When it comes to the nutritional comparison between whole-grain and refined flour, the evidence is clear: Whole-grain is the healthier choice, rich in fibre, antioxidants, and various vitamins and minerals. At least three servings a day of whole-grains has been shown in numerous studies to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and insulin resistance. Can the same be said about refined sugar versus other types of sweeteners?
Sucrose, or sugar, is composed of a molecule of glucose joined to one of fructose. It is readily broken down and absorbed by the body as a source of energy. Granulated sugar is produced by sugarcane or sugarbeets and is the most common form of refined sugar. We all know that consuming too much sugar negatively impacts our health. But could replacing the white stuff with the brown/less refined stuff be healthier, like substituting white bread for whole wheat?
Not significantly. Unlike bread, sugars are simple carbohydrates without the associated fibre. They are primarily used as ingredients to make food taste good. Brown sugar is simply sugar with molasses added to it, enriching it with colour and a stronger flavour. In the end, it breaks down quickly in the body virtually the same way as white refined sugar. Same goes for all other variations of sugar like turbinado (“raw”) sugar, golden sugar, cane sugar, demerara sugar, organic sugar, coconut sugar. These are no healthier than regular old table sugar.
How about alternative sweeteners like maple syrup, honey, agave syrup? Although not exact substitutes for sugar, their main composition is sucrose (save for honey) with water and trace amounts of micronutrients. There are some people that believe these are healthier choices than sugar because they are less processed and because of the extra vitamins and minerals they contain. But they are in such low amounts to have any significant health effect. These syrups also tend to contain more calories per teaspoon than sugar, and so should arguably be used less.
When it comes to complex carbohydrates like bread and rice, it is worth choosing the whole-grain, less refined product. But for simple ones like sugar, sugar is sugar no matter what form it takes. Enjoy in moderation and choose the one that works best for you.