This whole business of sugar: added vs. natural, sugar alcohols, syrups, molasses, honey, and so on is very confusing.
Don't Attempt to Eliminate Sugar From Your Diet
I first want to clarify something: avoiding all sugar isn’t necessary. In fact, it would be impossible to do. This is because anytime a food contains a carbohydrate, it contains sugar.
Think of it this way: foods that contain carbohydrates are basically made up of sugar. I know this sounds bad since so many of the foods we eat contain carbs, but don’t panic. This is because when the body breaks down carbohydrates, it is basically trying to convert that carbohydrate-rich food into a usable fuel source: sugar! Believe it or not, iceberg lettuce still contains some carbohydrate; the body will break down those carbohydrates into–you guessed it–sugar. But because the amount of carbohydrate in iceberg lettuce is so low, it doesn’t really supply much sugar. And because the body loves this sweet compound as a fuel source, it can extract sugar from protein-rich foods, too, like meat!
My point is that trying to avoid all sugar in your diet is simply not possible, but that’s ok, because as I mentioned in a show earlier this week, added sugars seem to be the real trouble. The goal is to limit added sugars in the diet. So how do syrup, molasses, and honey come into play? I’ll discuss each of these briefly and whether they are any better for you than good ol’ white or brown sugar.
Maple Syrup and Molasses
Both maple syrup and molasses contain something called fructoligosaccharides. Don’t let this fancy-sounding term intimidate–many of these scientific words contain clues that can help us decode what they’re trying to tell us.
- Fructo – sounds like fruit and in fact that’s exactly what it’s referring to. More specifically, fructo is referring to fructose, which of course is the sugar found naturally in fruit.
- Another word may have sounded familiar: “saccharides” – kind of sounds like “saccharin” right? Saccharin is another type of sugar.
Fructooligosaccharides are basically sugars but it sounds like they may contain a couple of different types: fructose along with saccharin.
Does the body respond any differently to this fancy sugar that’s made up of fructose and saccharin? Some researchers have discovered that this fancy sugar may act as a prebiotic in our gut. This means that when we eat this type of sugar specifically, it may promote the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines. (Sometimes, you may hear this concept referred to as “a healthy microbiome.”) The problem is that these studies were performed in a lab–we don’t know if this really happens inside the human body.
For now, don’t assume maple syrup and molasses are any different than table sugar, and because of that, I would use them sparingly. I have a hunch that the body treats the sugars found in syrup and molasses the same as table sugar.
This is the same story when it comes to agave. Scientists thought that blue agave nectar, which is different chemically than table sugar, could be a decent source of dietary fiber. We do know that dietary fiber helps promote the health of the microbiome. But blue agave nectar doesn’t have nearly enough fiber to promote the health of our intestines.
There is also the belief that agave may not raise blood sugar levels as much as table sugar. This is true if you’re consuming the pure form of agave, but because of how food companies process agave to make agave nectar, it is actually quite similar to table sugar. So same story here: use agave sparingly.
Laboratory testing has found that not all honey products are the same; for example, medical honey that’s often used to treat and heal wounds is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The type of honey used in this case is often of the Makuna variety and it must be tightly regulated to be sure that it is free of contaminants.
Honey has a very low water concentration and does contain some antioxidants. This is partly why it can be useful for some ailments, but here’s the catch: honey (regardless of type) contains more calories and more carbohydrates than white or brown sugar. Using honey topically (on the skin to treat skin wounds) may be fine so long as it has been approved by the FDA, but if you’re hoping that it will help prevent chronic ailments like heart disease, diabetes, or cancer, it probably won't. In fact, it may increase the risk for these diseases. Use honey sparingly.
Added Sugars are the Problem
It’s added sugars that appear to be the real culprits. Natural sugars found in foods, on the other hand, likely don’t pose the same problems. Whole, minimally-processed foods are the key.
Think about fruit, for example. Fruits can be high in sugar, but they also contain fiber which has two effects on the body:
- It slows down the body’s absorption of those sugars
- The fiber acts as a prebiotic in that it can help our gut grow more helpful bacteria and help promote a healthy microbiome.
When foods are processed, they are often stripped of their fiber content, and the result is a food that is no longer as nutritious–it ends becoming a source of sugar and not much else.
How Do You Know If You’re Eating Lots of Added Sugar
In a couple of years, the FDA will require that food manufacturers identify how many grams of added sugar there are in their products. But until then, the best thing to do is look at the ingredients list. If the food contains more than 5 ingredients, then chances are, you’re going to be consuming some additives and preservatives, like added sugar.
You don’t have to try to give up sugar altogether! You can limit how much added sugar there is by:
- Looking at the list of ingredients. Does it contain more than 5 ingredients? If yes, then I’m willing to bet it contains some extra preservatives and additives.
- Look for words that end in “-ose.” If it ends in “-ose” then it’s a type of sugar. If there are a lot of ingredients ending in “-ose” listed there, it’s probably safe to assume it contains a lot of added sugar.