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.
Comments on “Don’t Sweat the Small (Simple) Sugar Stuff”
At least we sugar addicts are allowed to choose the kind we like, as long as it’s consumed in moderation.
Some comments about eating too much fructose (fruit) sugar. ( from Dr. Kevin Ahern, Great Courses Guidebook for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology)
On the surface, it is surprising that fructose metabolism might be a problem. It has the same number of calories as glucose, and phosphorylated forms of them get interconverted in glycolysis and gluconeogenesis. But there is an alternate pathway for fructose metabolism.
The first difference between the metabolism of glucose and fructose is in the tissues that metabolize them. In general, glucose is used by the brain and muscles. Fructose, on the other hand, is metabolized almost entirely by the liver. Normally, when sugar is metabolized, glycolysis is slowed down when plenty of ATP and citrate are made, which slows down the production of a key metabolic chemical, pyruvate. In the alternate fructose pathway, pyruvate keeps on being made even when lots of ATP and citrate are present.
When the citric acid cycle has too much citrate and ATP, pyruvate gets sent off to the cytoplasm, where it makes fatty acids, and can lead to accumulation of fat in the liver. Fat made there can be exported to adipose cells, leading to obesity. High levels of fat in the bloodstream also increase the likelihood of cardiovascular disease.
The unregulated pathway for fructose can lead to serious obesity‑related health problems. Too much of any kind of sugar is not doing us any good, but high‑fructose corn syrup has sugar in the easiest‑to‑metabolize form. Soft drinks and processed foods typically are sweetened with high‑fructose corn syrup, so making a habit of these could especially increase total sugar intake. And while researchers continue to sort out all the nuances of these varying factors, there’s no question about the benefits of restricting your intake of sugars of all types.
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