That being said, going cold turkey on the sweet stuff can be challenging to say the least. So when you do absolutely *have to* reach for a sweetener—whether for coffee, cooking, baking, or another use—is there a healthier option you should prioritize? We asked two dietitians for the scoop.
First of all, fruit is good for you (and it’s free from added sugar)
Before we take a deep dive into potentially healthier forms of sugar, dietitian Carlie Saint-Laurent Beaucejour, MS, RD, LDN, takes care to clarify that whole food sources of sugar in the form of fructose—such as fruit—are in a different league than processed and refined sweeteners. Even more specifically, she provides an example with a whole apple versus apple juice. “Apple juice is predigested, if you will, because you don’t have to chew it like the [whole] fruit,” Beaucejour says. We also miss out on nutrients like fiber and vitamins when we consume fruit juice instead of the fruit itself—and that loss of fiber will make “our bodies will digest the apple juice faster, giving us quick energy and little satisfaction.”
These points considered, fruit is still very much recommended as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet given its fiber and antioxidant profile—even with its natural sugar content. “Neither [the whole fruit nor the juice] is forbidden to eat, but it’s important to know the nutrition and metabolic differences,” Beaucejour says.
…But do healthier sugar options exist?
White table sugar and high fructose corn syrup get a bad reputation more often than not… and not without reason. Meanwhile, a handful of sugar alternatives are routinely touted as more nutritious—or less “bad”—than these ubiquitous sweeteners. But are they actually any healthier? Brace yourself for some necessary fact-checking and major myth-busting.
ICYMI, coconut sugar is often lauded as a healthier swap for standard varieties of sweeteners. As Brooklyn–based dietitian Maddie Pasquariello, MS, RDN, explains, that’s largely because it has a slightly lower glycemic index (GI) than cane sugar.
“For those with diabetes who are very conscious of their sugar intake, this could be a healthier alternative—but not by much,” says Pasquariello. “Recent evidence actually suggests that using glycemic index as a way of controlling blood sugar isn’t highly accurate, since the GI of a particular food doesn’t take into account typical portion sizes.” In other words, if you’ve been enjoying treats that use it in favor of cane sugar, you’re not necessarily encouraging more stable blood sugar levels.
Pasquariello adds that while coconut sugar has a higher content of micronutrients like iron, zinc, calcium, potassium, and even B vitamins and vitamin C compared to cane sugar, this doesn’t equate to any discernible dietary wins. “These nutrient differences are so small that you’d have to consume a great deal of sugar in order for the ‘benefits’ to become noticeable—at which point any such benefits would be strongly outweighed by the consequences of consuming the sugar itself,” she says.
“These nutrient differences are so small that you’d have to consume a great deal of sugar in order for the ‘benefits’ to become noticeable—at which point any such benefits would be strongly outweighed by the consequences of consuming the sugar itself,” Pasquariello says.
Brown sugar and raw sugar
Pasquariello gets straight to the point on these two types of sugar. “There’s absolutely no nutritional benefit to consuming raw or brown sugar in place of white cane sugar,” she says. The dietitian explains that brown sugar is merely white cane sugar with added molasses, and that raw sugar is simply less refined. “The only real difference is in terms of how these sugars are processed, but nutritionally speaking, it’s all the same once the sugar has entered your body and is metabolized into its simplest form,” says Pasquariello.
Agave, maple syrup, and honey
Pasquariello groups these liquid sweeteners together, as they may seem as though they’re healthy enough given the antioxidants and micronutrients they contain (including calcium, thiamin, potassium, and copper). “That said, none are a healthier swap for something like fruit, nor could they be considered ‘nutritious’ on their own,” Pasquariello explains. “They’re still sugar and made of the same components as high fructose corn syrup, white sugar, or brown sugar, just in slightly different proportions.”
Pasquariello also mentions that agave is thought to be healthier since it has a lower GI than conventional sugar, but again cautions that this should be taken with a grain of salt since GI is an imperfect measure. Moreover, she explains that agave mostly consists of fructose, “whereas other sweeteners like white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey contain more glucose, and sweeteners like coconut sugar, molasses, brown sugar, and maple syrup contain more sucrose.” In spite of this, Pasquariello advises against prizing agave as a healthier form of sugar.
Sugar considerations aside, Beaucejour notes that when consumed locally, honey can “do wonders” for seasonal allergies. Manuka honey in particular is also highly antibacterial and antimicrobial, as well as potentially beneficial for gut health. That said, a teaspoon of it will still pack four grams of sugar, so you’ll still want to limit your intake.
The bottom line
Simply put, the only “healthy” sugar the dietitians sign off on is that found in whole fruit, as they’ll also pack fiber and antioxidants. But as far as added sugars and sweeteners go, one type won’t be more beneficial than the next. “Overall, granulated versus liquid types of sugar don’t really matter. Once consumed, your GI system can’t distinguish the type of sugar you just ate. It all gets metabolized into simple sugars (monosaccharides) and used as immediate fuel for cells or stored as glycogen for later use,” Pasquariello says. “Sugars we add to our food—no matter the kind or type—should be consumed mindfully and in moderation,” adds Beaucejour. “Too much of any kind of added sugar can lead to tooth decay, inflammation, and other adverse effects.”
Simply put, the only “healthy” sugar the dietitians sign off on is that found in whole fruit, as they’ll also pack fiber and antioxidants. But as far as added sugars and sweeteners go, one type won’t be more beneficial than the next.
Moreover, Pasquariello calls out a troubling fact about sweeteners that are purported to be healthier than conventional options. “Often, the individuals and ‘studies’ that talk about the ‘benefits’ of these sugar alternatives are funded by companies that would stand to gain from folks consuming more of them,” she says.
With that in mind, Pasquariello recommends keeping an eye out for disclaimers and being selective about your source of nutrition education; ideally, you’ll get your facts—whether sweet or sobering—straight from a dietitian.