Is unrefined sugar healthier?
Refined sugar free is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment, popping up everywhere in both recipes and on products. I’ve had a few people ask me the question is unrefined sugar healthier than plain old sugar? When it comes to nutrition, unrefined, whole foods are generally more nutritionally dense than their more refined counterparts. But when it comes to sugar, it’s not quite as simple.
In the wellness world, refined sugar free or ‘no refined sugar’ comes with the assumption that this is somehow superior to refined sugar (which is the devil right?). Sugar will never be nutrient dense, but freaking out about sugar doesn’t necessarily help your health either!!
Here’s a look at what refined sugar free really means, and if unrefined sugar is healthier, and why some people feel like they simply cannot control themselves around sweet foods.
What exactly does refined sugar free mean?? Is ‘unrefined’ sugar healthier?
Generally, refined sugar free means it’s not white sugar, or another type of sugar that’s undergone refining – such as brown sugar.
It does not mean sugar free.
When we think of unrefined foods, we often associate this with a higher nutritional value – however this isn’t really the case with sugar. Unrefined less processed sugars do contain small amounts of vitamins and minerals, but unless you’re eating a whole lot of it, it’s not a significant source of nutritional value.
Some unrefined sugars, such as coconut sugar and honey have a lower glycemic index (GI)than white sugar. Glycemic index is a measurement of how quickly a food will raise blood sugar levels compared to glucose. A low GI food has a GI of 55 or less, a medium GI is between 56 and 69 and a high GI food has a GI of 70 or greater. A lower glycemic index means that the food is more slowly digested, causing a slower rise in blood glucose levels.
However, the issue with measuring GI is that it doesn’t take into account the AMOUNT of carbohydrate. For example, a watermelon has a high GI, but there is not a lot of carbohydrate in a slice of watermelon so it’s affects on blood sugar are not going to be huge. That’s where an alternative measure is useful – glycemic load. Glycemic load measures how quickly the food will increase blood sugar AND how much of that food you’ll be eating which gives a more accurate picture. So if we compare honey with sugar –
25g of honey has a glycemic load of 12 and 25g white sugar has a glycemic load of 16 – both considered to have a medium glycemic load.
To understand a bit more about refined and unrefined sugars it helps to understand a little bit about sugar chemistry. I promise it’s not boring 🙂
A bit of sugar chemistry:
When we think of sugar, we think of the white crystals you buy at the supermarket. But sugars are a natural component of many foods and there are different types of sugars. There are three types of single sugars – glucose, fructose and galactose. Then there are three types of double sugars (disaccharides) – maltose (two glucose molecules bonded together), sucrose (glucose and fructose bonded together) and lactose (glucose and galactose bonded together).
What exactly are the different types of sugars?
Sugar – the stuff you buy at the supermarket (white, brown raw) is called sucrose and is made up of the sugars glucose and fructose bonded together.
Maple syrup – Maple syrup is a mixture of glucose, sucrose and a small amount of free fructose. It contains manganese, zinc as well as small amounts of potassium, calcium and magnesium.
Coconut sugar – Coconut sugar is taken from the crystallized nectar of the coconut palm tree’s flowers. It contains a range of vitamins and minerals in small amounts. Coconut sugar is mainly sucrose, with a little glucose and fructose. Coconut sugar digests more slowly than refined sugar, most likely because it contains a type of dietary fibre called inulin.
Rice malt syrup: The sugars in rice malt syrup are 45 per cent maltose (two glucose units bonded together) 52 per cent maltotriose (3 glucose units bonded together) plus 3 per cent glucose. Maltose is one of natures least common sugars. It’s free of fructose, but it has a very high glycemic index, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar.
So while unrefined sugars may seem more nutritious, they are actually all still sugars and they eventually end up the same way in the body as glucose and or fructose. The amount of vitamins and minerals they contain is not significant.
Secondly, our bodies still process added unrefined sugars in a very similar way to your plain old cane sugar – and as far as the World Health Organisation is concerned, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup and fruit juice concentrate are all still sugars.
Unrefined sugars are more natural right?
Well they are less processed if that’s what you mean by more natural. But plain old sugar comes from sugar cane which is a plant – and also pretty natural. Yes it is more processed, but it’s still by definition, natural.
