Understanding the Different Kinds of Sugar
As a 30-something who gets just as excited about candy as my young nieces and nephews, I feel both sheepish and highly qualified to discuss the different types of sugar. And that’s why this Natural Sugar Guide includes all things sugar-related: unrefined sugars, raw sugar, white sugar substitutes, and tutorials like “how to substitute honey for sugar when baking.” I’ve also compiled a mini low sugars food list and some low sugar recipes.
Because believe me, I understand the struggle! It can feel like a balancing act to treat yourself to the things you love while also embracing a clean eating lifestyle.
Different Kinds of Sugars 101: Overview
- Sugar 101: Glucose vs Fructose vs Sucrose
- Answers to Every Question You’ve Ever Had About Different Types of Sugar
- 8 Fast and Easy Low Sugar Foods + Recipes
The Essential Guide to Understanding Different Types of Sugar
As I started to research the different types of sugar, the first thing I learned is that it’s more complex than I thought. If you look at Wikipedia, you’ll see that there are various categories under the umbrella term of “sugar.”
Sugar is the generic name for sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrates, many of which are used in food. The various types of sugar are derived from different sources. Simple sugars are called monosaccharides and include glucose (also known as dextrose), fructose, and galactose. “Table sugar” or “granulated sugar” refers to sucrose, a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. In the body, sucrose is hydrolysed into fructose and glucose.Wikipedia
Glucose vs Sucrose vs Fructose
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. There are three basic types of sugar: fructose, glucose, and sucrose.
Before defining these terms, it’s helpful to understand the two main categories of sugars. The first category of sugars is called monosaccharides. Monosaccharides are the single units that join together to form carbohydrates. The second category is called disaccharides. These are sugars consisting of two monosaccharides joined together. Your body digests monosaccharides more easily because they’re already one single unit. Monosaccharides are typically absorbed directly into your bloodstream and your small intestine. Some examples of monosaccharides include lactose and maltose.
1. Fructose is sweeter than glucose or sucrose. It’s a natural part of root vegetables, fruits, and liquid sweeteners like Yacon syrup. Corn and sugar cane also naturally contain fructose. In their rawest form, these foods are healthy in moderation. Especially the fruits and veggies!
However, manufacturers use fructose to make high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). I’ll touch more on this later, but this is one of the most dangerous substances in food products today.
2. According to the European Journal of Nutrition, glucose is the ideal type of sugar for your body. In fact, your body converts all other sugars into glucose in order to use it for energy. In comparison with sucrose and fructose, glucose has the most subtle sweetness to it.
3. Since sucrose consists of both fructose and glucose molecules, it is a disaccharide. Sucrose is a common component of whole foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. But large food manufacturers often add sucrose to packaged foods like ice cream, cereal, and soda. This artificial type of sugar additive is extremely detrimental to your health. Avoid processed foods at all costs!
Would a Rose by Any Other Name Smell as Sweet?
Different Types of Sugar Names + What They Mean
There are multiple terms related to sugar: natural sugar, turbinado sugar, raw sugar, fruit sugar, muscovado sugar, sugar cubes, confectioners sugar, brown sugar… As you can probably imagine, the list could go on and on!
Natural Sugar (Unrefined Sugar)
Contrary to popular belief, natural sugar isn’t inherently evil. It’s simply a type of carbohydrate that already occurs in certain foods. I like to think of it as a delightful gift from Mother Earth! All sorts of foods contain natural sugars, including vegetables, dairy products, nuts, fruits, and grains.
Natural, unrefined sugars become “refined” when humans intervene by modifying or processing them. Food companies commonly use refined sugar as an ingredient in prepared and packaged foods, like cakes, “healthy” cereal, and even pasta sauce.
These are just a few examples, and the reality is that most pre-made foods contain some refined sugar.
Refined sugar is the cause of many health problems and diseases. For example, excessive consumption increases your risk for diabetes, depression, cancer, cardiovascular disease, weight gain, and a plethora of additional diseases. It is also dangerously addictive.
