What Kind of Sugar is Best For You?

Sugar vs. Sugar Substitutes


What Type of Sugar is Best?

White sugar is produced from sugar cane or sugar beets that are refined to remove the molasses and then bleached to make it white. Raw, or turbinado sugar, is not bleached. Brown sugar contains some molasses, giving it a rich flavor and brown color.

Although you may not be able to taste the difference in sugar produced from cane or beets, sugar beets may be be genetically modified whereas sugar cane currently is not. So if you are avoiding GMO’s, read the label to find out the source of your sugar product prior to purchasing.

Why So Much Sugar?

Sugar was once so rare and expensive that it was called white gold. Today, sugar is abundant, cheap, and can be found in many foods. Because of its low cost and abundance, according to the USDA, the average American consumes around 31 bags (5lb.) of refined sugars in a year. At 110 calories per ounce, 155 pounds of refined sugar can add up to 273,000 empty calories per year!

It’s no wonder that American’s are consuming many products with non-caloric sugar substitutes, or artificial sugars, to keep their calorie intake down. But, are these sugar substitutes any better for you than sugar? Well, that depends.

Many sugar substitutes are calorie free or are more intensely sweet than sugar, allowing food manufacturers to use much less of them than needed with sugar. This reduces calories, helping consumers maintain a healthy weight. For example, a 12-oz. cola sweetened with sugar or high fructose corn syrup typically contains around 140 calories whereas a sugar-free soda can have zero calories. Sugar substitutes can also allow diabetics to enjoy something sweet without raising their blood sugar, although recent research indicates some sugar substitutes may cause a rise in insulin levels when consumed. More research is needed on this topic.

Health experts recommend avoiding sugar in excess, however, there are pros and cons to sugar substitutes, and some sugar substitutes can’t be used at all by some people. Most non-nutritive sweeteners are not recommended during pregnancy, mostly due to a lack of long-term studies proving safety.

Different Kinds of Sugar Substitutes

  • Aspartame, made from aspartic acid and phenylalanine, is about 200 times as sweeter than sugar. This common sweetener has extensive research indicating it’s safe for human consumption at normal levels typically consumed. However, people with phenylketonuria, or PKU, a rare genetic disorder where phenylalanine accumulates in the blood and causes mental retardation, cannot use aspartame. Aspartame isn’t heat-stable, and loses its sweetness when heated up, which makes ineffective for cooking.
  • Sucralose, made by adding chlorine to a sugar molecule, creates a product that’s intensely sweet yet not absorbed by the body. Companies add filler to sucralose, making it the same volume as sugar so it can easily be substituted for sugar in recipes. Some fillers do add calories, so reading labels is prudent. Sucralose is heat-stable and can be used in cooking. Sucralose may change the composition of your gut bacteria, and is an area where more research is needed.
  • Saccharin is about 300 times as sweet as table sugar, but has a bitter or metallic aftertaste, especially at high concentrations. Because of the aftertaste, saccharin is often used in combination with other sweeteners to mask the off-flavor. Saccharin is a weak carcinogenic in rats in very high doses; however, this doesn’t prove that the same happens in humans. Therefore, warning labels are no longer required on saccharin sold in the US.
  • Acesulfame-K, or Ace K, is slightly bitter at high concentrations, and is often used in conjunction with other sweeteners. Ace K is heat-stable and can be used in baked goods and in products requiring a long shelf life. Ace K is used in many pharmaceutical products to make other active ingredients more palatable. According to the FDA, an acceptable daily intake is 15 mg/kg of body weight.

Natural Alternatives to Sugar

Besides artificial sugar substitutes, there are other natural sugars or sweeteners that can be used in place of sugar, such as maple syrup, honey, agave nectar and molasses. Each has a unique taste, and most don’t change the overall calories compared to sugar.

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is also frequently used in food production because it is cheaper and sweeter than table sugar, requiring less to sweeten a product. Food processors make HFCS by breaking down cornstarch with enzymes. High fructose corn syrup contains around 4 calories per gram, similar to sugar.

Stevia, another natural alternative to sugar, is an herb that is naturally sweet and doesn’t provide calories. Purified stevia, called rebaudioside, is on the FDA’s generally recognized as safe (GRAS) list; whole or crude stevia is not. Some stevia products contain additional ingredients, so be sure to read the labels. Stevia can cause an upset stomach for some people.

The Healthiest Kind of Sugar

A whole food, natural diet is best for maintaining weight and reducing the risk of cancer. Natural sweeteners, used in moderation, can be part of healthy diet. Choosing organic natural sweeteners can help you avoid unnecessary pesticides, herbicides and GMO’s. Sugar substitutes should only be used in moderation, for those avoiding sugar for health concerns.

Jennifer M. Wood, MS, RD

Jennifer M Wood, MS, RDN is registered dietitian nutritionist and successful food and nutrition consultant in Southeastern Minnesota. As the founder of a nation-wide gourmet food company, Wood wrote Jenny’s Country Kitchen…recipes for making homemade a little easier! (2003), which is a timeless collection of make-ahead, freeze-ahead and pantry-stocking recipes and time saving tips to help busy families put nutritious food on table. Wood graduated with a pre-med bachelors degree in nutritional science in 2001, completed her dietetic internship in 2007 and went on to complete a master’s degree in food and nutrition in 2011.

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