Sugar comes in many different forms, although all of them are forms of carbohydrates. Depending on what the source of the sugar is, it can have different actions and reactions in our bodies.
There are different kinds of sugars, such as: Monosaccharides - Glucose, Fructose (which are both found in fruits and other simple sugars); Disaccharides - such as Sucrose (which is our usual sugar and composed of two simple sugars joined together) and Lactose (which is the sugar in the milk); Polysaccharides (which is starch and found in grains and potatoes) and Oligosaccharides which can’t be digested and therefore used as prebiotics.
All of these are digested differently.
- Glucose (also called grape sugar) is produced by plants and in our bodies as energy source. It goes directly into the blood stream (as the body doesn’t have to break it down anymore) and therefore is often used for instant energy such as for athletes and diabetics to regulate their blood sugar level.
- Fructose (found in fruits and vegetables) is also a simple sugar, and is directly absorbed into the blood stream – with the big difference being that it doesn’t cause the blood glucose level to spike, and does not trigger a significant insulin response, and therefore has a low GI (glycemic index). It’s the sweetest natural available sugar, and 3 times sweeter than regular sugar. Before fructose becomes available to be utilised as energy, it must first replenish glycogen in your liver. This means that an overconsumption of fructose can result in the liver getting overloaded, which will then cause fructose to be converted into fat. A diet that is high in fructose (and especially High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) has been proven to lead to various issues such as obesity, elevated triglycerides and LDL cholesterol among others . On top of these negative conditions, fructose also raises your ghrelin levels, which make you feel hungry.
- Sucrose is our usual table sugar made of sugar cane or sugar beets and is a compound of glucose and fructose molecules. All other carbs are a combination of various monosaccharides in different ratios as well.
How this translates to other sweeteners:
- Sucrose/table sugar is a combination of glucose and sucrose molecules in the ratio 1:1. It is found in many fruits and veggies, but often produced out of sugar cane or sugar beets. The GI of regular table sugar is around 60-70.
- Raw honey has a relatively high level of fructose but also various additional benefits such as minerals, vitamins, enzymes, and on top of that, it is antibacterial and antifungal. Raw honey has a GI of only 30 – processed honey has no enzymes and the GI is much higher. While honey is a great superfood, it is not vegan.
- Maple syrup is mostly sucrose and has a GI of around 55. Like honey, it comes with additional nutritional benefits. It is not suitable for raw foodies though as it is heat-treated.
- Agave nectar has a very low GI of 15 but a high fructose level of 50-90% (depending on the brand). Often Agave gets over processed – therefore look for a high quality brand that is organic and produced at low temperature thus preserving the natural enzymes. Those brands usually have a lower fructose content of around 50%.
- Palm Sugar/Coconut sugar is mostly sucrose with nutritional benefits that top those of regular sucrose.
- Artificial sweeteners are not named here as they are in most cases harmful to our bodies. The reason being that the body is fooled into thinking it is getting something sweet, and produces the enzymes and hormones to react to it.
So which is best?
What it boils down to is quantity - we simply shouldn’t consume too much sugar. Of course, some sugars have more nutritional benefits than others, some are easier to digest while others (in large doses) mess with our metabolism. As a guideline, minimise your sugar intake to around 25g/day which is 6 teaspoons and go for the most natural (if possible, raw) and unprocessed version.
My personal choices
While I take a good brand of agave syrup or honey for my raw desserts, I use coconut sugar or honey to sweeten tea and coffee on some days. Other than that, I actually don’t use any sugar.