Is honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and all other "unrefined sugars" really healthier than regular ol’ white table sugar? In this blog post we’ll settle the debate once and for all whether or not unrefined sugar is better than refined sugar.
What Is An Unrefined Sugar?
Let’s first start off by explaining what “refining” is. Ultimately, it means that the sugar has undergone processing in some way, shape or form.
Technically, any time we cook, bake or prep foods we’re processing them. So most foods ARE processed in some way. So whenever you hear the word “processed food” kinda take it with a grain of salt (or sugar!).
However, there are varying degrees and methods for processing. On one end you have, say, bagged spinach which would me minimally processed. And on the other end you’d have totally pre-prepared, frozen, microwavable means which are more heavily processed foods. It's a spectrum, not a blanket statement.
It’s kinda funny if you go back and look at the definition of processed foods, specifically “ultra-processed” foods. In 2009 it starts off as a simple 1 sentence definition but slowly evolves into a longer and more complex one. Here is a snippet from one of the later versions:
“Besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, ingredients of ultra-processed foods include food substances not commonly used in culinary preparations….”
Bottom line here with the term “processed” or “refined” foods is that it’s not always a BAD thing. It might just be an ingredient that isn't commonly used!
Food companies must go through certain testing protocols to be sold as a food (FDA), then go through production to make and package the food, be shipped to a distribution center and then a grocery store for us to purchase them. It's all very tightly regulated and controlled.
What Is The Difference Between Refined And Unrefined Sugar?
Refined sugars are those that have undergone further processing as a part of their production to purify the sugar and remove other things like the micronutrients that come along with the sugar as it grows. Essentially it’s removing anything from the sugar that ISN’T sugar. This includes things like iron and other minerals naturally occurring in soil.
The purpose of this sugar refining process is to produce a pure sugar that ensures consistency and quality.
Unrefined sugars, on the other hand, leave those other things, like micronutrients (which are in very minimal quantities!), in. It’s a less “pure” form of sugar.
The Different Types Of Sugar
Before talking about the types of refined and unrefined sugars, it’s important to talk about the food science (heavily backed in general and organic chemistry) behind sugar as a structure. This is important to have a brief understanding on how our bodies absorb different sugars differently.
Monosaccharides are single (see the mono- prefix!) molecules of sugar that are easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Some common types include:
- Glucose (aka dextrose)
- Found in corn, honey, fruit
- Honey and fruit
- Honey, beets, cheese, yogurt
- Cranberries, apples, oranges, peaches, broccoli, green beans
Disaccharides are double (see the di- prefix!) molecules of monosaccharides that are linked and broken down in the body and take more effort by the body to breakdown. Some common types include:
- Sucrose = glucose + fructose
- we know this as table/granulated sugar; found in sugar cane, sugar beets, fruits, and vegetables
- Lactose = glucose + galactose
- This one has a special β-linkage that some people have difficulty breaking down due to not making a small amount of lactase, the enzyme that works on this linkage. This is where we get lactose intolerance!
- Maltose = glucose + glucose
- Wheat, cornmeal, barley, and other ancient grains
We know that all of these sugars our bodies are used to breaking down and using for energy as they all naturally occur in nature.
Examples Of Refined VS Unrefined Sugar
|Unrefined Sugar||Refined Sugar|
|Maple Syrup a||Table Sugar c|
|Coconut Sugar a||Powdered Sugar c|
|Molasses a||Light Brown Sugar c|
|Honey b||Dark Brown Sugar c|
|High Fructose Corn Syrup a|
bmay or may not be vegan depending on your definition of veganism
cmay or may not be vegan depending on its processing - always check labels!
Sweetness Strength In Common Sweeteners
Different sugars have different strengths of sweetness. In order of decreasing sweetness, fructose is the sweetest carbohydrate, followed by sucrose, and then glucose.
In the table below, you can see which sweeteners have the most fructose, and therefore are the most sweet.
