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Is There Such a Thing as “Healthy” Sugar?

When it comes to sweetening everything from your cup of coffee to your chocolate chip cookie recipe, you’ve got an awful lot of choices: white sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, agave. It can be confusing to know which to stock. Is one more nutritious than another? Are any of them worse for health than others? And is there such a thing as “healthy” sugar?

I haven’t met a dessert I didn’t like (okay, maybe flan). So this issue really hits home for me. But as a dietitian, I see a lot of misinformation online about sugar, so I wanted to set the record straight and answer some of the most common questions I hear. 

overhead shot of brownie ingredients, chocolate chips, sugar, flour, eggs and buttoner on a brown table

Is honey a natural sweetener?

Yes and no. I often hear honey referred to as a “natural” sweetener. It’s true that it comes from nature–as does white sugar, which comes from the sugar cane or sugar beet plant. But when you hear advice to limit added sugar, that includes sweeteners including honey. As the name suggests, added sugars are any sweeteners added to a product, either by the manufacturer (like ice cream) or by us (like honey stirred into tea). True natural sugars are fructose, the sugars in fruit, and lactose, the sugar present in milk and plain yogurt.

Are honey and maple syrup less processed than white sugar?

Yes. Both involve fewer steps to take it from source to shelf than white sugar. But that doesn’t mean they’re totally unprocessed, since processing technically includes things like heating and straining.

Is coconut sugar better for you than white?

Not really. Coconut sugar, which is made from flower buds on the coconut palm, has a lower “glycemic index” than white sugar, which is a measure of how much something raises your blood sugar after you eat it. So it might be helpful for someone with diabetes to use. But it doesn’t make it “healthy”. Teaspoon for teaspoon, it has the same calories and grams of sugar as white sugar. And though it contains some nutrients such as potassium, you’d need to eat a large amount to get anything meaningful. It’s also much more expensive.

What about agave syrup?

Like coconut sugar, agave syrup has a lower glycemic index than white sugar. But the sweetener, which comes from a succulent plant, also contains a lot of fructose. Though fructose in fruit is a natural sugar, high amounts at one time can be hard on the liver. So as with all added sugars, you don’t want to go overboard.

Is brown sugar healthier than white?

No. Brown sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added to it for color and flavor. It doesn’t give it more nutrients or result in any meaningful nutritional differences.

What’s the best sweetener to use?

In my kitchen, I use multiple kinds of sweeteners depending on what I’m making, like white and brown sugar in cookies, honey on oatmeal, and maple syrup in sauces. They all have different flavors and different uses in recipes. Trouble is, sometimes less processed sugars like honey or molasses can be billed as wholesome and healthy, so people may eat them in larger amounts, especially when they’re in recipes called “Clean Cupcakes” or, my personal pet peeve, “Sugar-Free Brownies” that have been made with honey instead of white sugar.

Bottom line

Dessert isn’t the enemy, but white sugar, honey, molasses, agave syrup, and maple syrup are all considered added sugars. Use what you prefer, but go easy on added sugar in general. And remember that using one kind of sugar over another doesn’t bestow health benefits. In other words, cookies made with coconut sugar are still cookies.

– Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

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