are natural sugars good for you?

whole cane sugar, grey

This is a picture of whole cane sugar, adapted from a photo provided to Wikipedia by Fritz Lasinger. First thing to notice is that it looks NOTHING like that "Sugar in the Raw" stuff, which is highly processed stuff, not much different than "brown sugar" which is white sugar with some molasses sprayed on.

IMO, there are three considerations with sugar in addition to the processing issue: glucose content, fructose content and practical use.

Beginning with the processing issue, most white sugar is made from sugar beets, most of which are GMO. White cane sugar is not GMO, whether organic or not, as there isn't any GMO sugar cane yet. So you can avoid GMOs just by buying cane sugar.

In processing the white sugar, a side product is molasses, which is basically all the minerals from the raw sugar. Most of your standard brown sugars are highly processed white sugar with some molasses sprayed on for color and flavor.

The primary processing issue is that the minerals are removed. However, I do not feel this is very significant, as anyone who is getting significant mineral content from their sugar intake has way bigger problems to worry about than their mineral intake. I do feel there's a much more important reason to use natural sugars, which I'll get to when I discuss practical use below.

There are a whole bunch of less-processed brown sugars: jaggery, rapadura, turbinado, demarara, muscovadao - the names usually indicating where the original processing was developed. These are generally made by centrifuging and/or evaporating the pressed sugar cane sap. Some are sold as granular sugars and some as cakes.

There are also sugars made from starting materials other than sugar beets or sugar cane, such as coconut sugar, palm sugar and maple sugar, most of which are sold with minimal processing as well.

The stuff I get is linked to the right; I do buy it from Amazon. It is the cheapest natural sugar that hubby likes, which is my primary criteria.

In addition to granular sugars, there are some cooking applications where syrups are useful. The processed answer used to be corn syrup, which was starch broken down to it's glucose constituents. Now, the primary processed syrup is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which has lots of fructose too. And if you want even more fructose, you can buy agave syrup, which is mistakenly sold as a "health" food.

Pretty much anything sold as a syrup that isn't naturally sweet has been processed in a factory; brown rice syrup being an example. Sounds all healthy cause it's made from a whole grain. Like agave, it's "low glycemic", which means high fructose.

Whatever! You can extract cyanide "naturally" from almonds and peaches, doesn't mean I want to add it to my coffee.

On the other hand, molasses is a processed product, but is relatively healthy stuff; especially blackstrap molasses, which has the least sugar, but the most minerals.

The less processed syrups are maple syrup and honey. Honey has some potential benefits beyond just a few minerals, but I'll save that for a future post.

glucose and fructose content

If you want sweet, you're pretty much looking at these two monosaccharides. Sucrose is a disaccharide made of one glucose and one fructose molecule; in the presence of acid (like in your stomach), it breaks down into it's constituents. Lactose, the sugar in milk, has a third monosaccharide, but for the most part we're talking about glucose and fructose when we're talking sugar.

What glucose does is raise your blood glucose (bG) levels. Glucose provided to the cells eventually turns into ATP, the primary form of cellular energy. If your bG is high, what is supposed to happen is that your liver removes some, stores it as glycogen, and then when bG is low, provides it to keep your cells energized. This process involves a bunch of hormones: insulin, cortisol, glucagon and amylin and is also dependent on your liver being capable of sensing and reacting to bG properly (which it does not if you are a T2 diabetic or hypoglycemic).

Though I am explaining to you how glucose fuels cells, no one needs sugar. First, all carbohydrates turn into monosaccharides anyways. Second, even if you eat no carbohydrates, if bG goes low and the liver has no storage glycogen, it kicks into a process called gluconeogenesis, in which it produces glucose from protein (about 50% efficiency) or fat (about 10% efficiency). And finally, many of the body's tissues will use the constituents of fat to produce ATP directly, so you don't really need a whole heck of a lot of carbohydrate if you've got sufficient fat in your diet.

As a diabetic, I know way more about bG management than I ever wanted to and am intimately familiar with the effects various foods have on my bG. Though glucose is a perfectly natural and even necessary molecule, I have a hard time not despising it sometimes since it causes me such trouble!

But that is nothing compared to how I feel about fructose. My bG meter won't detect fructose, and this is often used as a selling point. In fact, they used to sell purified fructose to diabetics because it wouldn't raise bG. Similarly, they sell agave syrup and other "low glycemic" syrups today to those who are health conscious, but not very educated; having a low GI doesn't make something good for you (cyanide has a low GI too).

Fructose sounds all healthy, cause it's from fruit, right? The problem with fructose is that it is a 5-ring sugar, so the body cannot convert it to glucose, which is a 6-ring sugar. So what happens is the liver converts it instead to fat - dumps it into your bloodstream (raising serum triglycerides) and it gets stored in adipose tissue (your personal fat storage). Except if you eat a lot of fructose, the liver can't keep up, so it just stores it around itself, resulting in the condition known as fatty liver, which interferes with the liver's ability to function. Indeed, fructose-induced fatty liver may be one of the causes of T2 diabetes in the first place.