Moisture Content In Common Sweeteners
Why is this important? The moisture content of sugars is one of many factors that give us good texture in baked dishes. Too much of a sugar and it becomes a coarse texture or heavy and may fall (think sunken banana bread). Too little, you get a tough texture.
I never understood the importance of this until I started to really dive into recipe development. It truly IS a science! You'll notice in my cookie recipes for instance, like my copycat Panera kitchen sink cookies and my chewy leftover candy cookies, that they include both brown and regular white sugar. This is because they act and taste differently!
The moisture content of sugar helps to absorb some of the water that gluten in baked goods needs, allowing for a pillowy, tender baked good - we call this feature hygroscopicity. This feature also allows for sugar to be shelf stable for a long time, though maple syrup needs to be refrigerated once opened and only lasts for 1 year beyond that.
Does Unrefined Sugar Impact Our Bodies Differently?
I'll get right to the point here: no. Unrefined sugar and refined sugar do not have different effects on our bodies because they are all simple carbohydrates as mono- and di- saccharides. Our bodies see a carb as a carb when there are no other macronutrients or fiber involved.
If there are other nutrients involved, such as a scoop of table sugar VS an apple (the apple contains things like fiber) then yes, they may impact our bodies differently but it’s not from the carb/sugar itself.
These foods that contain other nutrients such as fiber absorb slower and are classified as complex carbohydrate. This is because they contain more than the simple structures that mono- and di- saccharides provide. Things without fiber, those simple unrefined OR refined sugars will ‘hit’ our bloodstream quickly.
Unrefined sugars do have some added micronutrients, like I mentioned earlier, though the amount in them won’t necessarily meet your daily needs for these micronutrients. Eating a serving of berries or nuts can help you meet your needs for these micronutrients, and buying expensive unrefined sugars isn’t a must! Moral of the story: swapping in coconut sugar for all of your baked goods won’t be a huge nutritional benefit.
Other FAQ's For Refined VS Unrefined Sugar
Added sugars are those that are added to foods to make them sweeter during processing and preparation. They are not sugars that are naturally occurring in foods. We’re not concerned with sugars in fruit and dairy/dairy alternative products - these come in a nutrient dense package with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The term ‘added sugar’ This includes both refined and unrefined sugars.
Until recently, it has been really tough to figure out which products have natural sugars and which have added sugars because these were all grouped into one entry on the nutrition facts label: sugars (see turquoise).
However, the FDA updated labeling requirements beginning in 2016, so by 2020 (well, hypothetically!), all food manufacturers have specified how much added sugars are in food products.
On this new label (see pink), we see that the ‘Sugars’ line now has a new name, ‘Total Sugars,’ and has a sub bullet to highlight the amount of added sugar. With this new detail, we can now see that there are 12 g of Total Sugar, and 10 g of that are Added Sugars. This means that 2 g of the 12 g of sugar are naturally occurring and are not added in processing and production.
The USDA suggests that only 10% of our daily intake should come from added sugars. For an average person, this means 12 teaspoons per day or about 50 grams of sugar. I don’t believe that you need to count this by ANY means. This is just what the recommendations are. (See next question for my advice!)
Full stop: NO.
I’m not saying throw all nutrition advice out the window when we’re pursuing health, but don’t allow the pursuit of health and wellness hinder us from actually achieving it.
What do I mean by this? Check in with yourself.
How do you feel after you’ve eaten a big bowl of cinnamon toast crunch (a “sugary” cereal) on the daily. Are you tired? Bloated? Experiment by adding some protein such as greek yogurt and maybe a side of fruit for some added fiber. How do you feel now after making some modifications? We call this gentle nutrition & using nutrition knowledge on how combining foods may make us feel our best.
Sure, if you’re like “Well I’m not a big cinnamon toast crunch fan” then go for the unsweetened Cheerios if you’re just looking for crunch, using gentle nutrition to reduce added sugar intake. But if you’re like “Man, I just want some cinny toast crunch” DO IT! Satisfy the craving and move on.
