It is common knowledge that sugar is bad for you and that highly refined sugar added to cereals and foods is not good for you. At the same time, it seems impossible to totally avoid it, and certainly, there must be "healthier" versions of sugar, right?
Today’s leading health experts, doctors and scientists all agree: sugar is a leading cause of disease. Everything from obesity, diabetes and heart disease to ADHD and cancer has been linked to sugar consumption. In a very short period of time, we’ve gone from an average of 20 teaspoons of added sugar per person, per year to about 150 pounds per person, per year. That's a half pound a day for every man, woman, and child in America! I don't know about you, but that leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
The question to ask is, are there better and worse versions of sugar? The short answer is: yes! In fact, I’m going to list them from worst to best and explain why some forms of sugar are unhealthy and what makes others better for you.
The list begins with the absolute worst form of sugar...
1. Artificial Sugars: these are hands down the worst.
For some sad reason America has been tricked into believing that artificial sweeteners are healthier than sugar. Many people turn to these artificial sugar alternatives, as a means of "dieting". They are sold in blue (aspartame), yellow (sucralose) and pink (saccharin) packets and are added to food and drinks to, in theory, keep us from gaining weight. However, research shows that they actually stimulate appetite and contribute to obesity.
So, how exactly do these fake sugars make us fat? Artificial sweeteners trick the brain into thinking we’ve consumed sugar, which can lead to more cravings and ultimately a higher sugar intake, as sugar is highly addictive. In addition, the artificial sweeteners are formulated with an array of toxic chemicals that have been linked to diseases like depression, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer.
Chemicals that are used to manufacture artificial sweeteners include acetone, which is also used in nail polish remover; benzene, a carcinogen found in gasoline; toluene, which is used in glues and paints; methanol, a poisonous wood alcohol that’s also used in antifreeze and windshield washer fluid and even formaldehyde (which is used to preserve dead bodies) Seriously!?
To summarize: just like there isn’t a miracle pill that makes you 21 again and a supermodel, there also isn’t a magical fake sweetener that allows you to drink gallons of soda and not gain weight. Sorry, some things just are too good to be true...or just require plastic surgery.
2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is an artificial sugar made from (GMO) corn. It is cheaper and sweeter than sugar - and more quickly absorbed by the body. Like most forms of processed sugar, HFCS is linked to many other serious health issues, including diabetes and heart disease. What distinguishes it from processed cane sugar is that it adds an unnatural amount of fructose to your diet. And don’t be fooled by the world “fructose” because you’ve heard that it is found in fruit. It's like saying heroin is could for you because it comes from poppy flowers. In fact, the main reason why HFCS is so damaging is because it is composed of 50% glucose (type of sugar we get from basic carbs) and 50% fructose, which has to be converted into glucose, glycogen (stored carbs), or fat by the liver before it can be used as fuel. The point is: too much fructose is bad for you. In copious amounts it will lead to fatty liver disease, which in turn leads to serious problems like Type 2 Diabetes. That does not mean that getting fructose from fresh fruit is bad for you. Fruit is packed with other nutrients, unprocessed and way less concentrated and easy for you body to process. In contrast, HFCS is empty calories - meaning you won’t be benefiting from any essential nutrients.
To give you an idea of how easy it is to overload on this toxic stuff - the average 20-ounce soda contains 15 teaspoons of sugar, all of it high fructose corn syrup. 15 teaspoons people! If you aren’t already, make sure to check the label of any food or drink product for HFCS. After reading this blog, choosing not to consume it should be a no-brainer. Soda? No-duh!
3. White Sugar
Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose to use for energy. The effect on the body depends on the type of sugar you’re eating, either natural or refined. White refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. To make white sugar, sulfur dioxide is added to cane juice before it gets evaporated — this gas bleaches the juice white. Then phosphoric acid, calcium hydroxide or carbon dioxide is added to absorb impurities. The juice is then filtered through a bed of carbon, and it is crystallized in a vacuum to produce sugar crystals.
This refined white sugar is, of course, super unhealthy. In addition to all the chemicals used to treat it, it is digested rapidly, which is why you typically don’t feel full and the reason one donut leaves you wanting two and then three. In addition to causing cavities, high-sugar diets have been associated with an increased risk of many diseases, including heart disease.
