Who doesn't love a little sugar, am I right? It's natural to like a sweet taste. Did you know that even newborns prefer sweeter flavors? I've read a few different theories on why it is we all love sweetness so much (my guess is because sweet foods typically provide us with glucose, which is the preferred fuel of our heart, brain, and red blood cells). The why doesn't matter so much as the way we act on our desire for sweetness.
We have a lot of sweetening options available to us these days, and a lot of judgment to go with them. High fructose corn syrup is Capital-B-Bad, while honey and agave are natural and good for us. Aspartame is a dangerous chemical and Stevia is good.
In the professional nutrition world we talk about sweeteners as either nutritive or nonnutritive (meaning they are a source of calories, or they provide little to no calories). Nonnutritive sweeteners are things like Stevia or aspartame or saccharine, they provide little to no calories, are much sweeter than table sugar, and are generally used in diet drinks and diabetic friendly foods. All of the nonnutritive sweeteners used in our food have been approved as safe by the FDA and, in moderation, can play a role in a healthy diet.
When it comes to nutritive sweeteners, there is a lot of talk about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as being unhealthy or dangerous. However, HFCS, honey, agave, table sugar, raw sugar, and pretty much all nutritive sweeteners provide you with the same amount of calories per serving. There really isn't one that's better for you or worse for you, sugar is sugar. (The exclusion to this is sugar alcohols like xylitol, which provides fewer calories and may also cause some GI distress after consuming. So, you know, pick your battles.)
All of those sugars will raise your blood sugar, some more than others because of the way they are metabolized. The sugars-like agave-that don't raise your blood sugar quite as high but do raise your blood lipids so in the end, you kind of break even in the health department.
So where do all those judgments come from? Well, for HFCS some of the concern comes from how much of our food it's in. Sugar (like HFCS) is a great way to make food self stable because it prevents bacteria from growing, and HFCS is cheap for food processors to purchase, which makes it the preferred ingredient to use to make products last on the shelves. As for honey and agave being a miracle sweetener, I think the message might have gotten a little mixed up. I, along with a number of nutrition experts, will often recommend honey or agave because they have a sweeter flavor, meaning you can use less of them for the same result. For example, if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup of sugar, you can use 1/4 cup of honey or agave and get the same result. It's the decrease in the amount of sugar not the specific sugar you're using that creates the health benefit.
This doesn't that sugar is bad for you. Like I said before, sugar provides us with glucose, which is the main fuel for our brain, heart, and red blood cells (all very important). So sugar (and carbohydrates) is important in a healthy diet. It's how much sugar you're eating that's critical. Most Americans receive 15% of their calories just from added sugars (the sugar you put in your coffee, or the sugar that's added to your flavored yogurt both fall under that category); that's probably too much.
It all comes back to eating everything in moderation, and doing your best to eat fresh, whole foods more than packaged foods. And maybe try to resist putting six packets of sugar in your coffee like my fiancé.
Man, that got longer and more technical than I was expecting! I'd love to hear any thoughts or questions you might have in the comments section. Here's a recipe I modified to decrease the sugar (and add whole wheat) for sitting through all that!
Banana Zucchini Bread
1/4 cup honey
2 mashed bananas
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 medium zucchini, grated
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Beat eggs, honey, bananas, and vanilla until well mixed. Add in flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon and mix.
Mix in zucchini until just combined. Pour mixture into a greased loaf pan. Bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in loaf pan for about 20 minutes, then pop out and finish cooling on a wire rack.
You can store it in the fridge for a week, if it lasts that long.
Pro tip: Actually wait the 20 minutes for the loaf to cool before you move it to a wire rack or your bread may leave some of itself behind in the pan (patience is not a virtue I have).
Taryn is a Los Angeles based Registered Dietitian who's passionate about helping you be your healthiest you.