Is there such a thing as ‘healthy’ sugar?

Is there such a thing as ‘healthy’ sugar?

Is there such a thing as ‘healthy’ sugar?

As we stroll through supermarkets these days, there is usually a whole aisle devoted to ‘health food’ products, most of which contain ‘healthy’ sugar ... but is there such a thing as ‘healthy’ sugar?

The packets may be coloured in muted earth tones, and made of high quality paper or cardboard, rather than the garish, brightly coloured plastic wrappers that more traditional (and much cheaper!) sweet treats come in; they may make claims to be fair trade, health conscious, and good for the environment, but are they really any better for us?

For no matter what we call it or where it comes from – whether it is unrefined, all-natural, or even organic from the farmers’ markets – sugar is sugar, and there is no such thing as ‘healthy’ sugar.

Let’s look at the science behind that statement, devastating as it may be for some of us – it certainly was for me!

Since it has become public knowledge that sugar is bad for us – a truth which our bodies have always known – there have been calls for a tax on sugar to help pay for the escalating costs of treating diseases that are directly related to it, notably obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.[1] The consumption of sugar has also been linked with inflammation, ageing[2] and cancer.[3]

This has of course created a market for so-called ‘healthy’ sugar, both to encourage people to buy and eat foods containing it – as manufacturers know that if they plant sugar in the food, we will keep coming back for more – and to keep prices competitive by side-stepping any sugar tax.

What is ‘healthy’ sugar?

Sugars currently marketed as ‘healthy’ include (but are not limited to):

  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Coconut nectar
  • Fructose
  • All sugars made from fruits and or vegetables

The list goes on, but you get the gist... they are all natural, derived from plant products... but the thing is, so is sugar!

What is sugar?

The sugar that we call sugar comes from sugarcane (hence its name). It is sucrose, which is a molecule made up of two simple sugars, glucose and fructose, joined together. Refined or unrefined, all sugars contain the same molecules, either singly or in combination.

All plant starches are made up of many sugar molecules joined together. In their raw state, we don’t have the enzymes to break them down (as cows and other ruminants do), so they can pass through our gut relatively undigested, and they contribute to the fibre in our diet. But when they are heated or cooked (as they usually are when we process these foods), the bonds between the molecules are broken down, releasing simple, easily digestible and sweet sugars.

We all know this for ourselves, and use it to great effect in cooking. Onions become caramelised, apples become apple pie, pumpkins make a great pie too... even beetroot becomes sweet when we roast it, all because the process of cooking breaks the complex sugars into simple ones.

In truth, there is sugar in nearly every food we eat, no matter how ‘healthy’ we may think it is.

There is so much natural sugar in vegetables – especially starchy ones such as carrots, pumpkin, potato, sweet potato and corn – that we don’t need to add any more to our diet. Even peas and green beans have sugar in them! Fruit contains heaps of sugar, even the ‘sour’ ones like limes and lemons, as any diabetic will be able to tell you, for when they eat them, their blood sugar levels go up.

Do we really need to eat carbohydrates?

Even if we ate no sugar at all, our bodies can make it if they need it. We have within us a process called gluconeogenesis (meaning ‘making new sugar’) whereby we can convert other carbon-based substances to sugar if need be.[4]

This process uses more energy than if we just eat sugar, but we will not die if we don’t eat it. Very few of our organs rely only on glucose for energy. Even the brain can use other substances for energy production if need be.[5]

Why can’t we just eat as much sugar as we like?

If the body breaks foods down into sugar, and it can even make sugar, why can’t we just eat sugar?

We are designed to eat foods that need to be broken down for the sugar to be released. In this way, the body can regulate the amount of sugar in our blood and tissues, for optimal function and minimal harm. If we eat simple sugars, they are absorbed rapidly, causing a spike in our blood sugar, which causes a large release of insulin, which takes the sugar into our cells and causes our blood sugar level to drop, which has us reaching for . . . more sugar. These yo-yo-ing sugar levels affect our mood, energy levels, sleep, and cause long term problems with our health and wellbeing.

Is fructose better than glucose?

We think that fructose (fruit sugar) is better for us than glucose or sucrose, but is that really true?

When we eat glucose, there is a mechanism in our body for dealing with it and regulating our blood levels of it. When glucose is absorbed from the gut, the pancreas releases insulin, which takes the excess sugar from the blood and converts it into a storage molecule called glycogen. This can then be broken down later to release the sugar for use when energy is needed. But if we eat more sugar than we need, the excess is laid down as fat.

