Sugar is a loaded topic. There’s just so much to say about it. So, to keep things as concise as possible, I want to hit the hard hitting questions first: what the different types are, how they’re digested, the difference between them and when to use what.
Of course, please know that because there is so much to say about sugar, this is not an all-encompassing blog post. But, I hope that this can help give some clarity the next time you see an influencer rave about coconut sugar or that says calls for honey and says it has no added sugar.
I want to focus on a few of the more common types of sugar: granulated sugar, brown sugar, coconut sugar, honey and maple syrup.
This is what most of us just call “sugar.” Granulated sugar is white, multi-purpose sugar that’s made from sugarcane and sugar beets. It’s the most common type of sugar - and widely available - sugar used in most baking.
Because granulated sugar is simply a pure form of sugar, per teaspoon, granulated sugar has about 4 grams of carbohydrates, which are all sugar.
2. Brown Sugar
Brown sugar is made by combining granulated white sugar with molasses. You’ll often see it as light brown sugar and dark brown sugar; the difference is the amount of molasses added in - dark brown sugar contains more molasses.
This type of sugar has more of a soft texture than granulated sugar. And, like granulated sugar, is often used in baking and cooking.
Because it contains molasses, brown sugar does have trace amounts of some vitamins and minerals. Per teaspoon, it contains about 4.5 grams of sugar.
3. Raw Sugar or Unrefined Sugar
Raw Sugar is the single crystallization of sugar cane. This means it less refined and naturally retains some the molasses. Raw sugar is now becoming a more popular option as it is healthier and provides a more fulfilling options to white sugar.
Raw sugar has been show to contain the highest amount of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Per teaspoon, it contains 4 grams of sugar.
4. Coconut Sugar
Coconut sugar is sugar that comes from the sap of a coconut palm tree. The sap is mixed with water, boiled into a syrup, dried and crystallized. From there, it gets broken apart so that the texture resembles regular granulated sugar.
Interestingly, contrary to what it may seem, coconut sugar doesn’t come from actual coconuts themselves. And, even though it’s often called “natural,” it’s pretty similar to granulated and brown sugar nutritionally (FYI: the word natural is highly unregulated and has no real meaning!).
Per teaspoon, coconut sugar contains about 5 grams of sugar.
Unlike the above sugars, honey, of course, is a thick liquid and not a granulated powder. Honey is made from flower nectar collected by bees, and then broken down into simple sugar inside the honeycomb.
Like other sugars though, honey is still a sugar - with about 5.5 grams of sugar per teaspoon. However, unlike the above sugars, honey also does contain some vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
6. Maple Syrup
Like honey, maple syrup is sugar in liquid form. It’s made from the sap in maple trees, which is boiled until it evaporates and a thick syrup remains. Maple syrup is mostly sucrose - aka table sugar.
Also like honey, maple syrup does contain some micronutrients, like manganese and zinc. It contains about 4.5 grams of sugar per teaspoon.
Very simply put, all sugar breaks down in the body into monosaccharides, or the simplest form of sugar. The 3 monosaccharides are glucose, fructose and galactose. Again, All types of sugar are broken down and digested the same way in the body – they all break down into these 3 monosaccharides.
The biggest difference between each of these types of sugar is the amount of each monosaccharide – glucose, fructose and galactose – that they break down into. But still, this doesn’t mean much.
Again: no matter which type of sugar you eat - white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, etc. - they are all broken down the same and into simple sugar in the body.
The only thing that will affect the way these sugars are broken down is what they’re eaten with. When sugar is eaten with other nutrients, like protein and/or fiber, it’s broken down a little more slowly to prevent a blood sugar spike and crash.
WHEN TO USE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SUGAR
Granulated sugar is most often used in baking. Its fine crystals don’t cake together, making it great for measuring and dissolving into foods. But can be substituted for Raw sugar to provided a more fulfilling food that leaves you satisfied.
Brown sugar is also used often in baking and, because it contains more moisture than granulated sugar, helps baked goods to stay moist as well. Because it has a rich, full flavor, it’s great in both baked goods and savory dishes.
Honey and maple syrup both also add moisture to baked goods. When baking with them, you can usually subtract a little liquid elsewhere because they’re liquid sweeteners. Both of these create denser baked goods. In baking, the biggest difference between them in their flavor.
Lastly, because coconut sugar has a softer texture than granulated sugar, it can often make baked goods drier. When baking with coconut sugar, you’ll usually need to add more fat or liquid so that the baked good doesn’t dry out. And be warned – coconut sugar also burns at a lower temperature, so make sure to not to cook it on too high of heat either.
WHICH ONE IS THE HEALTHIEST?
None of these sugars is healthier or “better” than one another. They each contain almost exactly the same amount of sugar: 4-5 grams per teaspoon. While honey, maple syrup and raw sugar do also contain some micronutrients, these are pretty small amounts. You’d have to consume a lot of either one of them (read: cups!) to reap any benefits from that.
At the end of the day, coconut sugar comes from coconut palm trees and granulated sugar comes from the sugarcane plant. Both are then processed in some way to be edible and safe.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Sugar is sugar. When we eat any of these sugars – granulated sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar – they all break down into simple sugar in the body.
All of these products contain roughly the same amount of sugar. The decision about which one to use depends on what you’re using it for. Each of these sugars has a slightly different texture and taste, making them function differently in different products.
Nutritionally, the differences between them are small. You’d have to consume a lot of one particular sugar to see any noticeable differences in its sugar or micronutrient content.
That said, in the small amounts that these sugars are usually consumed, not only are they pretty similar, but also, there’s no reason to avoid them. Food is meant to be enjoyed and, unless you’re drinking cups on cups of plain sugar daily, sugar can definitely be a part of any food you enjoy.
Choose the sugar that you like or that works best for what you’re looking for. Baking cookies? Granulated, raw, or brown sugar might work best. If you’re making coffee cake or banana bread, honey or maple syrup will work well. And okay, if you’re having waffles or pancakes, no question – you probably want maple syrup.
Try to ignore unsubstantiated claims that state that some sugars are safer than others – or worse, that some sugar should be avoided completely. Both don’t have much basis behind them.
Choose sugar by what sounds best to you in that moment – There’s room to enjoy all foods in your diet.
-Health Coach K