Written by: Megan Hardi, November 2020
Table sugar is a very common natural sweetener that is added to your favorite cup of coffee or tea every morning. Chemically, table sugar is known as Sucrose, which is a disaccharide molecule made from glucose and fructose monosaccharides (simple sugar units).
Monosaccharides make up all types of Carbohydrates (CHOs) found in foods we eat everyday, whether it be rice, grains, legumes, vegetables or soft drinks, candies, and cookies! (1). There are three main monosaccharide units: Glucose, Fructose, and Galactose. Interestingly, our body utilizes glucose most efficiently as an energy source. When you eat food high in CHOs, our bodies use glucose to carry out day-to-day activities and if there is an excess, glucose is stored as glycogen stores for future use.
Fun Fact: Glucose gives you half of all the energy your muscles and body tissues need! The other half comes from fat. While your brain can only use glucose as an energy source! (1)
The Health Effects of Sugar
Because sugar is ubiquitous in foods, their intake is inevitable. Consuming moderate amounts of sugar can increase the pleasure of a meal because of the sweet sensations they elicit. However, excess amounts of sugar can harm the body because the intake of some sugars can supply energy but contribute to nutrient deficiencies. Moreover, as each body cell always requires glucose, their limited capacity to store glucose means that blood sugar levels must be controlled.
Amazingly, our bodies are adapted to help maintain blood sugar levels. If blood sugar level is low, we eat foods to replenish glucose concentrations, or our body breaks down glycogen stores. If high, cells take in glucose to remove them from the blood. Thus, the intake of foods containing glucose highly affects blood glucose levels. Unfortunately, when blood sugar levels are not maintained well, this results in health conditions like diabetes or hypoglycemia.
Fun Fact: In 2013-2014, 3.0 million Canadians are reported to have diabetes (2).
Individuals with diabetes must adapt by changing lifestyle patterns, like making dietary changes and increase exercise. Interestingly, dietary CHOs are not the cause of diabetes but rather, the body’s response to changes in blood glucose levels. Different foods have different effects on blood glucose levels and this can be measured through a glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how fast glucose is absorbed by body cells after ingestion.
Sugar Alternatives: What’s the Sweetest Choice?
Due to the different glycemic index of different foods, individuals with diabetes tend to limit the intake of foods that causes a high glycemic index. Moreover, the search for sugar alternatives is very popular and is widely marketed to target individuals who seek ‘healthier’ alternatives.
Some individuals may prefer using natural sugars in their diet. Coconut sugar is an example of a recent popular choice as natural sweeteners. This sugar is derived from the coconut tree and is claimed to healthier as it has a lower glycemic index than sugar (3). After extraction, coconut sugar is sold as brown and granulated. Interestingly, coconut sugar was found to have the highest Fructose concentration when compared to other organic sugar syrups like agave syrup, rice syrup, maple syrup, etc (4).
Because of all the monosaccharides, fructose elicits the sweetest taste, coconut sugar may have the sweetest taste compared to other organic syrups and so, can be used in small concentrations. This is beneficial because they do not contribute much to daily calorie count; they are approximately 4.0kcal/g. Moreover, coconut sugar is found to have a relatively low glycemic index (GI = 31-46) (5).
Another example of a natural sweetener advertised as a healthier alternative is Maple Syrup. This syrup is extracted from the sap of Maple trees and is processed to form a thick syrup (6). Nutritionally, Maple syrup can provide some essential nutrients such as Calcium, Potassium, Iron and Zinc, however, more than that, it is packed with sugar (6).
Like Coconut sugar, Maple sugar does have a lower glycemic index (GI = 54) compared to regular white sugar (GI =65) (6). This implies they raise blood glucose levels slower but does not imply they are particularly healthier than regular white sugar as like white sugar, Maple sugar is mainly comprised of sucrose.
While both Coconut sugar and Maple syrup may be advertised as the ‘healthier’ alternative, both sweeteners are comprised of the same monosaccharides that make up table sugar. Thus, switching your normal white sugar to these substitutes may be beneficial in some aspects but all added sugar intake should still be kept at a minimum. On top of that, depending on which added sugar is used, they can change the way food tastes! Natural sugars, like Coconut sugar and Maple syrup, may be natural but this does not always been healthier because sugar is sugar!
Overall, any type of natural sweetener is comprised of the same chemical units and may vary in their effects on the glycemic index, indicating they do fundamentally affect our blood sugar levels. Keep added sugars to a minimum, but if you do need something to satisfy your cravings, try our Bean Bark snacks today!!
Nutr Health tb
Canada, P. H. (2020, August 17). Government of Canada. Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/diabetes-canada-highlights-chronic-disease-surveillance-system.html
Gunnars, K. (2018, May 25). Coconut Sugar - A Healthy Sugar Alternative or a Big, Fat Lie? Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/coconut-sugar
Ponder, A., & Hallmann, E. (2018). Determination of selected elements of the nutritional value and bioactive compounds content in organic sugar syrups. Journal of Research and Applications in Agricultural Engineering, 63(3).
Srikaeo, K., & Thongta, R. (2015). Effects of sugarcane, palm sugar, coconut sugar and sorbitol on starch digestibility and physicochemical properties of wheat based foods. International Food Research Journal, 22(3).
Gunnars, K. (2018, November 15). Maple Syrup: Healthy or Unhealthy? Retrieved November 28, 2020, from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/maple-syrup#grades