Although sugar has been seriously demonized in the modern health movement, this article is here to demystify sweeteners and debunk the notion that all sweeteners are bad. We will explore what sugar is, what makes a sweetener healthy or unhealthy, how to choose the healthiest sweetener, as well as how to use sugar mindfully to optimize health, performance, and generally enjoy your life!
Sweet, Sweet, Sugar
Sweet tastes create a pleasure response that is hard-wired into the human brain. The mouth pleasure of sweet foods paired with their ability to alleviate stress and even reduce symptoms of pain and depression make it very difficult for most people to control their sugar intake.
Despite their aforementioned psychological benefits, the key with sugary foods is indeed mindfulness and moderation. Over-consumption, especially of the wrong kinds of sugar, comes with a whole host of health problems including obesity, cardiovascular disease, skin issues, and more.
What Is Sugar?
Simply put, sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates. Although sugar is found naturally in foods that humans have been consuming since the dawn of time, modern foods often contain refined added sugars that are anything but natural. These processed sugars, especially when over-consumed, can lead to a number of long-term health disorders.
Sugar comes in a few forms, namely sucrose, fructose, and glucose. Sucrose is the scientific name for table sugar, which is made up of fructose and glucose. Glucose and fructose are the sugars found in foods ranging from fruits and vegetables to dairy, grains, and processed foods.
Although all three are considered ‘sugar’, their chemical structures vary wildly, and the way that your body digests and metabolizes them dictates how they affect your well-being. Understanding the difference between types of sugars and their impacts on the body is imperative to incorporating sweetness into your life without harming your health.
Is All Sugar Harmful?
In terms of health benefits, sugar can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ depending on where it is derived from, how it was processed, and how much is consumed. When sugar from unhealthy sources is eaten in excess, it can definitely lead to negative health effects such as metabolic disorders and weight gain. On the other hand, healthy forms of sugar, when consumed intelligently and at the right times, can be incorporated into a balanced diet, and even used to optimize athletic performance, recovery, and prevent a plateau on a low-carb diet.
Not All Sweeteners Are Created Equal
The quality and type of sugar you incorporate into your diet will have a profoundly different impact on your body. Whether or not a specific source of sugar is healthy depends on where it comes from and how it was processed, as well as its nutritional profile, fructose to glucose ratios, glycemic index, and its favorable (or unfavorable) health effects.
What Makes a Sweetener Unhealthy?
Glucose and fructose are both monosaccharides, the building blocks of carbohydrates, and they are found naturally in whole foods like fruit, honey, and starchy vegetables. Although they can contain varying degrees of fructose and glucose, all whole-foods naturally contain a combination of the two sugars.
Glucose and fructose are also found in processed foods, but often in their refined, isolated forms (like high-fructose corn syrup, which is a highly concentrated fructose derived from corn).
These highly-processed, isolated versions of sugar are non-existent in whole foods and are typically associated with health issues. For example, excess pure fructose consumption is linked to serious health issues such as dyslipidemia, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, and even type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, these highly-processed sugars lose much of their nutritional density, which means you are left with all the calories and few (to none) of the nutritional benefits of natural sweeteners. This is the case when we compare refined white sugar and coconut sugar, both of which are indeed processed sugars, but the degree of processing yields a product that has a vastly different impact on the body. Coconut sugar has a glycemic index nearly half that of white sugar (35 vs. 65) and is loaded with minerals and vitamins lost in the processing of white sugar. This means the resulting physiological response of refined sugar is certainly different than coconut sugar, including blood sugar spikes, energy crashes, mood, and negative effects on body composition.
In other words, your best bet is to avoid heavily processed sugars that are void of beneficial nutrients and are more likely to have negative health effects.
What Makes a Sweetener Healthy?
In general, healthier sweetener choices are very close to (or are still in) their natural form. Minimally processed, whole-food sugar sources contain many, if not all, of the natural minerals and phytonutrients that make for nutrient-dense foods. This also has a dramatic impact on the glycemic index, as we see in coconut sugar compared to white sugar.
By preserving nutrients, these sugars become more than a simple macronutrient. Vitamins and minerals are considered essential nutrients and perform literally hundreds of roles in the body. From healing wounds to boosting the immune system, to converting food into energy and repairing cellular damage – opting for nutrient-dense sugars has a wide range of positive benefits on your whole-body health, without the negative impacts of refined sugar.
Some of The Healthiest Sweeteners
Fruit has been demonized by the low-carb and even Paleo movement with the “sugar is sugar” mentality, when in reality refined sweeteners and fruit have a completely different metabolic impact on the body. The fiber and water content in fruit increases satiety and can slow the insulin response. Studies of ancestral cultures like the Kuna demonstrate their high amounts of fruit consumption alongside elevated health markers and lean body composition. The fructose found in whole fruit, which is often picked apart by anti-fruit advocates, has not been found to have any detrimental impact on health and is actually associated with improved insulin markers and a decreased rate of obesity and diabetes.
Stevia has gotten a full endorsement from some players in the health industry and has copped some heat from others. Factoring in both sides of the debate, it seems that stevia may not only be harmless in small doses but possibly even beneficial. The key is moderation because preliminary studies suggest that having a sweet taste with almost no influx of calories (stevia contains almost none) may actually cause an insulin response. However, in moderation, the satisfaction of sweetness without the caloric intake may actually improve blood sugar control in diabetics and promote a natural moderation of sweet foods.
Honey: The Best Natural Sweetener?
Honey has a unique metabolic effect on the body that is far different than refined sugars, despite its high fructose content. Raw honey contains enzymes and other proteins, trace minerals, B vitamins, antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, flavonoids, and other polyphenols.