It’s hard to ignore the dangers of eating refined sugar. Fortunately, the fact that almost every form of media proclaims the negative health effects of sugar helps me stick to my clean eating meal plan.
Perhaps you’ll enjoy learning more from artsy and fun YouTube videos, inspiring podcasts, Pinterest, or maybe waiting room magazines. Whatever the case, the truth always comes out: too much refined sugar is just plain deadly.
Another term for muscovado sugar is Barbados sugar. This is a type of unrefined sugar found in cane sugar. Since it still contains molasses, it has a deep, rich brown color. Many people use a muscovado sugar substitute for refined sugar.
This is also called granulated sugar, table sugar, or “regular” sugar. It’s the most popular sugar for mainstream baking, and it’s what many people add to their coffee. But again, despite its popularity, the negative health affects are bad enough to warrant switching to a natural coffee sweetener. I suggest substituting with xylitol or erithyritol. And when it comes to baking, you can easily substitute with coconut or honey.
Find more healthy sweeteners at 10 Little-Known White Sugar Substitutes
Confectioners Sugar (Powdered Sugar)
Powdered sugar is just very finely ground and sifted white sugar. Often, it contains some corn starch additives. Confectioners sugar is a popular pancake topping, and a staple ingredient in most whipped creams.
Unfortunately, most confectioners sugars are refined. But I’ve got some good news for you: there are plenty of healthy confectioners sugar substitutes.
Brown sugar is simply boiled down molasses. Sometimes it’s a combination of boiled molasses and white sugar. As you can see, this is definitely a refined sugar because it involves modification of natural sugar. If you want a healthier alternative, try using a brown sugar replacement instead.
Here are a few healthy brown sugar substitutes:
- Coconut Sugar (When baking, use a one-to-one ratio when substituting coconut sugar for brown sugar)
- Agave Nectar (Great vegan honey alternative!)
Understanding Different Types of Sugar:
Answers to Your FAQs
How much Honey do I use when Swapping for Sugar?
When you’re substituting honey for sugar in baking, simply follow these four steps:
- First, subtract two tablespoons from the recipe’s required amount of sugar. That’s how much honey you’ll use.
- Next, add a quarter teaspoon of baking soda to the recipe.
- Another conversion you’ll need to make is reducing the amount of other liquids in the recipe. (Like milk or water.) Generally, a good rule of thumb is to reduce each liquid by about a quarter cup for every cup of honey.
- Subtract twenty-five degrees from the recipe’s suggested oven temperature. This is a helpful technique because honey may burn more easily than “regular” sugar.
How do I use Coconut Sugar substitutes?
When baking, simply use a one-to-one ratio of coconut palm sugar to white sugar.
If you want to add coconut sugar to tea or coffee, just stir in a few teaspoons to taste.
Is Natural Sugar healthy?
Natural sugar is healthy when it comes from a natural, whole food source. In comparison to refined sugar, healthy foods with natural sugars, such as an orange or a handful of dates, have a completely different effect on your body. This is because these natural sugar foods contain healthy nutrients that your body needs to function well. Therefore, your body digests them more slowly, and they don’t give you the sugar “highs” or “crashes” so often associated with artificial or cane sugar. Furthermore, there is evidence that your body metabolizes the fructose in fruit differently then refined sugars.
Is Cane Sugar Bad for You?
Cane sugar is a type of refined sugar derived from the juice of sugarcane plants. Often, the process of extracting it and refining it involves bone char. I was a little shocked to learn this, but that’s right: bone char is apparently a great tool for bleaching cane sugar to an “appealing” white color.
It is still widely debated whether or not refined sugar from beets or cane is worse than natural sugars. Personally, I think it’s best to stick to unrefined sugars from fruits. That’s because cane sugar is refined, and essentially pure sucrose. As I mentioned earlier, sucrose is harder for the body to digest.
