Gimme Some Sugar (Part 1)

Did someone say sugar?  

In my opinion, sugar basically comes in two forms: 1) The sweet, nonfattening kind that you get from kissing a baby’s fat cheeks and thighs, and 2) everything else.  This blog is going to discuss the calorie-laden kind that we actually eat, and is the nemesis of diabetics and anyone trying to eat healthy.

If I asked you to name a food that contains sugar, I’m sure cakes, cookies, ice cream, candy, pies, and donuts readily spring to mind.  But sugar is also found in foods that one night not think of, such as ketchup, barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and pasta, and can be hidden sources of unwanted calories.  Calories are units of energy that the body uses for fuel, and everything we eat or drink has calories (except for water). 

Let’s face it: Sweetness is a part of life. Along with salty, sour, bitter, and umami, sweet is one of the five flavors that we often eat.  In this blog I will help you make wise, informed, and healthy choices about the sweet things you eat. 

Glycemic Index (GI)

Before we take a closer look at each type of sweetener, let’s explain something called the gylcemic index.  The glycemic index, a number from zero to 100, indicates how quickly and how high a food raises the blood sugar after it is eaten. The closer the GI is to 100, the worse that food is for your blood sugar.  

It is normal for blood sugar to rise after a meal.  For both people with and without diabetes, when the body processes food, sugars enter the bloodstream.  That sugar can be used immediately or stored in the liver or muscles until it is needed at a later time.  It can also be stored in fat tissue.

Foods that are high in simple sugars, like candy or breakfast cereals, will have a high GI, because they cause sudden and high spikes in the blood sugar.  

Now, let’s take a look at the different kinds of sugar that are available and how to make the best choices to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Sugar by any other name…

White granulated refined sugar: the most commonly used sugar.  Made from sugar cane or sugar beets, it is the most processed and is not vegan because animal bone char is used to make it white.

Cane sugar: made from sugar cane, which is used to make molasses and brown sugar.

Turbinado sugar: also known as “raw” sugar (think: those little brown packets you see in the sugar bowls in restaurants).  It gets its brown color from the molasses in the sugar cane that it comes from and is less refined or processed than white sugar but still should be used in moderation. 

Coconut sugar: made from coconut palm sap.  Contains minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium, but is still high in calories like regular sugar is.

Maple syrup: made from maple tree sap, and is graded as either A or B.  Maps syrup contains minerals such as calcium, potassium. iron, and zinc, as well as antioxidants.  Antioxidants are natural substances that fight damage done to the body by daily insults such as pollution, radiation, and cigarette smoke.  Grade B is darker and tends to have more antioxidants than Grade A, but it is still high in sugar.

Molasses: made from sugar cane.  Contains calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium.  It too should be used in moderation. 

Agave nectar/syrup: made from the agave plant. The natural form contains beneficial plant fiber, but when it is processed that fiber gets stripped away.  

As you can see in the table, all types of sugars have GIs more than 50.  Agave is the only one that has a low GI of 17, which means that in the short term, it does not raise blood sugar very high and does not affect insulin levels very much. However, over time, high levels of fructose (the sugar that is left after agave is processed) overloads the liver, resulting in a harmful domino effect that turns that sugar into fat, damages blood vessels, raises bad cholesterol and blood fats (triglycerides), and contributes to excess belly fat and weight gain. 

But just like the other sweeteners, agave still needs to be used sparingly and in moderation, as do any sweeteners labeled “vegan”, “organic”, or “natural”.

Bottom line: ALL of these sweeteners need to be used in moderation and not on a daily basis if one is trying to eat a healthy diet most of the time.

In Part 2 we will look at other natural sweeteners, and in Part 3 we will examine several popular artificial sweeteners.

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