Again, would it feel good to do that on the daily? Probs not. But it’s important to satisfy the craving as we know restricting foods leads us to actually eat MORE of them. (Checkout my post on 12 reasons not to diet to learn more about how dieting & restricting foods “backfire”!)
Implementing gentle nutrition in conjunction to listening to your craving is crucial in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes, PCOS, NAFLD, and CVD. Knowledge is power - and checking in with how we feel VS blindly listening to advice is important in healing our relationship with food.
Like I said, when we restrict, we can lead ourselves to overeat and even binge on the foods without really enjoying it. We’re not wired to be addicted to food (see my post on food obsession & addiction) rather it’s that our bodies sense restriction and we’re wired to be driven to eat to keep our bodies running. Plus, that restriction is increasing our brain’s reward response for the food, making you want it more.
So, bottom line, ENJOY that sugar! And if eating sugar on its own doesn’t make you feel great, maybe pair it with another macronutrient and/or fiber. See how THAT feels and take note of it in a food and mood journal (We use this in The SociEATy to develop food freedom that feels GOOD. Both mentally and physically)
No refined sugar does not mean no added sugar. This is another savvy marketing tool used by both food companies and diet culture to convince you to buy their product with their sexy, healthy sounding word ‘unrefined.’
A Note On Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are chemically designed alternatives to sugar that have little to no caloric content. They are typically HUNDREDS of times sweeter than regular sugar, so you also need to use less. They differ in their heat stability (you can’t use all of them in baking!), sometimes off-putting flavors, and other characteristics that may be crucial for your dish to taste, look, and feel good in your mouth. There’s a lot of science behind food!
Artificial sweeteners are highly regulated and are typically “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) in quantities of it’s intended use. So, a few splenda packets likely won’t cause you harm. Consuming large quantities frequently however? Maybe not the best idea.
It’s important to note, that some of these artificial sweeteners may give your GI system issues, and that you may not like the taste of these substitutes and they may not be as satisfying as sugar. Everyone is totally different in this.
Another key point is that artificial sweeteners don’t spike the blood sugar like regular ol’ sugar does (refined OR unrefined!) So you may FEEL different after eating them, like not having a sugar crash if you experience that with regular sugar. This is why artificial sweeteners are hugely popular for diabetes- they don’t spike blood sugar the same way.
If you’d like to try using an artificial sweetener and do so in moderate amounts here are some things to consider:
- You shouldn’t feel guilt, stress or anxiety over real, regular sugar
- Take note of the WHY behind your choice. Is it because you’re trying to cut calories as much as possible? Because you feel better without a sugar buzz? This matters greatly (Checkout my blog post on a food rule VS a food preference for more on this)
- You shouldn’t be relying on these solely for a sweetener, remember that moderate intake for GRAS
If you do decide you want to use artificial sweeteners in moderate amounts I’d suggest trying a few and determine which one you like the best (they taste differently!) and which is the most satisfying. And if you like table sugar in your coffee versus an alternative sweetener - go for it! I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” answer, but what matters more is the “why”.
So, Is Unrefined Sugar Really "Healthier"?
When it comes down to it it doesn’t really matter a ton. Neither unrefined or refined sugar is “better”. Sugar is sugar. Our bodies see carbs as carbs. And with the little amount of bonus micronutrients included in the unrefined, you (and your wallet!) are better off getting these micronutrients in other foods as unrefined sugar does not provide a significant amount towards our RDA for these nutrients.
What are your thoughts on refined VS unrefined sugar? Leave a comment letting me know!
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Need more guidance? Be sure to checkout my YouTube channel for more tips to help in your intuitive eating journey and take the no food rules quiz which will tell you what's holding you back from truly finding food freedom and give you customized resources (and a workbook!) to overcome it!