Table Sugar to Maple Syrup; What is the Healthiest Sweetener?
When most people hear the word sugar, they imagine a white, granulated, crystalline sweetener that is better known as table sugar. While this is certainly one of the most commonly used forms of sugar in the kitchen, it doesn’t always go by this name or adopt this physical form.
If you’re interested in losing weight or improving your health, the first line of nutritional advice that you’ll typically hear is to remove sugar from your diet. At face value, it’s not a bad recommendation, however, you’ll notice rather quickly that food without sugar doesn’t taste very good, especially baked goods such as muffins, cakes, and cookies.
Ever since the 1970s when we noticed a trend between sugar consumption, obesity, and poor health, we’ve been avoiding sugar and searching for alternative and seemingly healthier ways to sweeten our food.
If you want the summary and take-home message, just jump to the bottom of the page, or you can read the whole thing and learn all kinds of cool stuff.
Nowadays, sugar goes by about 61 different names on food labels. Many of these alternative names allow manufacturers to intelligently avoid the use of the word ‘sugar’ all together. They include glucose, dextrose, sucrose, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Other names, such as agave nectar, fruit juice concentrate, brown rice syrup, and honey, not only lack the word the ‘sugar’, but they make us feel like we’re consuming something more natural, which automatically translates to being healthier. The fact of the matter is that all these sweeteners are simply different names for sugar.
Nutritionally speaking, just how different are these seemingly natural sugars from that of white refined sugar? Are they in fact healthier or just a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
To get a better understanding, we have to first define exactly what a sugar is.
What is Sugar?
The term ‘sugar’ doesn’t specifically refer to one particular substance, but rather, a class of different substances that share similar characteristics. Much like the term ‘mammal’ encompasses a wide variety of different animals.
Chemically speaking, sugar refers to any kind of simple carbohydrate.
There are three primary simple sugars; glucose, fructose, and galactose. These individual sugar molecules, or monosaccharides, can be thought of as the building blocks of carbohydrates.
When two monosaccharides combine in a pair, they form what is called a disaccharide. Table sugar, for example, is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. Lactose, a sugar found in dairy, is a disaccharide of glucose and galactose. Collectively, all mono and disaccharides are generally referred to as sugars, and therefore the term embodies a wide variety of different substances. Complex carbohydrates, which are found in the starch of rice, potatoes, and oats, are made up of much longer chains of sugars.
Here’s the kicker, all sugars are naturally occurring and are produced in plants through the process of photosynthesis. Sucrose, the sugar used to make table sugar, is synthesized naturally in sugarcane, sugar beets, coconuts, and maple syrup. Fructose, also called fruit sugar, is found in fruits, honey, and agave nectar. Glucose, also called dextrose, is found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and any kind of starch.
All calorie containing sweeteners that we use, whether table sugar, brown sugar, agave nectar, coconut sugar, or brown rice syrup, are comprised of sugars that have been extracted from various plant sources. The level of processing and refinement varies, with table sugar being the most processed and honey the least, however, on a chemical level all these sweeteners are essentially the same thing; sugar.
Some of these sweeteners might be comprised of sucrose, others glucose, and some a combination of both glucose and fructose. However, without getting into too much depth, all sugar will be handled in the body in a very similar manner. They are broken down into monosaccharides in the digestive system, absorbed into the blood, and eventually turned into glucose, the form of sugar that our cells utilize for energy production.
Nutritional Value of the Various Sweeteners
Below is a table presenting the nutritional data for ten different common nutritive sweeteners including the number of calories per 4g serving, amount of sugar per serving, and the type(s) of sugar that the sweetener contains. All the sweeteners in this table are comprised of either sucrose (fructose and glucose bound together), a combination of free fructose and glucose (unbound), or free glucose alone.
Calorie and Sugar Density
One important distinction to make is that the syrups, including the honey, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), agave nectar, and maple syrup, also contain water in addition to the sugars. For this reason, the sugar and calorie density for syrups are a little less than that of the dry sugars such as coconut sugar and table sugar. A lower calorie density is certainly a plus, however, as you can see, the differences are not substantial and probably won’t result in significantly different calorie intakes within your diet if your consuming moderate amounts.
As a side note, brown sugar and raw cane sugar possess a brown color due to the presence of molasses, which is normally removed during the refining process to form white sugar.
The sweetness index is a measure of how sweet each sweetener is relative to that of pure sucrose which has an index of 1.0. Honey, HFCS, and agave nectar are sweeter than sucrose, suggesting that less sugar is needed to achieve a similar level of sweetness.
Corn syrup and brown rice syrup, on the other hand, with sweetness indices of 0.5, may require twice as much sugar to achieve the same level of relative sweetness.
Just for reference, non-nutritive artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin, are about 200-600x sweeter than sucrose, meaning that very small doses are highly effective.
Some of the less processed sweeteners, particularly the syrups, including honey, agave nectar, and maple syrup, contain trace amounts of sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium that are not found in the more refined sugars such as table sugar.
This is a common rationale as to why these sweeteners are superior for health. However, the amount of these minerals that are found within these sweeteners is very small, giving it little practical relevance within the diet.
A tablespoon (tbsp) of maple syrup has about 42mg of potassium, which is much higher than the other sweeteners, but relative to whole foods, is very little. A medium sized banana, for example, contains about 422mg of potassium. In order to reach your recommended daily intake for potassium, you’d have to consume about 95 tablespoons of maple syrup. That’s almost 1,000 calories worth of maple syrup, equating to 250g of sugar.That’s not a very healthy or efficient way to achieve your potassium needs.
Quite simply, sweeteners are not a significant source of vitamins or minerals, no matter how “natural” or unrefined they may be. It’s fair to say that maple syrup is somewhat more nutritious than table sugar, however, choosing maple syrup over table sugar isn’t going to have any meaningful effects on your health.
Summary and Take-home
All these sweeteners, no matter where they come from or what their name is, are essentially the same thing; sugar. In my opinion, it’s somewhat pointless to debate which sweetener is healthier when the differences between them are so subtle.
All nutritive sweeteners are calorie dense, relatively void of nutrients, easy to over-eat, and should be consumed in moderation. Labeling foods, such as muffins or cookies, healthier because they contain agave nectar or coconut sugar instead of table sugar is flawed thinking. Using a seemingly more natural form of sugar doesn’t alter the nutritional profile of the food by any meaningful extent.
Sugar doesn’t need to be avoided or restricted completely. In fact, sugar alone is not inherently harmful to your health or detrimental to your body composition. However, high sugar diets, whether they come from the consumption of table sugar or maple syrup, are not very conducive to an overall healthy diet. I recommend using whatever sweetener that you prefer, but still be sure to moderate your intake, watch your calories, and consume a diet comprised mostly of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats.
Without debating their safety, I must also recommend the use of artificial sweeteners, as they provide a calorie-free option and have been deemed safe for consumption, despite popular belief in mainstream media.
For more about sugar and the truth regarding its effects on body composition and health, see my blog article 'The Truth about Sugar'.