If you asked the average person whether maple syrup is better for you than white refined sugar, they’d probably say yes. In fact, I would guess that you reading this would probably agree? But why is it believed to be healthier? And what is it believed to contain that makes it different from white sugar?
Would you believe me if I told you there’s negligible differences between them?
There seems to be a current obsession with being ‘refined-sugar free’. I’ll readily admit I fell for it myself for a while. But it’s important to learn from your mistakes (especially as a scientist), and hopefully you’ll be able to relate. Refined sugars include your standard white or brown sugars, caster sugar, all that sort of thing. Unrefined sugars are your maple syrups, agave nectar, and coconut sugar.
I’m a biochemist, so forgive me for indulging in a little (very simple) biochemistry over the next few paragraphs. You can’t understand what sugar is without a little biochemical terminology.
Let’s start with white refined sugar, which is essentially 100% sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide (di- = two, saccharide = sugar), which consists of one glucose and one fructose molecule joined together, like so:
Glucose is the fuel for every cell in your body, whereas fructose can only be used by certain organs. When you digest sucrose, the bond between the glucose and fructose is broken down very quickly, leaving these two monosaccharides (mono = one). Note the difference between the glucose and fructose molecules – glucose is a 6-membered ring, whereas fructose is a 5-membered ring. If you think back to GCSE biology, you’ll recognise glucose – C6H12O6 – from your basic respiration and photosynthesis equations.
What makes caster/white/brown sugar sweet and palatable is sucrose. What makes unrefined sugars so sweet is also – you guessed it – sucrose. Sure they have some extra micronutrients, a bit of fibre possibly, but they are predominantly made of sucrose, glucose and fructose. All those small amounts of micronutrients are not a good enough reason to eat them in large quantities, as you’re far better off getting those nutrients from other foods. Dates are another popular choice as a sugar replacement, but even then eating them in abundance is not recommended either, as they consist of almost two-thirds sugar, again mainly glucose and fructose.
Sucrose sucrose sucrose…
Just because these sugars are unrefined doesn’t change their chemical composition: sucrose is sucrose, and once that’s in your system and your digestive enzymes go at it, they couldn’t really care less what the source was.
No matter where your sucrose comes from, eating too much of it could potentially lead to a calorie surplus, and can contribute to overweight or obesity. And I’m sure we have all experienced how easily it is to overeat on sugary sweet things – they just taste so good! But please don’t think that just because your energy balls contain dates that they’re “healthy calories” and so don’t have the same effect, because they absolutely do.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) in the UK has recommended:
Free sugars should account for no more than 5% daily dietary energy intake.
The term free sugars is adopted, replacing the terms Non Milk Extrinsic Sugars (NMES) and added sugars. Free sugars are those added to food or those naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices, but exclude lactose in milk and milk products
Note: free sugars include syrups like maple syrup and agave syrup for a reason, and that reason is because they are chemically almost identical to caster sugar. All of the above consist of predominantly sucrose, glucose, and fructose, and contain little to no fibre.
The goal of this post isn’t to make you panic and never eat sweet things again. Being afraid of foods is not a healthy mindset to have, and a healthy diet is a balanced diet, which can easily include sweet things as a small part of it. Personally, I eat a little chocolate every day cause it keeps me sane, and there’s nothing wrong with that! The problem is that too much sugar, whatever the source, is not healthy. We need to be informed about what we’re eating, and with so many health gurus peddling things like maple syrups as healthy alternatives to sugar, we also need to cut through the BS and realise that just because something is “natural” or “unrefined” doesn’t make it inherently good for you. Your caster sugar probably came from cane sugar or beets, and those are natural too!