Americans consume the most sugar of all countries, an average of 140 pounds per year. In recent years, people have become more health conscious, so the food industry often hides sugar on food labels by calling it by different names. A rule of thumb for finding hidden sugar in your foods is to look for any ingredient ending in ‘ose,’ like dextrose, fructose, lactose, sucrose and maltose.
3. Liquid Sugar:
Liquid sugar is white refined sugar in liquid form, and it’s often added to sodas, juices and mixed alcoholic drinks. The problem with drinking your sugar is it’s easier to consume larger amounts without feeling full: Research shows that the brain doesn’t register liquid sugar calories the same as it does calories from solid foods. Also, when you drink liquid sugar, it doesn’t lower your hunger hormone ghrelin as much as when you’re eating foods that contain sugar. When looking at the effects of eating a sugar-loaded candy bar compared to drinking a soda containing the exact same amount of sugar, drinking this amount brings about a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Drinking juice (from concentrate especially) can be deceivingly unhealthy. One of the biggest problems is drinking fruit juice as it usually contains a ton of sugar. It is much better to consume a piece of fruit than to drink fruit juice.
4. Brown Sugar
Brown sugar, sadly is essentially the same as refined white sugar. The difference is that brown sugar has molasses added back into it. Molasses contains polyphenols, which are natural chemicals found in plants that have antioxidant properties (which is good). The amount of molasses added determines how dark the sugar will appear: Light brown sugar contains 3.5 percent molasses, and dark brown sugar contains 6.5 percent molasses.
Many people believe that brown sugar is the same as raw sugar, but they are very different. White and brown sugar don’t have the nutritional content found in raw sugar, which is derived from sugar cane juice. Most brown sugar in North America is partially or totally beet sugar, which is usually genetically modified. GMO beet sugar is contaminated with Monsanto’s gut-destroying glyphosate (Roundup) residue, which also causes cancer.
Brown sugar is still slightly better than white sugar, though. One small benefit brown sugar has over white sugar is that it contains more water, which slightly lessens its caloric value by weight.
5. Raw Sugar
Along with white refined sugar, most hip coffee shops now offer ‘raw sugar’ as a healthier option. While many believe ‘RAW’ means that nothing has been removed or added, when it comes to sugar, this isn’t the case. The USDA allows sugar companies to use the word ‘RAW’ when sugar isn’t bleached.
That’s not to say raw sugar isn’t slightly better, though. Raw sugar is processed from the sugar cane and retains a small amount of molasses, (again, molasses contains those healthy polyphenols). After raw sugar is centrifuged, it retains 2 percent of its molasses and the other 98 percent remains as sucrose, compared to refined white table sugar, which has no molasses and 99.9 percent sucrose.
6. Cane Sugar
This is a substantially healthier option. Unlike white refined sugar, which is stripped of all its nutritional value, unrefined cane sugar has the same vitamin and mineral consistency as sugarcane plant juice. Sugarcane juice is naturally rich in antioxidants, namely polyphenols, which helps defend against free radicals and toxins found in the environment.
Sugarcane juice is widely consumed by the people of the tropics and subtropics.
Another benefit of cane sugar is that it has a filling effect. Cane sugar contains fiber, which makes it more filling than white processed ‘empty calorie’ sugar. It’s also more environmentally safe, because it requires less energy, fewer waste products and no added chemicals or gases, which are used to produce white sugar.
It is best to go with USDA certified organic cane sugar, which means it is made from organic cane and contains no genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It is very important to avoid genetically modified foods!
Agave is 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar and contains 60 calories per tablespoon, which is more than white table sugar, which contains 48 calories per tablespoon. However, agave contains healthy fiber called fructans, which are linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin.
Agave nectar has been touted as being ‘diabetic friendly’ because it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like white sugar. However, you never want to eat too much...when your liver gets overloaded, it turns the fructose found in agave nectar into fat, which raises blood triglycerides and has been linked to causing fatty liver disease. Therefore, it is best to limit consumption of agave nectar or opt for other natural sweeteners.
8. Maple Syrup
Maple syrup is made by tapping sugar maple trees, then boiling the sap to produce a thick syrup. Don’t confuse this with the heavily processed, watered-down Aunt Jemima syrup. Unlike refined white sugar, which is void of any nutrients, pure maple syrup contains minerals, including manganese (bone health and brain function), calcium (bone health), potassium (healthy muscles), iron (blood) and zinc (skin and immune system). Plus, pure maple syrup contains up to 24 different antioxidants, which aid in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
Maple syrup is also more diabetic friendly than most other options on this list. While white sugar is 99.9 percent sucrose, maple syrup is only 66 percent, and therefore, doesn’t cause as much of a sugar spike when ingested. White sugar is known for causing inflammation and is linked to cancer. In comparison, maple syrup is a much less inflammatory sweetener and may even protect against cancer. This is because the powerful antioxidants in maple syrup help protect the body from DNA damage and mutation.