Basically, cane sugar is still refined sugar. I’d like to stay away from a type of sugar linked to numerous chronic health conditions!
Is too much sugar bad for you?
Yes! This is an easy question to answer because there is so much evidence associating excessive sugar consumption with numerous chronic health problems.
How many grams of sugar should I have per day?
According to the AHA, men and women have different daily recommended intake (DRI) amounts.
- Women should consume no more than 100 calories from sugar, which translates to approximately 6 teaspoons. (Or 25 grams.)
- Men, on the other hand, have a maximum limit of 150 calories from sugar per day. In other words, that’s 9 teaspoons or 37.5 grams of sugar.
Is fructose bad for you?
Fructose is present in foods like honey, vegetables and fruit. These are natural sugars, which is good. But the negative side is that fructose is a common ingredient in high fructose corn syrup. Again, high fructose corn syrup is a huge threat to your health and should definitely be near the top of your “Foods to Avoid” list!
The nutrition value of fructose has been somewhat of a heated debate in the world of health food blogs! In fact, there is contradictory evidence in the nutrition community. While many scientific studies link it to health problems, other studies deem it safe and health.
For example, a 2017 study found a correlation between fructose consumption and serious health problems like obesity and diabetes. However, another study concluded that fructose was not a big risk factor for obesity. Furthermore, a study published in the journal of Diabetes Care states that fructose is safe for people with diabetes. According to the authors of this study, that is because your body absorbs it slowly. They believe that because of the slow absorption, there isn’t that surge of insulin levels that can lead to diabetes.
My final conclusion is that fructose is safe in moderation. Also, pay attention to the source. When you consume fructose from natural foods, like fruits and vegetables, you’re also getting their rich nutritional value. But fructose from substances like HFCS is extremely damaging.
Is honey a natural sugar?
Yes, honey is a natural sugar. Since it is a carbohydrate consisting of fructose and glucose, honey’s biochemical makeup is very similar to sugar. Additionally, honey and sugar are often used nearly interchangeably as sweetening agents in recipes. Even though they’re natural, you should use both honey and sugar sparingly. Excess use may lead to weight gain.
Is Fruit Bad for You?
Not at all! Fruits are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healing antioxidants. If you eat 4-5 servings of fruit per day, as per the America Heart Association’s guidelines, then you are doing great! Eating fruit regularly is linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
In other words, you would need to eat a lot of fruit to exceed the DRI. Fruit is one of the healthiest food groups of all!
Comparisons of the Different Types of Sugar Alternatives
Since refined sugar is so unhealthy, finding healthy alternatives is a crucial part of creating your own clean eating meal plan. I love that there are so many natural sugars with great nutritional benefits. If you haven’t seen 10 Little-Known White Sugar Substitutes, then you should definitely take a minute to go check it out.
In the next few sections, I’ll compare the advantages and disadvantages of popular white sugar alternatives.
Monk Fruit vs Stevia
Monk fruit is becoming a more and more popular sugar alternative. And it’s a healthy choice! It’s a rich source of antioxidants, which combat disease by preventing damage from oxidative stress. Monk Fruit is also an excellent low-fructose sugar alternative, so it won’t harm your blood sugar levels or increase your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
And one last tidbit: Monk Fruit is calorie-free, so it’s perfect for anyone on a weight loss diet.
But how does Monk Fruit compare to Stevia?
- Overall, Stevia and Monk Fruit are very similar. They’re both low-calorie, low-glycemic substances.
- They also both work well as natural coffee sweeteners, and they are incredibly popular ingredients in vegan smoothie bowl recipes.
- You can also substitute both Monk Fruit or Stevia for white sugar when baking.
As you can see, there aren’t any glaring differences between the two! At the end of the day, it’s going to depend on your taste preferences.
Stevia vs Truvia
Truvia isn’t a pure plant leaf like Stevia. Instead, it contains a refined compound called rebaudioside-A. If you have a weakend immune system, then you’ll likely want to be careful around this guy. (Pointing.) Since the goal in using natural sweeteners is to avoid highly refined products!
