Few ingredients have as bad of a rap as added sugars, and with good reason. Though they’re often used to enhance the sweetness of foods, added sugars are anything but a treat for your health and waistline. Consuming more than the recommended amount of added sugars is linked with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.
Daily Sugar Intake
Even though we know the sweet stuff isn’t good for us, most of us seem to eat too much sugar. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the average American takes in more than 22 teaspoons of sugar per day, which is too much for most of us. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans say to limit your added sugar intake to no more than 10 percent of your total calories for the day. That’s about 12 teaspoons if you consume 2,000 calories per day.
Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are added to processed foods, like cakes and cookies, and drinks, such as sports drinks and sodas. They come with calories, but contain little to no vitamins and minerals. (Added sugars are different from naturally occurring sugars in fruit and milk because the food sources in which they are found provide nutrients.) But does the specific type of added sugar matter for your health? On an ingredient label, sugar can go by more than 50 names. You may wonder if some are superior to others. Are natural forms of added sugars, like honey, a healthier choice?
Sugar comes in many forms. It’s found naturally in many plants, especially sugar cane and sugar beets, and then it’s refined into sugar we can consume. The most commonly used refined sugar is white table sugar or sucrose. It’s added to enhance the flavor and texture of foods and to increase shelf-life. At about 15 calories per teaspoon, sucrose consists of two simpler sugars bound together: glucose and fructose. Most forms of sugars, even those added sugars labeled as “natural”, have both fructose and glucose in varying amounts.
For those looking to satisfy their sweet tooth with sweeteners from natural sources, many options are available on grocery store shelves. Here are the basics on some popular natural alternatives to table sugar:
Honey: Honey is an ingredient in many dressings and marinades, and it’s often used to sweeten hot tea. Bees make this sweet substance using the nectar of flowers. There are over 300 types of honey found in the U.S. The flavor and color of honey vary depending on the type of flower that was used to make it. Honey is primarily composed of the same two basic units as table sugar: glucose and fructose. While honey provides nutrients that you don’t find in table sugar, particularly antioxidants, it comes in at a higher caloric content, with 21 calories per teaspoon. Also, know that you shouldn’t give honey to children younger than 1 year of age. This is because it may contain bacteria that cause infant botulism.
Agave syrup: Agave syrup is a highly processed, amber-colored syrup. It’s made by treating nectar of the agave plant, the same plant that’s used to create tequila. A popular vegan substitute for honey, agave syrup is often used in liquids since it dissolves more easily than honey. It is made up of about 90 percent fructose. Agave syrup contains calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium, but only in trace amounts. Agave syrup is 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, but it also has nearly 1.5 times as many calories. It comes in at 20 calories per teaspoon.
Maple syrup: A longtime breakfast staple, this 100 percent natural syrup is often poured over waffles, pancakes and French toast. Maple syrup is made from boiling down the sap of maple trees. It has a distinct flavor, and contains a bit more minerals per serving than table sugar. Maple syrup is made up of equal parts glucose and fructose. It has 18 calories per teaspoon.
Molasses: Molasses is a thick, brown liquid sweetener often used in cooking and baking. It comes from the sugar making process. Sugar cane or beets are crushed, and a juice is extracted. Then the juice is boiled down, and sugar crystals form and are removed from the liquid. Molasses is what’s left after the sugar crystals have been removed. The boiling process may be done several times to make different types of molasses. The more times it’s done, the darker the molasses. Molasses has trace amounts of some vitamins and minerals, but it isn’t typically consumed in large enough quantities to provide a significant nutrient contribution. Molasses is composed of glucose and fructose. It contains about 19 calories per teaspoon.
Coconut sugar: This trendy newer sugar is made by boiling down the nectar of coconut plant flowers. Coconut sugar doesn’t taste like coconut, but it’s described as having a nutty flavor. It can be a good substitute for brown sugar in recipes. From a nutritional standpoint, much of coconut sugar is identical to table sugar. It is made up of about 70 to 80 percent sucrose and has the same number of calories as table sugar, with 15 calories per teaspoon.
The Take-Home Message
If you want to use a natural form of added sugar, know that there are no significant health benefits to consuming one type of sugar over the other, even if it is marketed as “natural.” Added sugar in any form is a source of added calories. Each natural sweetener has about 15 to 21 calories per teaspoon, so pick one based on taste and how well it works in a recipe. Just be mindful to limit your added sugar intake to less than 10 percent of your total calories per day.
Taking in too much sugar can be unhealthy, no matter what type you use. It doesn’t make a difference if the sugar is agave syrup in your green smoothie, maple syrup in your oatmeal or table sugar in your homemade chocolate chip cookies. At the end of the day, consuming too much added sugar, even in the form of a natural added sugar, can lead to health consequences, such as weight gain, obesity and heart disease.
Amy Magill, MA, RD, LDN writes for Walgreens, where you can find a variety of vitamins to supplement your diet. She enjoys providing tips on how to look for healthy ingredients in order to create nutritious eating habits.