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The Sugar Wars – Natural vs Refined

In keeping with my sugar theme, I wanted to present you with which naturally added sugars are best for you if you wanted to consume some, but it seems that the research is all over the place.  There is some research that says adding honey, maple syrup, date syrup, coconut sugar can have benefits because they contain nutrients and health benefits.  There is also research stating that these sugars score lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, which means they won’t cause your insulin levels to spike.  But, ultimately they are still added sugars that we don’t want to consume too much of.  Added sugars come from a variety of sources and go by many different names, yet they are all a source of extra calories and are metabolized by the body in a similar way.  Additionally, even though natural sugars may have some health benefits you are much better off eating whole foods with the same nutrients.  In short, it’s seems it is just best to limit all sources of added sugar.

In some exciting news the new FDA guidelines for added sugars went into effect this year.  All labels must include (companies have to the end of the year to comply) an added sugars line to help us distinguish the difference between naturally occurring sugar (in fruit and dairy) and added sugars.  This will hopefully help lower the amount of sugars in packaged products.  Again when possible this is why it is better to eat mostly natural foods.

In case you are interested below is some of the research I found:

Sugar Background: 

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose and uses for energy. However, the body uses natural and refined sugar differently, which affects your overall health.

Natural sugars are found in fruit as fructose and in dairy products, such as milk and cheese, as lactose. These foods contain essential nutrients that keep the body healthy and help prevent disease. Natural sources of sugar are digested slower and help you feel full for longer. It also helps keep your metabolism stable.

The body breaks down refined sugar rapidly, which causes insulin and blood sugar levels to skyrocket. Since it is digested quickly, you don’t feel full after you’re done eating, regardless of how much you ate. 

Sugar Differences

Refined white sugar is pure sucrose. It can be produced from either sugar cane or sugar beets, but by the time it has been refined to a white crystal, the two are chemically identical.

Molasses is what’s leftover from the sugar refining process. It’s everything that gets taken out when you refine sugar cane into white sugar.

Brown sugar is simply refined white sugar with a bit of molasses added back into it. In fact, if you ever run out of brown sugar, you can make your own by adding 1 tablespoon of molasses to 1 cup of sugar. For dark brown sugar, add 2 tablespoons molasses.

Evaporated cane juice (such as Florida Crystals) is, as the name implies, made from sugar cane, never sugar beets. It’s slightly less refined and so it retains a bit more color and flavor from the sugar cane. The tan-colored crystals have a slight caramel or molasses aroma. If the crystals are large and coarse, it’s also known as Demerara sugar.

Turbinado or “raw” sugar, is also a dehydrated cane juice. It retains a bit more of the natural “impurities,” so it’s even a little darker and the molasses aroma and flavor is a bit more pronounced.

Organic cane sugar simply means that the sugar cane was grown organically, without synthetic herbicides or pesticides. It may be lightly refined or almost pure white.  Not only will the sugar itself be free of residues from these chemicals, but choosing organic products also reduces the overall pesticide load on the environment.


Date syrup is not just sugar — it’s actually a food made from a fruit. Date syrup is both low on the glycemic index due to its high fiber content and lower in fructose than most sweeteners. Moreover, date syrup is packed with nutrients like magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. It also has an antioxidant level that’s the same as maca or raspberries, making it the most nutritionally dense sweetener out there. The potassium in date syrup actually helps your body slowly absorb and regulate sugar in the bloodstream.

Raw honey, especially raw local honey, is much like dates in that it’s a real food—and also the nectar of the gods. In addition to sugar, honey has amino acids, electrolytes and a bounty of antioxidants. It has been touted for it natural antiseptic properties, and ability to alleviate allergy symptoms. While honey does contain higher fructose levels, it’s relatively low on the glycemic index, making it one of the best sugar substitutes of the bunch. One study found that replacing sugar with honey could actually lower blood sugar levels and prevent weight gain or aid in weight loss.

Real maple syrup has all the markers of a better sugar alternative, including a low glycemic index score and a low fructose content. Sourced straight from trees, it’s minimally processed and packed with even more minerals and antioxidants than honey, including manganese, riboflavin, zinc and magnesium. It’s also lower calorie than most sweeteners. The only catch is that you must be cautious when buying maple syrup that the label says “100% maple syrup”—otherwise you’re likely getting corn syrup with “maple flavoring” (whatever that means).

Coconut Sugar – Boasting high amounts of potassium and electrolytes, coconut sugar, which comes from blossoms of the coconut tree, is the best replacement for white sugar in recipes, since it behaves similarly. However it’s still pretty processed and not as nutrient-dense as the others. The upside is that it contains inulin fiber, which has been shown to help slow the absorption of glucose to keep blood-sugar levels balanced. It’s probably one of the best substitutes for regular sugar in baked goods.

Blackstrap Molasses is rich in iron, potassium and calcium, blackstrap molasses is another one that’s nutritionally superior to many other sweeteners. One tablespoon has more iron than a 3-ounce serving of steak—more than 10 percent of the daily recommended intake. The by-product of refined white sugar, blackstrap molasses is the darkest grade and processed three times to remove as much sucrose as possible.

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