Amid a whirlwind of attacks against high-fructose corn syrup, the health-conscious set has been scrambling for alternatives. Enter agave, cane juice and even a resurgence of pure cane sugar. But are there any benefits to using a different form of sugar, or is the sweet stuff damaging in all of its forms? The answer is that, unfortunately, your body treats most forms of sugar in the same way--and no type of added sugar is really healthy.
Sugar by any name is still just empty calories. It contains four calories per gram, but provides no vitamins, minerals or other nutrients that your body needs to function. Eat enough sugar, and you simply can't get proper nutrition without consuming more calories than you need. This can lead to weight gain. Fast.
The second problem with sugar is that it's rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood-glucose levels. But that spike quickly turns into a crash, leaving blood sugar low and causing you to crave more sugar for energy. In contrast, non-sugar carbohydrates from complex foods like whole-wheat and quinoa are slowly absorbed into the bloodstream, so they provide lasting energy and won't cause cravings.
The Real Culprit: Fructose
While sugar products like agave syrup are sold as health foods, science tells a different story. In fact, agave syrups and nectars may contain up to 90-percent fructose. Meanwhile, the much vilified high-fructose corn syrup only contains about 55-percent fructose.
The latest research shows that fructose could be the worst of all types of sugar, possibly contributing more to obesity than other forms. Fructose is fruit sugar, so you'll also find it in foods sweetened with fruit concentrates. However, fresh fruits are still OK because they contain small amounts of fructose compared to processed sweeteners.
Fructose could be behind a new illness called fatty liver disease, which affects one-third of Americans, according to Harvard Medical School. That's because fructose can only be broken down in the liver, and the process creates triglycerides and free radicals that can build up to dangerous levels.
Reducing Your Sugar Intake
Whichever sugar you prefer, the bad news is that there really is no benefit--just an increased risk of obesity and chronic illness. The good news is that you if you can break your sugar addiction, you probably won't miss it very much. To get the monkey off of your back, eat small meals at regular intervals, so you won't feel hunger pangs throughout the day and munch on sugary snacks. It also may help to chew a piece of gum or grab a piece of fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth without sugar overload.
Ideally, women should get no more than 100 calories per day from added sugar, and men should get no more than 150 calories. You'll probably get that much from sauces, condiments and packaged foods, without even touching any candy, sodas or pastries. Giving up sweets may be tough, but trust me: After a long break from sugar, that candy bar won't taste so good, anyway.
Nina Kate is a certified fitness nutrition specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). She also studied journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and has contributed to numerous major publications as a freelance writer. Nina thrives on sharing nutrition and fitness knowledge to help readers lead healthy, active lives. Visit her wellness blog at BodyFlourish.com.