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Refined vs. Unrefined Sugar DEBUNKED!

Have you ever looked at a recipe that calls for honey or maple syrup and thought to yourself, "oh that must be healthy!" You aren't alone! It's a common misconception to think some sugar is better for you than others, especially with all of the diet-influencer misinformation swirling around the internet. I'm here to cut the BS and really get down into the science behind sugar:

Differences between refined and unrefined sugars

Refined, unrefined, coconut, honey, I'm sure you can probably name at least 5 forms of sugar that are tossed around in baking recipes posted on the internet. Not only is this overwhelming, but it can be misleading to what each type of sugar is actually considered. Let me break it down for you:

Unrefined sugars: the "natural" or less-processed sugars than their refined counterparts. Therefore, they retain more natural nutrients because they haven't been through the refining process. Think honey, maple s syrup, coconut sugar, or agave nectar.

Refined sugars: the marketed "bad" sugars- the traditional white sugar that is used in commercial baked goods, candies, drinks, etc. Refined sugar is harvested from sugar beets and sugar cane plants and gets refined to remove all impurities and plant parts leaving just. pure. sucrose.

The science of sucrose

Understanding the makeup of these sweeteners really help to understand how similar they actually are. Only single sugar molecules can be absorbed into the bloodstream, so any sucrose sugar is broken down during digestion. This means that any sugar source ultimately has to end up as a combination of the same two simple sugars (glucose and fructose) to be digested. When looking at all of your common sweeteners, they make up a mix of these:

  • Table sugar: plain, white sugar is 100% sucrose- this means that when you digest it to your body has to break it down into one glucose and fructose to be digested

  • Maple syrup: from looking at the sugar content, maple syrup is identical to table sugar. Yes, you heard that right. More than 90% of the sugar molecules in maple syrup are sucrose. The rest are free floating glucose and fructose molecules (the sucrose ends up getting broken down into these too)

  • Coconut sugar: also mainly sucrose! With a little free-floating glucose and fructose, too. Same as maple syrup, same as table sugar.

  • Honey: the main difference between honey and the rest of the sweeteners, is that instead of being bound as sucrose, almost all of the sugar molecules in honey are individual, free floating fructose and glucose.

Chemically speaking, sugar is sugar. Most are made of sucrose, and they all get digested and absorbed in the blood stream as glucose and fructose. Although unrefined sugars are thought of as "better" than unrefined, they all get digested as the same thing.

What does "refined sugar free" even mean?

Lots of recipe curators love to use #refinedsugarfree when posting a recipe for things that typically add lots of sugar. This is misleading, because although unrefined foods are generally thought of as being healthier than refined foods (whole-grain bread is more nutritious than white bread), this isn't the same for sugars. Nutritionally and calorically, sugar is the same, no matter how refined it is. The crazy part, is that "refined sugar free" doesn't even necessarily mean sugar-free, either. A "refined sugar free" cookie could still have 20 grams of sugar, just from coconut sugar instead of the white, deemed "bad", sugar. From a health standpoint, they're not much different, and let's get into why.

Is unrefined sugar healthier?

Although the following statements are true, let's debunk why it may not make a difference in your health goals.

Unrefined sugars are natural: but natural doesn't automatically mean healthy! As we learned before, although they may be unrefined or straight-from-nature, we already learned that sugar gets processed as sugar. No matter the source, your body processes it as glucose and fructose, and gets stored as such.

Unrefined sugars have a lower glycemic index: if you're not familiar, the glycemic index is the measure of how quickly food causes blood sugar levels to rise. The higher the glycemic index rank, the more a food will spike your blood sugar. Technically, unrefined sugars have a lower glycemic index. However, a problem with the glycemic index is that it doesn't take into account how much of each sugar you'd be eating. The sugar from eating an entire watermelon is obviously higher than a small spoonful of honey in your tea, even though honey has a higher glycemic index than watermelon. If you take a look at the glycemic load (the glycemic index + the portion size) the picture becomes more accurate. The glycemic load from various sugars has very similar effect on blood sugar levels.

Unrefined sugars retain more minerals: true, again. Unrefined sugars are less processed, thus they keep more minerals, antioxidants, and nutrients that are removed through the extensive refining process. However, the amount of nutrients in unrefined sugar is so small that any health benefit would require excess sugar (and calorie) consumption. For example, take iron. A tablespoon of maple syrup has three times the amount of iron as table sugar. A tablespoon of maple syrup has three times the amount of iron as table sugar. A tablespoon of honey has 14 times the amount of iron as table sugar. A tablespoon of honey has 14 times the amount of iron as table sugar. Seems like a lot. However, in the big picture, a tablespoon of honey has 0.09mg of the 18mg daily recommended iron value. If you wanted to meet your daily iron requirement by consuming honey, you'd need to eat 13 cups of it, or 50 cups of maple syrup. Basically, any health benefit you'd be getting would be completely negated by all of the sugar and calories you'd be consuming.

Sugar is sugar, whether it's in an expensive bottle of artisanal honey or from the $1.50 bag of white sugar from the grocery store. Even though some are touted as "healthier" than others, they all get broken down into the same compounds and don't add that much to your overall health besides calories. I hope this was informative for your next baking adventure! I'd love to know:

Do you have a sweet tooth?

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