Sugar is a complex issue. It provides one of the three main tastes that humans love (the others being fat and salt), is our body's most basic ingredient for the production of energy, and yet popular nutrition suggests we are supposed to avoid it if we want to be "healthy".
Sugar is typically categorized as an "anti-nutrient" - a term meaning that something has no nutritional value itself and works negatively in the body interfering with nutrient absorption. Trans fat, for example, is another example of an anti-nutrient.
Sugar is also addictive on several levels. Click here for more information about sugar addiction.
Are All Types of Sugar Anti-Nutrients? The simple answer.... perhaps not. But read on before digging into a cream puff....
When sugar is referred to as an anti-nutrient and is blamed for weight gain and diabetes, the sugars in question are excessive amounts of refined white sugar and fructose - but there are many types of sugar.
Let's take a closer look at white sugar.
White sugar is typically cane sugar mixed with refined beet sugar. It is almost all sucrose which is a combination of glucose and fructose. Research tells us that white refined sucrose negatively affects blood sugar levels, is full of chemicals, is devoid of nutrients, interferes with essential fatty acid metabolism, negatively affects the immune system and negatively effects the liver. So yes, it has no nutritional value and it gets in the way of "good health"; it is, indeed, an anti-nutrient. But remember, we are talking about refined white sugar, not all types of sugar. Refined sugar is not a real, whole, good quality or natural food; it has been highly processed - stripped of all its original vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber.
There is some research suggesting that fructose might potentially damage the liver. If this is the case, then it is suspected that high sucrose sweeteners (sucrose is made up of fructose and glucose) and high fructose sweeteners (like agave syrup) might also be problematic. But, as always with nutritional research, we need to dig a little deeper. I have not found any studies that test the effect of a whole sweetener in the body, nor one that takes the effects of fructose on the entire body into account. Since no whole sweetener is pure fructose, and they all have vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients intact, it is reasonable to suspect that they are not as problematic as refined fructose. Agave nectar, which is about 70-80% fructose, as well as refined fructose (%100 fructose) should be avoided, however, honey (which is glucose and fructose in a 1:1 ratio) has been found to have a variety of positive effects on the body. Honey has been shown to nourish the liver, stabilize blood sugar, lower HBA1C and CRP levels in diabetics, and reduce insulin sensitivity. It seems that the glucose in the honey helps convert the fructose into glycogen. Excess fructose in the body without sufficient glucose results in increased fat storage.
We do know that whole sweeteners are more nutrient dense - so, though they should still be eaten in moderation, they do supply some nutritional value and are thus a better choice than refined white sugar.
YES! But let's call them sweeteners so we don't get confused. And let's not call them healthy, let's call them healthier.
When it comes to sweeteners, the importance is in how they are "packaged" by nature and thus how they are metabolized. Whole sweeteners, or natural sweeteners, have their vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients intact. These nutrients, along with the good bacteria in the gut, might slow down the digestion of the food so that blood sugar doesn't spike and the pancreas is not strained.
But remember, no studies have been done on the metabolism of whole sweeteners. Knowledge about the effects of whole sweeteners has been extrapolated from what we know about vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and bacteria.
It's also important to understand the place of fiber in the metabolism of sugar. Fiber slows down the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar. So, eating your whole sweeteners with whole grains is also important. I've come across only one cook book that explains how to use whole sweeteners and whole grain flours to create mouth watering desserts. "A Pastry Queen Goes Green" is a great read and is full of useful information and recipes for anyone interested in baking with whole foods.
Though whole sweeteners might be more nutrient dense, they, along with all foods, should be consumed in moderation.
While artificial sugar like aspartame and Ace-k, are low glycemic and low-calorie sweeteners, they are NOT healthy foods. In fact, let's be clear - they are NOT FOOD AT ALL.... they are CHEMICALS. That should be enough to put fake sugar in the "avoid" category. But since they are low calorie and low glycemic they remain popular, especially among those who are overweight and/or diabetic.