Nope. There's No Such Thing As "Healthy" Sugar

"Sugar is sugar, alas."

That's a quote from Dr. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

And she's much smarter than me.

Americans have convinced ourselves that there are two general kinds of sugar: healthy and unhealthy. We tell ourselves table sugar from a bag is unhealthy, while the sugar found in "healthy" alternatives (or even some fruit) are healthy. But the truth is, they're the same.

No matter what type of sugar you consume—whether it’s table sugar or maple syrup chock full of "vitamins" and "minerals"—your blood sugar goes up. "Minerals don’t counter calories or hormones," Dr. Nestle said in an interview.

To further understand why "sugar is sugar," we have to know what sugar is in the first place. What we commonly refer to as table sugar is actually sucrose, a compound composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. Most alternative sweeteners contain some ratio of glucose and fructose, which trigger key reactions in your body. 

"Healthy" Alternatives

And while the good Dr. knows food science, I know a thing or two about marketing. Our belief in healthy sugar is in large part due to really well-crafted marketing.

Perhaps you've seen one (or all) of the following sugars being treated as "healthy" sugar alternatives in your grocery store:

  • Agave nectar
  • Cane sugar
  • Coconut palm sugar
  • Maple syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw honey
  • Raw sugar

But here's the 3-pointed truth:

  1. "Healthy" sugars still contain fructose and glucose, just like table sugar.
  2. Your body can't tell the difference between "healthy" sugars and table sugar.
  3. "Healthy" sugars can still lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other metabolic disorders.

Why the picture of grapes?

I use the grapes—a fruit I absolutely love, by the way—as an example. Grapes are particularly high in sugar—containing roughly 14 grams of sugar per 3 oz. serving. (Was your initial reaction to say "But it's healthy sugar"?) And as we've learned, sugar is sugar. Even if it's naturally-occurring sugar.

Fructose, or "fruit sugar," is metabolized differently, since the liver does most of the metabolizing and your insulin levels don’t spike quite as much as when you ingest glucose (this is due to the lower glycemic index of fructose). That can make fructose sound like glucose’s better half, but it’s not true: insulin triggers the hormonal response that tells your brain you’re full. Fructose doesn’t elicit this reaction, so it’s easier to overeat.

Am I opposed to fruit? Not at all. I recommend frequently consuming fruit that is low in sugar. Remembering that in a macro-nutrition framework, fruit is a carbohydrate. Fruit isn't some magical food group of its own (food pyramid be damned) that gets a carte blanche pass as healthy.

Low-Sugar Fruits

Some of my favorites include:

  1. Avocado (yes, they're a fruit)
  2. Blackberries
  3. Blueberries
  4. Boysenberries
  5. Cranberries
  6. Grapefruit
  7. Kiwi
  8. Raspberries
  9. Strawberries
  10. Olives (yes, they're a fruit)

So... what now?

Start tracking and minimizing your daily sugar intake—no matter where it comes from.

Need help with an overall nutrition plan? I've got you covered.