Ranking Sugars, From Best to Worst
We asked a fitness and nutrition coach to assess the situation.
As so-called “healthy” sweeteners flood the market, we're left to wonder, which to choose? Is one really better than the other?
“Honestly, whether you’re talking about coconut sugar or honey or table sugar, these sweeteners are all sugar delivery mechanisms with minor differences,” says Brian St. Pierre, R.D. a fitness and nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition. “Some are sucrose, some are fructose, so they affect the body slightly differently.”
The basics: Sucrose is a disaccharide, whereas fructose is a category of sugar called a monosaccharide. “Sucrose gets broken down into glucose and fructose before going into the blood stream and raising your blood glucose levels. High levels of blood sugar can damage blood vessels and lead to cavities and gum disease,” says St. Pierre.
Fructose, on the other hand, doesn’t go into the bloodstream like glucose. “It has to go to the liver first to be processed into a useable form so it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels. But if you’re consuming excess calories and fructose that fructose can get converted to triglycerides, which makes it mildly worse than glucose in that regard. It is better at restoring liver glycogen, though, which is an important satiety signal for the brain,” he explains. Another plus: Fructose is less likely to cause cavities.
Still, according to St. Pierre, one type of sugar isn’t necessarily better than another. “Too much sugar in the form of sucrose, glucose, or fructose can lead to all these problems. The health impact they have on you really depends on how much you eat of any of them,” he says.
Consider keeping sugars to 5-10% of your calorie intake a day. “It all depends on your size, your goals, and your activity level. If you want to be moderately fit—say 15% body fat for a man, 23 to 25% for a woman, then you can eat a little more sugar. If you want a six-pack, you’re going to need to eat less sugar,” advises St. Pierre. Eat the sugar you enjoy in moderation—and eat it slowly and until you’re satisfied. While one type doesn’t win hands down, St. Pierre has advised on this scale so you can see how your choices stack up.
Type: Natural substitute
Pros: Sugar-free and non-caloric, made from the leaves of the stevia plant. “If you’re comparing caloric and non-caloric sweeteners, stevia comes out on top. It doesn’t raise blood sugar and it’s natural and beneficial in reasonable amounts. It’s bio-active, so it could have some anti-inflammatory compounds and can also help you cut calories,” says St. Pierre.
Cons: There’s a minor aftertaste that can take getting used to and overusing it could cause you to develop more of a taste for sweets.
Type: An even blend of fructose and glucose
Pros: “Honey’s calling card is that it has anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties, which is why it can also be used as a cough suppressant or sore throat soother. Manuka and other high-grade honeys often contain more beneficial properties—and overall honey is more of an actual food than sugar,” says St. Pierre.
Cons: It’s high in calories and carbs.
Type: Mostly sucrose with some nutrients
Pros: This one gets positive marks. It’s made from the sap of coconut trees and is less processed because the sap is extracted and then placed in heat to dry, leaving it with a more natural brownish color like raw sugar. It can also contain trace amounts of minerals like magnesium, potassium, and inulin, a prebiotic fiber.
Cons: It’s still a high-calorie sweetener and causes advanced glycation end-products (AGEs), which gradually lead to a break down in your collagen.
Raw Cane Sugar
Pros: Extracted from the sugarcane plant and not refined. Also called turbinado sugar, it may come in the form of cane juice, which is often used to sweeten non-dairy milks like almond, hemp, and cashew and in many healthier baking options. This raw form of sugar is somewhat less processed than table sugar. It still retains some of the molasses and moisture from the plant so technically you’re consuming less sugar and calories per serving, making it healthier, St. Pierre says.
Cons: That’s mostly irrelevant in the big picture. It’s not like you’re eating the actual plant.
Type: More fructose than glucose (it can be up to 90% fructose)
Pros: Fans like the syrupy flavor. It mixes well with tequila, making it a mainstay in artisanal margaritas. Cons: It’s touted as having a lower glycemic index but this can be misleading. That may be beneficial if someone has diabetes, but not so much if you don’t, warns St. Pierre.
Pros: Some of the molasses leftover from the refining process is added back into the sugar after processing, which provides a darker color and a minor amount of trace nutrients.
Cons: Not enough nutrients remain to be of benefit.
Granulated White Sugar
Pros: Made from either sugar cane or sugar beets, it offers the mildest flavor, melts and blends easily into beverages, warm or cold, and is ideal for baking.
Cons: Best known as table sugar and the most common, it is also the most chemically processed and refined of the bunch.
Sweeteners (Aspartame, Splenda)
Type: Artificial substitute
Pros: Sugar-free and non-caloric
Cons: These sweeteners are chemical compounds and not real food. Splenda is sucralose (a sugar molecule mixed with chlorine molecules in a patented process). Maltodextrin, which is a corn product and can be genetically modified, is then added as a bulking agent. “Aspartame is on the EPA’s list of potential carcinogens. In animal models it’s linked to leukemia in very high doses. I’m most leery of it and will only drink a diet soda on a rare occasion and I won’t feed it to my kids,” says St. Pierre.