NUTRITION: Amount matters more than type of sugar
Is agave nectar or maple syrup healthier than table sugar or corn syrup? The simple answer is, sweeteners are all the same. They are essentially all the same because all types of sugar can be converted to glucose within the digestive system. Most of the cells in our body use glucose for energy, especially our brain. If we don't have enough glucose in our blood stream, our bodies can convert other sugars, protein and even fat into glucose through a process call gluconeogenesis. It is import to understand the different types of sugars so we can understand what types of sugar different sweeteners contain.
There are many other types of sugar than just glucose. Fructose is known as the fruit sugar, and galactose is the sugar in milk. Fructose is sweeter than glucose, which is sweeter than galactose. These types of sugars can combine to create even more structures. Sucrose is glucose plus fructose. Lactose is glucose plus galactose. Maltose is glucose plus glucose.
When we consume glucose, it is absorbed into our bloodstream, where insulin is needed to help the glucose get into the cells. The cells then use the glucose for energy. If there is excess glucose in the bloodstream, it can be stored as glycogen (energy storage) in the muscles or it can be converted to lipids in fat tissue. Galactose is absorbed and quickly converted to glucose. When we consume fructose, it is absorbed into our bloodstream but is then taken to the liver for processing. In the liver, it can be converted to glucose or lipids.
Because fructose is processed differently in the body, I am often asked if fruits that contain fructose should be avoided, and the answer is absolutely not (unless you have an aversion to fructose). Fruits contain many vitamins, minerals and fiber. When compared to added sweeteners, fruit contains significantly less fructose.
It is difficult to assess how much sugar the typical American is consuming, but studies show that in 1900, the average person was consuming about 112 grams of total sugar per day. By 2009, that number had more than doubled to 227 grams per day. A lot of our sugar consumption is coming from added sugars, which are sweeteners added to food. These include sugar, honey, corn syrup and molasses. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that fewer than 10 percent of our daily calorie intake should come from added sugar. If you consume 2000 calories per day, you should not consume more than 50 grams of added sugar. However, the American Heart Association recommends that men should not consume more than 36 grams of added sugar per day and women and children should consume no more than 25 grams per day.
You may have noticed some changes to the nutrition facts label on your favorite food products. One of the most noticeable changes to the label is the sugar content. The current nutrition label does not differentiate between naturally occurring sugars, such as lactose in milk or fructose in fruit, and added sugars. The new nutrition label will list total sugars and make the distinction of how much of total sugars are added. The bottom line is that it is not the type of sweetener but the amount that matters. Try to reduce added sugars and enjoy naturally occurring sugars in whole foods such as fruit and dairy.
Honey: 44 percentage glucose; 56 percentage fructose (varies by type)
Agave nectar: 15 percentage glucose; 85 percentage fructose
White sugar: 50 percentage glucose; 50 percentage fructose (100 percent is in the form of sucrose)
High fructose corn syrup: 45 percentage glucose; 55 percentage fructose
Corn syrup: 100 percentage glucose
Maple syrup: 49 percentage glucose; 51 percentage fructose (95 percent is in the form of sucrose)
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Honey (1 tbsp): 64 calories; 7.5 grams glucose; 8.6 grams fructose
Apple (1 small): 52 calories; 2.4 grams glucose; 5.9 grams fructose
Red pepper (1 small): 26 calories; 2.3 grams glucose; 1.9 grams fructose
Corn (about ⅔ cup): 81 calories; 3.4 grams glucose; 1.9 grams fructose
High fructose corn syrup (1 tbsp): 53 calories; 6.5 grams glucose; 7.9 grams fructose
White table sugar (1 tbsp): 46 calories; 6 grams glucose; 6 grams fructose
Brenda Schwerdt, RDN, LD, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke’s hospital. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.