In truth, the safest form of Stevia is from a plant that you grow yourself. That way you know for sure that it’s unrefined and free from additives.
Xylitol vs Stevia
Again, your final decision will likely depend on taste and availability. However, here are two key differences between xylitol and Stevia to help you decide:
- Stevia’s natural flavor is tinged with hints of licorice, whereas xylitol mimics white sugar.
- In contrast to Stevia, xylitol may have more of an effect on your blood sugar levels. Although the affect is small, the difference is definitely there – so it could cause spikes insensitive individuals.
Coconut Sugar vs Honey
Coconut sugar and honey are both popular white sugar substitutes. But how do they compare?
1. Coconut palm sugar has a nutritious profile. It nourishes your body with important nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, potassium, and zinc. And due to its low glycemic index rating of 35, it’s much better than white sugar.
Since coconut sugar does contain a fair amount of fructose, remember to use it sparingly. In other words, it’s perfect for miniature serving sizes, like a light sprinkling atop fluffy pancakes.
2. Just like coconut sugar, organic honey has some fabulous nutritional benefits. For example, it soothes sore throats and helps relieve allergies. Organic honey is also full of antioxidants, amino acids, and rejuvenating vitamins. But, like coconut sugar, honey belongs on the tippy top of the food pyramid. In other words, embrace honey as a natural sweetener for tea. A tablespoon a day won’t hurt.
8 of the Healthiest Low Sugar Foods + Recipes
I try really hard to follow a clean eating meal plan. But honestly, I’m a sucker for sweets! Isn’t it a relief that there are natural sweeteners with real nutrition value out there? I’m also thankful for sugary sweet clean eating snack foods, like Medjool dates.
Find more healthy and sweet foods in 30 Amazing Low Sugar Foods with a Low Glycemic Index
Now that we’ve covered the different kind of sugars rather extensively, it’s time to put that knowledge to use! I hope you’ll try at least one of the low sugar recipes below. Many of them are perfect vegan breakfast ideas!
- Overnight Oats Recipe (Bircher Muesli)
- Acai Smoothie Bowl Recipe with Whole Grain Muesli
- Low Sugar Oatmeal Recipe
- Homemade Coconut Milk
- Low Sugar Smoothie Recipes
- Best Organic Muesli with No Added Sugar
- Muesli Cookies
- The Ultimate Martha Stewart-Inspired Vegan Kale Salad
Clean Eating Tip for Beginners: Often, people wonder about low sugar granola recipes. What they don’t know is that even “healthy” store-bought granola and popular granola recipes are laden with refined sugar. Instead of granola, try muesli cereal. Muesli has far more health benefits than granola!
Be Bold: Experiment!
I really hope that this article helps you in the same way the research papers and videos helped me make the switch to natural sugar alternatives. Whether you’re just beginning a clean eating lifestyle or you’ve been a purist for ages, it helps to know in-depth facts about the food you put in your body.
Plus, now you have all these low sugar recipes and natural sugar alternatives at your fingertips. According to Harvard Health Publishing, trying new things is good for your brain and mental health. Never tried Monk Fruit before? Not yet had the chance to try out different ways to eat muesli? I dare you to try out some new recipes! Make a unique smoothie bowl with muesli, or try out the overnight oats recipe.
If you’re like me, you tend to get stuck in the same old rut of recipes. But it’s important (and fun!) to continuously broaden our diets and learn new, easy plant-based recipes. This makes it easier to stick to our own unique clean eating meal plans. After all, variety is the spice of life!
People who read “Different Types of Sugars 101” also enjoyed:
5 Interesting Health Benefits of Raisins (#4 May Surprise You!)
The Essential Beginner Vegan Shopping List
How to Make a Vegan Pancake (The Ultimate Easy Pancake Recipe Without Eggs or Milk)