Maple syrup also has an unusual ability. Antibiotics have a bad reputation for killing healthy cells along with infection-causing bacteria. When a team of scientists mixed the phenolic extract from maple syrup with two commonly used antibiotics ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin, they indeed found a synergistic effect, allowing them to get the same antimicrobial effect with upwards of 90 percent less antibiotic. Pretty amazing right?
When buying maple syrup, read the label to make sure it is 100% pure maple syrup and not refined cane or beet sugar, or something containing high-fructose corn syrup, always go with organic maple syrup to ensure the trees weren’t treated with any pesticides or chemicals.
Molasses is a by-product obtained from the processing of sugar cane and sugar beet into table sugar. Molasses offers a plethora of vitamins and minerals, such as niacin (circulation and cholesterol lowering), vitamin B6 (brain and cardiovascular health), riboflavin (skin, eye and hair health), thiamine (energy and immune system support) and essential minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus and sodium. Molasses is especially good for those watching their weight. This stuff is also diabetic friendly, much like maple syrup.
Another benefit: Blackstrap molasses is sometimes referred to as pregnancy tea because of its high levels of iron, folate and other minerals that are essential for the growth and development of a baby. Being high in calcium, blackstrap molasses can also play a role in maintaining bone health, when buying blackstrap molasses, make sure it’s ‘organic’ and sulfur dioxide isn’t used. Some manufactures use sulfur dioxide during sugar cane processing to extend its shelf life, but it has been identified as a key problematic substance involved with a common allergic reaction to sulfites in foods. Sulfur dioxide is also considered a pollutant!
Honey has natural antibacterial and antiviral properties and is chock-full of many health-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants. Honey has been used to treat an array of health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, stomach ulcers, wound healing and fighting tooth decay and gingivitis. But not all honey is the same, and the health benefits of consuming honey depend on the type of honey as well as when and how it is harvested. Also, some honey is mixed with high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to causing inflammation and contributes to many diseases.
While all pure honey has health benefits, my favorite is called Manuka, which is honey on steroids. Manuka is made in Australia and New Zealand, but it is available at most grocery and health food stores. Manuka honey has antiviral, anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. It is an effective treatment for stomach ulcers because it kills H. pylori, a bacterium that’s been associated with causing ulcers. It has also been found to be effective against chronic diarrhea and C. difficile, a bacterium that can cause life-threatening inflammation of the colon.
Honey can also be good for your teeth. Unlike white processed sugar, which causes cavities and gum disease, studies have shown Manuka honey attacks harmful oral bacteria associated with plaque formation and tooth decay. Also, buy honey in a glass container instead of plastic, as this will ensure it is more stable. Finally, avoid clear honey, which is an indication that it has been filtered. Good quality honey is foggy, a natural effect of bee pollen.
Finally, the healthiest sweetener on the list. It’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea since the 16th century. Stevia is naturally free of calories and has a glycemic load of zero, meaning it is great for diabetics and doesn’t spike blood sugar. Research shows that stevia can significantly lower insulin and glucose levels, as well as reduce appetite. Stevia has also been shown to help lower total cholesterol, LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol.
A double-blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrated that long-term stevia consumption produces significant, lasting decreases in blood pressure in patients with mild to moderate hypertension. Some evidence suggests stevia may also help fight or prevent cancer: A glycoside called stevioside found in stevia plants boosts cancer cell death and also helps decrease some mitochondrial pathways that support cancer growth.
Be careful when shopping for stevia, though. Stevia products found on grocery store shelves, such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, don’t contain whole stevia leaf. The primary ingredient in these sweeteners isn’t stevia; it is fa sugar alcohol called erythritol. Erythritol is a potent insecticide and also kills plants. Plus, the human body can’t digest erythritol and it’s been known to cause allergic reactions and digestive issues, which includes bloating, gas and diarrhea.
When shopping for the purest stevia, always buy a powdered product that’s 100 percent pure stevia extract — not stevia powder, which indicates it’s a blend and not a pure extract.
Have a sweet day!
Dr. Alexes Hazen