If you're trying to get healthier or lose weight, it's important to separate the good info from the bad.
Sugar has a confusing reputation. Some say high-fructose corn syrup should be avoided, while touting alternatives like maple syrup, or raw sugar. Others argue that any kind of added sugar behaves basically the same way in your body. And then there are sodas and snacks full of alternative sweeteners that boast “zero sugar,” when it's not always clear that they're healthier.
So what’s the deal with sugar anyway? We dove into four common myths about the sweet stuff to set the record straight once and for all.
MYTH: All Sugar Should Be Avoided
It’s important to pinpoint the difference between two major types of sugars — added sugars and natural sugars. Natural sugars occur, well, naturally in your food—as fructose in fruit and as lactose in dairy products. Added sugars, which is what we’re talking about here, are ingredients that are added to foods and beverages during processing.
Consuming too many added sugars can increase your risk for heart disease, tooth decay, and weight gain. Natural sugars are less of a concern. Why? Well, first of all, it’s especially hard to overindulge in natural sugars—you have to eat a lot of fruit to do that, and then you're typically getting the benefits of the vitamins, minerals, and fiber in that fruit as well.
The World Health Organization and United States Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines recommend limiting added sugar to 10 percent of your daily calories. This ends up equating to about 50 grams or 12 ½ teaspoons for an adult and 25 grams or 6 ¼ teaspoon for a child per day.
At Cooking Light we support the idea that all food is acceptable in moderation for a healthy, fulfilling diet. We never suggest singling out certain foods or ingredients for elimination, and of course we believe the healthiest way to eat food is to cook it yourself—that way you are aware of exactly what has gone into it. So a little added sugar can do a lot in a recipe—like make that marinara sauce perfect.
MYTH: “Clean” Sugar Is Better for You
Sugars considered to be “clean” such as coconut sugar, maple syrup, agave, and honey are actually added sugars that have gotten a healthy reputation.
The truth is, when it comes to our bodies, sugar is sugar. It’s all the same.
Coconut sugar and maple syrup both have a glycemic index (measuring the rate at which a food affects your blood sugar levels) of 54, and honey clocks in at 58, so they definitely affect your blood sugar levels. (Table sugar, for comparison, has a glycemic index of 63.) Agave has been touted for being low on the glycemic index scale, but it's also very high in fructose. These alternatives can add flavor as well as sweetness to a meal—but don't make the mistake of thinking that you can use all you want just because they don't come from sugar cane. Another way to sweeten a meal is to add naturally sweet fruits and veggies in your cooking. To do that, check out this guide to naturally sweet foods.
MYTH: Artificial Sweeteners Are Better for You
You know what artificial sweeteners are: they come in pink or blue or yellow packets at coffee shops, and contain ingredients like aspartame, saccharin, and sucralose. And then there is the "natural" artificial sweetener stevia. You see them listed on cans of diet soda and snack foods.
Artificial sweeteners are totally calorie-free, don’t induce a response from your glycemic index, and for the most part they are hundreds of times sweeter than a spoonful of white sugar. Sounds great, right? Well, maybe not. The American Diabetes Association suggests consuming artificial sweeteners in moderation, because many products that use artificial sweeteners are higher in fat, have additional additives and stabilizers, risk gastrointestinal side effects, and contain and increased amounts of carbohydrates despite advertising claims. And there's some evidence that suggests that consuming them is linked to weight gain.
MYTH: Avoiding Added Sugar Means Never Eating Sweets
Even if you're avoiding sugar for a period of time, it doesn't mean that you'll never have a cookie again—that would be nuts. That being said, if you’re truly looking to cut down on your sugar intake you need to look beyond cakes and other sweets.
Added sugars are in 68 percent of packaged foods and drinks in the United States, including “healthy” foods like plant-based milks, nut butters, and stocks.
Sugar hides in savory products too, like ketchup and bacon. It’s often under an alias such as sorghum, juice concentrate, sucanat, and words that end is -ose. Always check packaging for unsweetened versions or read the nutrition label and ingredient list to ensure simple ingredients are used and the product is low in sugar.