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Is Sugar Really As Bad As We’ve Been Led To Believe?

A sweet tooth isn’t usually considered a good thing. Scarfing down handfuls of M&Ms? Acceptable on Halloween maybe, but other than that…not so much. Heading to the bakery to pick out a cake with the thickest layer of frosting? Your taste buds might thank you, but you’re not doing your health any favors. Sugar is a temptress that, over the years, has become the villain of the modern health movement. But not all sweeteners are bad for you; some can offer health benefits like energy, essential vitamins, minerals, and more.

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Keeping The Definition Of Sugar Short And Sweet  

Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, and it comes in a  few forms, namely sucrose, fructose, and glucose. Sucrose is the scientific name for table sugar, which is made up of fructose and glucose, the sugars found in everything from fruits and vegetables to dairy and grains, and processed foods. Many modern foods often contain refined, processed sugars that are anything but natural.

Sucrose, fructose, and glucose are all considered ‘sugar,’ however, their chemical structures vary, and the way that your body digests and metabolizes each of them dictates how they affect your well-being. The manner in which sugar impacts your body and your health depends on its derivation, how it’s processed, and the amount consumed. Overconsumption of sugar from unhealthy sources can lead to negative health impacts such as metabolic issues and weight gain. Healthier forms of sugar, consumed in moderation and at the right times, can contribute to a balanced diet and can even support athletic performance and recovery.

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Sucrose And Glucose And Fructose, Oh My

A healthy relationship with sugary foods begins with two words: mindfulness and moderation. Overeating the wrong kinds of sugar can be linked to a whole host of health problems related to weight management, heart health, skin issues, and more.

Glucose and fructose, both monosaccharides, are the building blocks of carbohydrates, and are usually found in whole natural foods like starchy vegetables, fruit, and honey. All whole foods naturally contain a combination of these two sugars, which are also found in processed foods, but often in their refined, isolated forms such as  high-fructose corn syrup, which is a highly concentrated fructose from corn. The highly-processed and isolated versions of glucose and fructose are typically associated with health issues that include blood sugar management, high cholesterol levels, liver function, and more.

In addition, when these sugars are highly-processed they lose much of their nutritional value, which means you’re left with all of the calories and minimal health benefits, as is the case with refined white sugar vs. coconut sugar. Both of these are processed sugars, but it’s the degree of processing that creates products that have very different impacts on the body.

Coconut sugar has a glycemic index nearly half of that of white sugar (35 vs. 65); it also contains many minerals and vitamins that are lost during the processing of white sugar. And because coconut sugar has a fiber called inulin, blood sugar spikes are less likely after consuming this type of sugar. White sugar is stripped of much of its fiber, which means it doesn’t offer the same protective benefits of inulin found in coconut sugar.

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Healthy Sweeteners Like Fruit, Stevia, and Honey

Healthier sweeteners are very close to, or are still in, their natural form. In general, they’re minimally processed, whole food sugar sources that keep many of the natural minerals and nutrients intact, which can significantly  impact the glycemic index. Overall, nutrient-dense, healthy sugars support the immune system, convert food into energy, and help cells remain healthy. Natural sweeteners include maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, lucuma, coconut sugar, fruit, stevia, and honey.

The natural fructose in whole fruit is often derided by anti-fruit advocates, but has not been found to have a detrimental effect on health compared to more refined sugars. The fiber and water content in fruit increases feelings of fullness, which, in turn, slows the insulin response. Studies of ancestral cultures like the Kuna demonstrate how high levels of fruit consumption can lead to better health markers and leaner body compositions.

Some research has shown that stevia, which contains almost zero calories, may not only be virtually harmless in small doses but also have beneficial effects. Preliminary studies suggest that experiencing a sweet taste without consuming any calories may actually cause an insulin response; however, in moderation, the sweetness of stevia without the caloric intake may actually improve blood sugar control and promote a healthier relationship with sweet foods.

Honey has a unique metabolic effect on the body that differs significantly from refined sugars, despite its high fructose content. Raw honey contains proteins, enzymes, B vitamins, trace minerals, prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants, flavonoids, and other polyphenols. Studies have shown that consuming honey doesn’t have the same metabolic effects as consuming table sugar, and may actually have ‘obesity protective’ effects. One human study showed that ingesting three to five tablespoons of honey daily increases antioxidant levels and the presence of vitamin C. Honey is sweeter than sugar, which means you can use less in recipes to get the same sweetness effect.

It’s important to note that reaping the benefits of honey comes from using real honey, not artificial honey products, which can have deleterious effects on the body, including raising triglycerides and LDL cholesterol levels. Artificial honey is often made from ingredients such as corn syrup, white table sugar, and artificial flavors.

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