A journalist from MediaWorks asked a great question during my talk there yesterday. I managed to give a brief (ish) answer then, but thought I would unpack the question "are different sweeteners like raw sugar actually any different/better than regular old table sugar?" Whilst writing I got a bit carried away so have written a blog post to provide a thorough answer so you can refer back to in the future.
Is Sugar Bad?
The first thing to get clear, sugar is not inherently ”bad” or unhealthy. If I had no sugar in my blood I’d be dead (even in ketosis), sugar in fruit is fine because we know fruit is health promoting, but sugar does contain calories (4 per gram - remember that) and we can over-consume on sugar. An important question to ask is where is this sugar from and what am I getting with it? (more on this later).
Is Sugar from Table Sugar the Same as Honey and Coconut Sugar?
Whether I consume 10g of sugar from table sugar, or 10g from honey, or 10g of sugar from dates I’m still consuming 10g and thus 40 calories (remember 4 calories per gram). Therefore speaking purely about the grams of sugar, there would be no significant difference in calories consumed and thus weight gain/loss between the sweeteners you use (with everything else remaining the same). Now if I add 100g of table sugar vs 100g of honey or maple syrup there is a slight difference in energy content because not all sweeteners are 100% sugar. Table sugar is, yip you guessed it, 100% (pretty much) sugar. Raw sugar really isn't any different in this department sitting around 99.5% sugar. Coconut sugar is similar, around the 90-95% sugar mark. Honey is around 80%, maple/golden syrup around 70-75% and dates around 65% sugar. What this tells us is, if we add 100g of table sugar to our cooking, we are adding around 400 calories (4 x 100), if I add 100g of golden syrup though I have added around 290 calories (golden syrup is 72% sugar, 72 x 4 = 290).
Now in the real world, we don’t add things to our cooking based just on the number of grams of sugar they contain. Usually, we’re thinking about taste/sweetness. Therefore if you have a recipe, and you could sweeten it with honey instead of table sugar, and due to honey's taste, you add less honey than you would sugar then you have reduced the calorie content of your recipe.
What About all the Other Things in Natural Sweeteners?
The next thing which people commonly bring up is what are we getting with our sugar? I mean this in terms of things like micronutrients and fibre. The short answer when looking at different sweeteners like the ones talked about already is, there isn't much of a difference at all. You will get a few extra micrograms of magnesium from using dates over table sugar, a small amount of iron from using honey and some calcium from golden syrup but they are really quite small amounts and you probably are not going to solve any nutrient deficiency by changing up your sweeteners. Raw/brown sugar is pretty much the same as white/table sugar when talking about vitamins, minerals and calorie content.
This question around fibre and micronutrients is better asked when we are talking about sugar naturally found in things like fruit and dairy products. In those situations, we might eat one banana, which contains around 15g of sugar, but with that we get significant amounts of some of our nutrients like potassium (~340mg). Getting sugar from table sugar is like me going to the supermarket, spending $20 and only getting a bag (a reusable one though) back. Whereas getting sugar from fruit is more like going to the supermarket, spending $5 and buying enough food to feed me for at least a meal. We get more bang for our buck eating fruit.
So What's the Verdict?
The last point I want to make, and moving back to sweeteners, is the significance of this swap really depends on how much you are adding. If it's 100g in some baking that is going to be split between multiple people then if I'm completely honest it's really not worth the hassle, at all. If it's 1kg then the difference in calories might be more of a concern, but even then you'd assume that baking/cooking is being split between multiple people and so likely to have little effect.
Remember, sugar isn't inherently bad. Going to the supermarket and spending $20 and getting only a bag for it is pretty niggly though, but spending $5 and getting food for a meal is a win in my book.
Thanks for reading.