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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.