Here’s how sugar is made:
Sugar is made from the sugar cane plant. It’s chopped up and shredded into small pieces, then the cane pieces are fed through special roller mills designed to squeeze the sugary juice from the woody pieces of sugar cane stalk.
This juice is pumped into air tight pans and boiled under vacuum to evaporate off the water so sugar crystals form. This is then spun to seperate off the juice (which is molasses) and leaves raw sugar crystals That’s the raw sugar you buy at the supermarket.
The raw sugar is then mixed with a hot, sticky sugar syrup which softens the outside coating of the crystals. A thick brown sugar is then spun again in a centrifugal, and sprayed with hot water to wash the sugar crystals.
The raw sugar crystals are then dissolved in hot water to make a thick golden liquid sugar. This is strained and then milk of lime is mixed in and carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through. These react to create a chalk that absorbs any dissolved impurities so that they can be easily filtered out.
To make white sugar crystals, a carbon decolourising station absorbs the colour and it is sterilised using ultra violet light. The mix is then boiled and spun in a centrifugal again, and then dried with very dry air so that the white sugar is ready for packaging.
The leftover syrup is either used to refine more sugar, or is made into soft brown sugar, golden syrup and treacle. (Information from here)
Refined sugar free is ‘good’, refined sugar is ‘bad’ right??
Someone told me the other day that they feel like they’re allowed to eat sweet foods if they’re refined sugar free. They feel less guilty. Just so you know – no food should make you feel guilty!! The only time you probably should feel guilty is if you stole it. While sugar will never be a nutrient dense food it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy it. Food is allowed to be enjoyed simply because it tastes good! Healthy eating has room to enjoy the foods you love, it’s all about finding balance.
I think I’m addicted to sugar!!
If you feel like you simply cannot control yourself around sugary foods, the most likely cause is your relationship with food. While it can definitely feel like an addiction, it’s different to an addiction. When you have a ‘good’ food ‘bad’ food mentality, it makes sense to eat all of something now to get it out of the way so you can focus on being good again later.
Deprivation, restriction and guilt create a cycle of over-eating and feeling out of control around food. It looks a little like this.
Breaking this cycle by changing your food mindset changes how you feel around food. It might be hard to believe, but it’s works. Many people I’ve worked with report that sugary foods don’t have the same pull that they used to when they’re in a better headspace with food. There isn’t the drive to finish a whole packet of biscuits or eat a whole bag of lollies any more.
What does the World Health Organisation say about sugar?
Is unrefined sugar healthier than sugar according to The World Health Organisation? In short, No. The World Health Organisation talks about reducing our intake of ‘free sugars’. Free sugars are the sugar that is added to food and drink as well as the sugar found naturally in fruit juices, honeys and syrup. Refined vs unrefined sugar isn’t a part of the picture. It’s ‘free sugars’. What doesn’t count? Sugar found naturally in dairy products and fruit. When you eat fruit, the sugar comes packed with fibre and it also contains vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Dairy foods such as yoghurt and milk are also good sources of nutrition.
Personally I use honey and maple syrup because I like the taste. If I’m baking I also use plain old sugar sometimes too.
So is unrefined sugar healthier than refined sugar? In summary:
- Refined sugar free doesn’t mean it’s sugar free. As far as the World Health Organisation are concerned, refined sugar and sugar are all free sugars.
- Some unrefined sugars – including unrefined cane sugar contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals, but they’re not a significant source. Both unrefined and refined sugars are low in nutritional value.
- You shouldn’t feel guilty about eating ‘sugar’. Having stress and anxiety about food is not good for your health – and if sugar makes you feel this way, then it would be useful to do some work on your relationship with food.
- Sugar tastes good and you shouldn’t feel bad about enjoying food! Of course it’s useful to be mindful of nutrition but don’t freak out about sugar – that creates stress and anxiety which isn’t good for your health! I’m not saying to go out and buy a giant bag of lollies and eat the whole thing – it’s about finding balance.
- Finding balance between eating for health and eating for enjoyment is totally possible! If you’d like to get to this place, learning to eat intuitively can help. If you’d like to work with me on this, feel free to get in touch here.