sweeter taste, and some bonus nutrients.
Coconut palm sugar
Another natural sugar, this is similar to maple sugar in its processing - the coconut palm is tapped, and the sap is boiled until no water remains. In terms of sugar content, it is mostly sucrose, with smaller amounts of glucose and fructose, and inulin (a fiber). The GI value of coconut sugar is 54 (low), in line with the other natural sweeteners we’ve discussed. Because it is minimally processed, it contains minerals like iron, zinc, calcium and potassium, plus some antioxidants. Coconut sugar looks and tastes similar to brown sugar, with a subtly sweet flavor.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) & glucose-fructose syrup
In Europe a similar product is called glucose-fructose syrup (indicating more glucose than fructose). Corn is not as widely farmed in Europe, so glucose-fructose syrup is sometimes made from wheat. The European Union limits production of this sweetener (to 5% of all EU sugar production), so it is not very common (11), but in the US there are no production limits and HFCS is ubiquitous. HFCS has a GI of 58 (medium), slightly lower than table sugar due to its slightly higher fructose content.
Brown rice syrup
A staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, where it is called silan or date honey, date syrup is made by boiling down dates, then pressing and straining the mixture. It is fairly easy to make at home (recipes abound) or it can be found at stores carrying specialty products. Because it is minimally processed it retains many minerals: it has significant amounts of potassium and magnesium, plus phosphorous, calcium, iron and zinc. Date syrup is high in antioxidants (higher than fresh blackberries) and also has antibacterial potential: one study suggests that it might even be better than manuka honey at killing pathogens (13). The sugars in date syrup are 40% fructose, plus some fiber, giving it a GI value around 50 (low). It has a rich flavor profile and is less sweet tasting than sugar or honey.
So, which one is right for you?
- If you are watching your blood sugar closely, avoiding high glucose sweeteners (like brown rice syrup) is important, and lower glycemic index options, like date sugar or yacon syrup, will be better.
- If you have high blood lipids (triglycerides and LDL cholesterol), you probably want to avoid high fructose options (like agave), and read food labels to make sure you’re not unwittingly consuming high fructose corn syrup.
- If you’re following a low FODMAPs diet, you will want to avoid sweeteners with excess fructose (HFCS, agave, honey), as well as those with fermentable oligosaccharides like fructans or inulin (e.g. yacon syrup). Stick with simple table sugar or other sweeteners with mainly sucrose (like maple syrup).
If you are generally healthy and aren’t following a special diet, you don’t have to worry too much about picking the ‘right’ sweetener - in moderation, none of these is going to do you any harm, but you might want to stick with the more natural, less refined options. The less processed a sweetener is, the less of an impact it will have on your blood sugar and your liver. The sweeteners with additional nutrients are arguably a better choice, if all else is equal: for example, if choosing between white sugar or date sugar on your oatmeal, date sugar would be the more nutritious and flavorful option; if making meringues, sticking with regular sugar is probably going to be your best bet. I encourage you to try some of the options on this list if they are new to you - having a variety of sweeteners in the kitchen will allow you to play with the options in different applications and find out what you like. Plus, variety is always good, from a nutritional perspective.
Hi, I'm Amy. I'm a nutritionist in the DC area, working with clients of all ages: from prenatal and pediatric, through to post-menopausal and geriatric. I'm all about straightforward, evidence-based health & wellness advice - because life in the modern world is complicated enough!