Fruit is not healthy because it contains fructose, but in spite of it. Fruit has relatively low levels of fructose compared to much of the crap we eat as part of the Standard American Diet (the acronym is so apropos), but because it has a lot of useful micronutrients: vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that benefit us. Historically, it was primarily available in fall, when putting on fat for the winter was a good idea; this is a significantly less good idea now that we can store food in refrigerators instead of needing to store it on our bodies.

Though I buy the muscovado for Steve, as a diabetic who doesn't particularly need to add either glucose or fructose to her body in any significant amounts, I primarily use stevia myself. And though I'm showing an Amazon ad to illustrate, I buy it locally as it's cheaper for me.

Stevia is an herb that is naturally sweet without any sugar of any sort. As an herb, stevia is green. I grow it in my herb garden, but don't use it for much beyond eating fresh with mints while gardening.

You can also buy it as a dried herb, and that is probably the healthiest thing to do. But the herb makes my coffee taste funny, as it rather tastes like green. So I buy the more processed white stuff, which is called an "extract".

As word of stevia has spread, marketers have jumped on the bandwagon and sell all sorts of crap as stevia. You can buy "stevia" with artificial sweeteners, with sugar alcohols that will give you the runs (and xylitol is not any more "natural" than HFCS either), with bulking agents to make it more measurable, with flavors.

I recommend you just buy either the herb or the plain extract, as you don't need all this other crap.

practical use

The primary thing you can do for your health is not eat much sugar at all. Natural sugars are not "good" for you and I sometimes think folks in the real food movement forget that. The argument is made that the minerals help your body "process" the sugar properly; well, if you don't eat it, you don't have to process it! Problem solved.

I've already admitted I buy muscovado for hubby. I also buy local raw honey, a good grade B maple syrup, and blackstrap molasses. But I use stevia primarily cause I'm diabetic and don't need sugar. For me, it being a processed food is less bad than the glucose and fructose content.

Hubby claims not to like stevia, but he eats it all the time. ;) He eats it in whipped cream, in cole slaw, in chocolate syrup. If the food itself is strong tasting, you really can't tell if stevia is in there instead of a sugar.

But he uses muscovado in his coffee. And my baked beans have molasses, my homemade jams have honey, my favorite toast topping includes maple syrup, and many of my baked goods have muscovado.

Since I've already dissed the mineral content as not very useful, why do I do this?

Because you can't eat piles of natural sugars. The taste is too strong.

White sugar and HFCS taste like nothing except sweet. It's easy for people to add another teaspoon of white sugar to their coffee; try sweetening your coffee with molasses and see how much you want.

When I met hubby, he put 2 teaspoons of white sugar in a regular sized mug of coffee; now he puts 1/2 tsp muscovado in a double-sized cup: his sugar intake just in coffee is 1/4 what it was.

It's like this about everything. I have baked chocolate chip cookies from the Joy of Cooking recipe my whole life. When we switched to muscovado, I cut the amount of sugar in half, and they were too rich to eat. Steve could eat 2 or 3 cookies at most, instead of the entire first tray.

And that is why natural sugar is better for you, cause you eat less.

this cookbook I'm hawking

I needed to post this now because I am selling Naturally Sweetened Treats e-cookbook. This is not like the Winter Soups e-cookbook, full of recipes you can eat every day. They are treats, not staples.

When I first found myself married to a sugar-aholic, I baked weekly: pumpkin pies, banana nut bread, butterscotch zucchini cake, apple betty. It's not like he was gonna quit sweets cause I disapproved, he's perfectly capable of walking in a convenience store and buying a cake or pie or donut.

So I figured baking let me make sure there was at least some fruit or vegetable in his junk food, and also allowed me to sneakily reduce the amount of sugar over time.

About the time he told me I'd ruined him, cause he bought a donut and it was too sweet and he couldn't eat it, I figured I'd accomplished changing his sweet tooth enough to back off a bit. I only bake sweet stuff about once a month now.

And when sweets are craved and there's nothing baked around, there's always the fruit bowl. ;)

I still prefer doing my own sweets, for the same reasons, I can make sure there's fruit, vegetable or at least some good dairy in there and I can control the amount of sugar. But this is not health food.

Because baking is a lot more work than buying crap at the grocery, I need my baking to be worthwhile. Similarly, my ability to eat treats is limited due to diabetes, I want a "cheat" to be worth it. I'm not eating some lame diet stuff that tastes like crap. My pumpkin pie is YUMMY, and that is the most primary consideration when I make treats.

And that is why you want this e-cookbook, folks. When you do make treats, though they won't be truly healthy, you can make them less unhealthy and DELICIOUS and worth the effort.

There's about a week left on the sale, when you can get it for less than $4; after that it reverts to it's normal price of $9.97. So hop on it!

Naturally Sweetened Treats

Click the banner to get this smorgasbord of scrumptious sweets!

Community Cookbooks

I've been honored to work with a generous group of real food bloggers:

Community Cookbooks
  • our leader specializing in esprit de corps: Pat of Heal Thyself,
  • our second-in-command, who stayed sane through collating about a bazillion pieces of data, Aubrey of Homegrown and Healthy,
  • our graphic artist, in charge of making our book gorgeous and generously donating banners galore, Vivian of The Real Food Guide,
  • our formatting "star", putting links where no links have gone before, Starlene of GAPS Diet Journey,

and all the recipe contributors:


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