The “Healthy Sugar” Myth

If you haven’t heard, sugar is the new smoking. We are eating way too much of it, in all kinds of places that we don’t expect, and it’s wreaking havoc on our health.

Once you know the detrimental effects of too much sugar the obvious next question is “what is a healthy sugar?” It’s a legitimate question and one that I get asked all the time. Because we all want a little sweetness in our lives and if  “healthy fats” and “healthy carbs” exist then certainly healthy sugars do too?

Well… when it comes to sugar, the answer isn’t as simple as swapping out highly refined vegetable oils for coconut oil to get the right kind of fats. Sweeteners like honey or maple syrup are often classified as “natural” or even “healthy”,  but at the end of the day they are still forms of sugar which means they have an effect on your blood sugar, hormones, and overall health.

How sugar is used by your body

Sugars are carbohydrates and carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. Carbohydrates will cause your blood sugar to rise and are found in just about everything you eat, with the exception of meat, eggs and pure fats. How quickly your blood sugar rises depends on how much fibre, fat or protein is also included in the food or meal that you are eating. This rise is measured on the Glycemic Index.

Consider a bar of chocolate and a sweet potato. Both are a source of carbohydrates, but while the chocolate contains carbs and not much else, the sweet potato is also high in fibre, has some protein in it and even a little bit of fat. Protein, fibre and fat will slow down how fast your body can metabolize carbohydrates and raise your blood sugar. Because the chocolate is mostly sugar, your body will be able to metabolize it right away, spiking your blood sugar and causing an insulin response.

Triggering that insulin response too often overtime leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, hormonal imbalances and other health issues.

The difference between “refined” and “natural” sweeteners

When most people talk about sugar they are referring to the highly refined white sugar that you find in the sugar bowl. This sugar has been highly processed and stripped of any fibre or nutrition, leaving you with pure carbohydrates. On the Glycemic Index white sugar scores 100. Brown sugar, cane sugar and specialty sugars like turbinado, demerara or sucanat are still all refined sugar – just processed a little differently!

The sweeteners often considered to be “natural” are things like maple syrup, honey, coconut sugar or brown rice syrup, which all fall around 50 or less on the Glycemic Index. They are not as highly refined as white sugar and therefore still contain some vitamins or minerals, as well as some fibre to help slow the absorption in your body.

However let’s be real – I wouldn’t consider any natural sweetener to be a good source of nutrients. Anything you can find in a sweetener you can find in a vegetable or fruit. Raw honey does contain a host of unique enzymes, phytonutrients and other nutritional benefits not found elsewhere but it’s still a sugar and doesn’t get a free pass to be consumed all the time!

A note about organic

The difference between regular and organic sugar doesn’t have anything to do with nutrition or how it’s used by your body. Anything that has been certified as organic has been grown and/or processed without synthetic pesticides, fertilizers or other additives.

Natural sugar is still sugar 

I am the last person who would ever tell you that you should have absolutely no sweets in your life, my point is any natural sweetener is still a sugar and should be treated as such. When I’m baking in my own kitchen I always reach for maple syrup or coconut sugar, but I also realize that you can still have too much of a good thing; too many naturally sweetened cookies is still too many cookies.

For more, download my free guide to natural sweeteners.

5 thoughts on “The “Healthy Sugar” Myth

  1. Uma says:

    Really helpful post, Amanda! I’ve been using a tiny bit of maple syrup on my oats these days and was actually thinking about this topic a few days ago.

    Will check out your guide to natural sweetners next 😉

    • amandalaird says:

      Thanks, Uma! Maple syrup and oats are a match made in heaven. Just make make sure to throw on a handful of walnuts or almonds, or even a schlop of nut butter to slow down the carbohydrate metabolism with a little bit of fat and protein. 🙂

  2. Whitney Ryan says:

    I love your realistic approach to sugars here. In a perfect world we would stick to all healthy food all the time…but we need some sweetness now and again!

    So reading tips like “throw some walnuts on oats and maple syrup” is really refreshing. That feels a lot more doable than cutting sugar completely.

    Do you have any preference for honey vs. maple syrup? I tend to use them both equally — wondering if one has benefits over the other?

    • amandalaird says:

      That’s a great question, Whitney! Raw, local honey does contain a lot of good stuff like anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties as well as a host of other phytonutrients but you’ve got to keep it raw. So if I’m baking I use maple syrup but for raw desserts or a little sweetness in some tea I use the honey!

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