Fructose, or ‘fruit sugar,’ is metabolised differently from glucose. Glucose is metabolised throughout the body, particularly in muscles and fat, but fructose is metabolised almost entirely in the liver. Our insulin levels don't spike quite as much with fructose as when we eat glucose. This sounds good in theory, but insulin triggers the hormonal response that tells our brain we are full. Fructose doesn't elicit this reaction, so it's easier to overeat. If we eat more fructose than we need, the excess of this is stored as fat too.

Sugar makes you fat

Over the last few decades, we have been led to believe that fat makes you fat, and there has been a push for us to eat low-fat foods, in which the fat is largely replaced by sugar.

Interestingly, this has been paralleled by a rise in obesity, which was not even classified as a disease 50 years ago, and which has now reached epidemic proportions.[6] Studies indicate a correlation between the introduction and spread of fructose-enriched products, increased sugar consumption and the increased rate of obesity.[6]

Why does eating sugar, especially fructose, make you fat?

  • It is easier to eat and drink a lot of calories in foods filled with processed sugar, especially high-fructose corn syrup

  • Fructose makes food tastier, so we tend to eat more of it

  • Fructose does not stimulate insulin and leptin secretion, which are the hormones that tell our brains we are full, so we just keep on eating

  • Fructose does not suppress the secretion of ghrelin, which is the hormone that stimulates our appetite, so we still feel hungry after we eat it

Some sugars are even more sugary than sugar!

We think sugar is the sugariest sugar there is, but that is not true!

Pure glucose syrup contains 55.9 g of sugar per 100 ml (which is a lot of sugar), but maple syrup contains 79.2 g of sugars per 100 ml and honey a whopping 117.4 g of sugars per 100 ml. That is a super-concentrated sugar![7]

So what sugar should we eat?

If we are feeling the need for a quick sugar fix, what can we turn to?

There are fruits like apples that have been beautifully packaged by nature into edible pieces that contain water, vitamins and minerals that balance the effect of the sugar in our body when eaten as nature intended. But if we juice them, our bodies can be tricked into consuming large amounts of sugar that we would not actually be able to eat in one sitting if we ate them as separate pieces of fruit. The more that sweet food is processed – be it by juicing or by cooking or by mixing it with other sweet foods – the more sugar per volume it contains.

What does sugar really do to us?

We think we need sugar for energy, to keep going, to give ourselves a ‘treat’ or ‘reward’ or ‘time-out’. Sugar may indeed perk us up for a while, but when it wears off it tends to leave us feeling even more tired and flat than before. Even when it does have the desired effect, it actually makes us racy, running faster than our natural rhythm, and this interferes with us feeling what is truly going on, in us and in life, keeping us disconnected from ourselves and other people.

Have you noticed this in yourself?

This can prevent us from reading people and situations clearly, so that we are more likely to react and less likely to observe, understand and truly respond to what is happening. A life lived in reaction can be an exhausting way to live, which drains our energy and has us looking for . . . more sugar.

Is sugar really that bad for us?

Before you write this off as just another article about cutting down on sugar, here are some sobering stats that bring home the consequences of our current levels of sugar consumption:

  • Around 70 Australians a week have limbs amputated because of diabetes-related complications – that’s one person every two to three hours[8]

  • The number of diabetes-related amputations each week in England has now reached an all-time record high of 135, which is over 7,000 per year[9]

  • In 2010, about 73,000 non-traumatic lower-limb amputations were performed in adults aged 20 years or older with diagnosed diabetes in the US[10]

And it is not just about loss of limbs:

  • Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2010.[10] Rates of heart disease were 1.7 times higher, rates of heart attack were 1.8 times higher, and rates of stroke 1.5 times higher than in people without diabetes.

So next time you feel like a sugary fix, remember that it may not be as ‘harmless’ as you think, and consider whether this is truly what your body needs right now.

Instead of eating sugar, which will take you away from who you truly are – your exquisite sensitivity which is letting you know that something does not feel quite right in yourself and in your world – consider taking a moment to stop and let yourself feel how you really are, what is truly going on, and whether there is another way of dealing with what you are feeling . . .

A sugar craving, when used in this way, can be a great barometer for us, letting us know that something is not quite right – that we are tired because we have been pushing ourselves too hard, that we are feeling sad about something that is unresolved, that we are just feeling uncomfortable, for whatever reason – and inviting us to live in a way that is more caring and true for us.


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Filed under

SugarFood industrySugar alternativesInflammationSugar Free Diabetes

  • By Dr Anne Malatt, MBBS, MS, FRACS, FRANZCO Eye surgeon, wife, grandmother

    A woman with a wealth of worldly experience and a richness of lived wisdom, I live and work in a country town, love my work and the people I work with, and enjoy time with my family and friends, walking, reading and writing.

  • Photography: Matt Paul