Studies show that the consumption of honey is not associated with the same metabolic effects as sugar, and may actually have ‘obesity protective’ effects. One human study showed that supplementing with three to five tablespoons of honey per day increases serum antioxidant levels (including vitamin C and glutathione reductase), and another study highlighted that the same dose of honey lowered plasma prostaglandin levels by 48-63 percent after only 15 days.
The key with honey is to only use real honey, because studies have demonstrated that artificial ‘honey’ has the complete opposite effect on the body, including raising triglycerides and LDL cholesterol. Artificial honey is a cheap, honey-tasting substitute made from various ingredients including corn syrup, sugar, and artificial flavors. This honey impostor is commonly found on grocery store shelves and in restaurants, so it’s important to read labels. The healthiest source of honey that still contains beneficial enzymes and nutrients is ideally organic, raw, and unpasteurized.
Since honey is sweeter than sugar, you can also use less in recipes to get the same sweet taste. For these reasons, we at Kion believe that real honey is one of the best natural sweeteners you can find. That’s why we opted to sweeten the Kion Bar with organic honey. This high-fat, moderate-protein, and low(er)-carbohydrate energy bar manages to harness the delicious sweetness and nutritional density of honey, while still remaining an overall low-glycemic fuel source. Read more about why we chose honey as the sweetener of our clean energy bar in this Kion article.
But honey, fruit, and stevia aren’t the only healthy, natural, and nutrient-dense sweeteners. Other options include:
- Coconut sugar
- Maple syrup
- Blackstrap molasses
- Monk fruit (potentially)
Responsible Ways to Consume Healthy Sweeteners
Picking a healthy sugar source is only half the battle: It also matters when and how you consume it. Here are some of the smartest ways to incorporate sugar into your life that will not only benefit your taste buds but also your health and performance.
Sparingly And In Moderation
The hardcore anti-sugar dogma that is sweeping the health community is extreme, and these forms of strict dieting can be problematic for some individuals. No-carb extremes can often result in yo-yo dieting, where deprivation can quickly slip into a sugar binge. Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, there are reasons to consider mindfully incorporating a moderate amount of healthy sweeteners into your life.
A responsible amount of sweetener would depend on your level of activity and lifestyle, as well as your goals. Someone who is more active can typically take in more sugar, as they’re depleting glycogen stores through frequent physical activity. As a general guideline, the American Heart Association recommends staying under 100 calories per day of sugar for women (six teaspoons, 20 grams) and 150 calories per day for men (nine teaspoons, 36 grams)
To find your ‘sweet’ spot (pun intended), consistently check in with your energy levels and cravings. Intense sugar cravings, energy spikes and crashes, weight gain, and acne generally means too much sugar is being consumed. If you’re concerned, you can test your own blood sugar with a blood glucose monitor, or work with a doctor to check metabolic markers such as fasting glucose and HbA1c.
Replenishing Glycogen After Exercise
Glycogen is a form of glucose that is stored in your liver and muscles. This reserve energy is depleted throughout the day simply by living and rapidly depleted when you exercise vigorously. When glycogen stores are depleted, exercise becomes more difficult as fatigue sets in.
Sugar is one of the quickest ways to replenish glycogen stores, and consuming sugar when glycogen is low will actually not spike blood sugar dramatically because the sugar actually has somewhere to go. Incorporating sweeteners into your diet post-workout is a way to harness the power of sugar without over-saturating your blood with glucose and causing an insulin response.
Supporting Carb Refeeds and Diet Variation
Although low-carb diets are all the rage, newer evidence suggests that long-term, strict low-carb diets tend to lose efficacy and can even be harmful.
For the same reason that you want to cross-train, incorporating diet variation can prevent any plateau in keto or low-carb dieting. Incorporating more carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) into your diet in a mindful way can prevent “keto stalling” and ensure progression towards body composition and health goals.
Diet variation can be executed in multiple different ways. Common variations include:
- Daily, weekly, or monthly carbohydrate refeeds, depending on your individual activity levels, health status, and goals. For women following a lower-carb diet, a monthly refeed where you spend an entire week eating more carbohydrates can work very well during the week of the menstrual cycle, as the body is more efficient at metabolizing glucose.
- Finally, a seasonal variation is probably the most ancestrally relevant, whereby winters are spent lower carb, and summers (where there is an abundance of fruit) is higher carb. The Mbuti pygmies of the Congo are a great example of this and obtain up to 80% of their calories from honey for two months of the year when honey is naturally available to them.
Who Should Be Careful With Sugar?
Despite having just made a case for sugar and how it fits into a healthy diet, there are situations when sugar consumption (even from healthy sources) should be kept to a minimum. Individuals with the following health conditions may need to avoid or limit sugar, or work with a qualified health professional to determine their personal limits:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- Kidney damage
- Fatty liver disease
- Skin infections or issues
Although sugar has gotten a bad rap in modern times, all sweeteners aren’t necessarily the same and can have drastically different impacts in the body. When used intelligently, sugar can actually be a dietary tool for healthy individuals to improve athletic performance, sustain the benefits of a long-term low carb diet, and most importantly, live an enjoyable, well-balanced life. The key is choosing your healthy sweetener wisely and consuming it in moderation at the appropriate times.
At Kion, we believe in biochemical individuality. What dietary strategies work for you may not work for someone else. How our bodies respond to food depends on our genetics, activity levels, gender, health status, stress levels, and much more. The only way to know if a diet works for you is to try, test, and evaluate!