This article originally appeared on VICE US.
They lurk in the comments section of every baked good recipe that’s ever been published: The Sugar Alternative Humble-Braggers.
Kelly H. wants you to know that she made these pumpkin chocolate chip cookies with agave syrup instead of brown sugar—and her husband didn’t even notice! The folks at Bryce’s office thought his brownie bars were even better when he subbed in Manuka honey for the granulated stuff! And Jessica just has to ask if you can make this vegan banana bread with turbinado, or coconut sugar, or evaporated cane—anything less refined than white or brown sugar.
Sugar has emerged as the latest scapegoat in our ongoing search for a dietary silver bullet, an outcropping of “clean eating” movements popularised by celebs and lifestyle Instagrammers and even news outlets. (Plenty of different nutrients have been targeted in the past—not that long ago, we were cutting fat out of everything.)
There’s nothing wrong with doing a little experimenting in the kitchen, sure. And most of those natural alternatives are pretty undetectable in a cookie, yes. But are any of the unrefined sugars that are touted for their health benefits—raw honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, date sugar, coconut sugar, agave, even molasses—really better for you than good old-fashioned granulated sugar?
Let’s start with the basics: Are natural sugars healthier than refined ones?
To keep it short, and uh, sweet: The answer, no matter which nutrition expert you talk to, is a resounding “nope.”
“Sugar…it is sugar,” says Zhaoping Li, director at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “It doesn’t matter if it’s granular, cane sugar, or sugar from other plants in their concentrated forms.”
“Calorie-wise, they’re all about the same. Nutrition-wise, they’re all about the same,” adds Audra Wilson, a bariatric dietitian in the Surgical Weight Loss Center at Delnor Hospital. “There are minor differences, but I think labelling any sweetener a ‘healthy’ alternative is quite a misnomer.”
“Any added sugar is added sugar,” says New-Jersey-based medical nutrition therapist Lauren Harris-Pincus. “When the American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of added sugar a day—nine a day for men—they mean, ‘I don’t care where that comes from.’”
Harris-Pincus notes that when we’re talking about the amount of sugar we should be adding to anything daily, we’re talking in terms of teaspoons. (And if you’re subbing in natural sugar as a weight-loss tactic, that's...not a thing.)
The “natural sugar” label can confuse consumers into believing they can have an unlimited or far-less limited amount of those sweeteners, Li says, causing you to really gloop a ton of honey on your morning oatmeal and send your sugar intake through the roof.
But what about all the processing that white sugar goes through? Isn't that bad?
“Natural” sugars probably do lose a tiny bit of their nutrition in the refining process, says medical nutrition consultant Susan Raatz, a former USDA research nutritionist. That would be worth talking about—if, she says, that unrefined sugar was even the slightest bit nutrient-dense to begin with, which it isn’t.
“We’re not talking about a green bean here,” Raatz says. She points to her work on a USDA study published in the Journal of Nutrition in which participants were given either white sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, or raw honey—about a 20-oz. soda’s worth per day. “There was absolutely no difference,” she says. “The bottom line is: It’s not good for you.”
At least honey is all-natural and contains antioxidants, right? And agave too?
Some studies have suggested raw honey might have antioxidant benefits, Wilson says, but there hasn’t been enough research to confirm that yet. “It might have some,” Raatz says. “Again, compared to a half cup of beets? Probably not all that much.”
Same with the accepted wisdom that local, raw honey can help with allergies—none of this has been borne out by enough research to make it fact, but the theory comes from immunology (that giving you a little of something you’re allergic to can help you build up your immunity towards it). The bottom line, bee-wise: Any health benefits are probably going to be minimal at best.
As for agave? “Agave’s really got nothing special in it whatsoever,” Harris-Pincus says. In fact, it’s actually super high in fructose, which can be “unfriendly to the liver.” Though again, in the amount that you should be consuming, it’s not going to be hugely detrimental to your health.
Okay, but shouldn't I use coconut sugar and agave if I want a sweetener that won't spike my blood sugar?
Coconut sugar and agave do have a lower glycemic index, which means your blood sugar doesn’t shoot up after eating them like it does other sugars. But according to Wilson, while lower GI foods are theoretically beneficial—especially for diabetics—it gets difficult to determine whether the GI matters as much when you’re eating sugar along with, or in, any other food. Proteins and fats also moderate blood sugar, so it’s unclear if a lower GI sugar really affects anything. “I guess it could be considered an argument for coconut sugar or agave over table sugar, honey or syrup—but no one just drinks agave nectar straight,.” Wilson explains. That's to say, while coconut sugar and agave have a lower GI, it's really not that much of a benefit given that your blood sugar will be similarly modulated by the effects of the other things you're eating with the sweetener.
Plus, “just because things have a lower glycemic index doesn’t make them healthier,” she says. “You really have to look at the whole picture. And the whole picture should involve you limiting sugar-sweetened everything, no matter if it’s coconut sugar, agave, honey, syrup, or cane sugar. It shouldn’t be a major part of your diet.”
So if natural sugars aren’t superior to refined sugar, why are there so many kinds on the supermarket shelves?
Wilson says there are some positives to our current sugar obsession. It means people are reading labels and trying to make healthier choices, and in turn, it means manufacturers are addressing those concerns. But when it comes to America’s obesity epidemic, she says there isn’t any one problem: All foods fit in a healthy diet, and “trying to solve all the health ills of our country by using coconut sugar is not necessarily helpful.”
“I hate to bum people out,” she says. “But I don’t think sensationalising nutrition is the best thing to do. It should be about nourishing yourself and fostering these positive relationships with food rather than finding ‘superfoods’ that are saving us from evil.”
“Here’s what I usually tell patients—if you’re going to use sugar, it doesn’t matter what form you like,” Li adds. “That can be table sugar, cane sugar, honey. You just need to be mindful. Keep your guard up; just use what you need.”