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Updated 27 October 2015

Sugar vs. honey vs. sweeteners

Honey, sugar or artificial sweeteners: which is best? An expert makes sense of all the research.

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Surely honey must be healthier than sugar. After all it’s nature’s own sweetener. Besides, everyone knows sugar is unhealthy. And artificial sweeteners such as aspartame cause cancer. Just check on the internet. Which of these theories is correct?

Or are they all false? There are so many theories about the three sweeteners that we asked dieticians Karen Protheroe and Carol Browne to make sense of the available research. For starters, forget about honey if you thought it would improve your health, Protheroe says.


Here are more interesting tidbits she shared with us so you can sweet-talk your friends when you next get together.

1. Sugar

It’s an important part of our diet because of its sweet taste and energy-giving properties

TABLE SUGAR DOESN’T CAUSE DIABETES

Type 1 diabetics will develop an insulin deficiency owing to genetic factors even if they never use sugar. Type 2 diabetes is usually found in overweight people regardless of whether they use little or no sugar.

Research has refuted old myths by proving that small amounts of sugar eaten with foods with a low glycaemic index (GI), for instance a teaspoon of sugar with oats porridge, didn’t raise insulin levels significantly.

The general approach these days, officially endorsed by the American Dietetic Association, South African dieticians and the GI Foundation, is that diabetics can enjoy a little sugar each day, provided it’s part of a low-GI meal.

A teaspoon of sugar in tea or coffee will cause insulin levels to rise just as much as a Marie biscuit.

Warning
Babies and toddlers shouldn’t go to sleep with a bottle of milk, formula milk, cooldrink, fruit juice or sweet tea in the mouth. This is the main cause of tooth decay in children and has led to the coining of the term “baby bottle syndrome”.

Sugar isn’t the only culprit when it comes to weight gain. You get fat because your daily, weekly and monthly kilojoule intake is more than the kilojoules you burn.
The body stores all kilojoules not burned as fat, regardless of whether they’re derived from protein, sugars, starches, alcohol or fat. To lose weight or keep your weight constant you have to lower your kilojoule intake.

Sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity. Despite claims to this effect in the '70s researchers have yet to find any evidence to back the claim suggesting sugar causes hyperactivity.
Nevertheless it's not a good idea to let children overindulge on sweet things in one go, not even at a party. Sugar and sweet things should make up only part of a meal or snack. They’re not meals in themselves.

Sugar can cause tooth decay if you eat sugary or starchy food and neglect to floss and brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Limiting snacks such as sweets, crackers and dried fruit to five times a day and brushing regularly should keep the bacteria that cause tooth decay in check.

Good advice: A moderate amount of sugar (four to six teaspoons a day) is definitely not unhealthy and according to dieticians and scientists even dieters can use this much.

Even diabetics can use a little sugar, provided it is part of a low-GI meal and they check with their nutritionist or doctor first.

Bear in mind your insulin levels will rise suddenly if you eat lumps of sugar or sweets between meals. But if taken with a low-GI meal it won’t lead to sudden insulin peaks, dietician Liesbet Delport of the GI Foundation says.

This is the opposite of celeb nutritionist Patrick Holford’s views. Dieticians and nutrition researchers say his views against the use of sugar are fanatical and scientifically unfounded.

2. Honey

Honey looks beautiful and tastes delicious but isn’t any healthier than sugar

For slimming, honey isn’t any better than sugar. Teaspoon for teaspoon honey may be more effective than sugar for slimmers but there’s a catch.

A 5 ml teaspoon (4 g) of sugar contains 68 kilojoules (kJ) and the same amount of honey 64 kJ – but most people use as much as a 15 ml (9,9 g) tablespoon of honey.

If you use a tablespoon of honey in your tea instead of two teaspoons of sugar your kilojoule intake will be slightly higher.

Honey has the same effect on blood sugar levels as sugar. The composition of honey is similar to that of table sugar, which consists of sucrose. In turn, sucrose consists of glucose and fructose.

Honey consists of almost 70 per cent fructose and glucose and 30 per cent of other sugars. Because its composition is so similar honey has almost the same glycaemic index as sugar and will increase your blood sugar level just as much.

Honey has certain healing powers. Spreading it on toast might not help but spreading it on a wound will help it heal more quickly.

Both honey and sugar can stop the growth of bacteria and so prevent infection. As food, honey has no great health benefit because it contains too few minerals and vitamins.

WARNING
Honey shouldn’t be given to children younger than a year because it contains spores of the botulinum bacterium which could cause food poisoning. Sterilised honey is available and safe for youngsters.

Good advice: Use honey if you like its unique taste but not for health reasons.

100 PER CENT
Buy only honey marked as 100 per cent pure. Glucose syrup is often mixed into honey without the consumer’s knowledge.

Sugar alcohol: a new type of sweetener

Sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydroxyl are common sugar alcohols. Some have been used in chewing gum for ages.

A sugar alcohol or polyol is neither sugar nor alcohol but rather a carbohydrate with a chemical composition that corresponds partly to the structure of a carbohydrate and partly to that of alcohol.

Sugar alcohol can be handy for diabetics and slimmers because it’s only partially ingested and processed by the body so the body absorbs fewer kilojoules from it than from sugar.

Besides, some polyols are sweeter than sugar, allowing you to use less for the same sweet taste.

What about FRUCTOSE?

Often people who want to follow a healthier lifestyle use fructose rather than sugar because fructose has a lower GI and doesn’t raise your blood sugar levels quite as quickly as sugar.

It’s also twice as sweet as table sugar and you therefore use half as much. Fructose is the sugar found mostly in fruit and vegetables.

Most forms of pure fructose are manufactured from corn sugar.

WARNING
Avoid using more than four teaspoons of fructose a day because it can upset your stomach.

3. Artificial sweeteners
These low-kilojoule sweeteners taste a lot like sugar but are sweeter by weight. Depending on the type of sweetener it can be a hundred to a thousand times sweeter than sugar

Sweeteners are useful for diabetics and slimmers. They’re extremely sweet but contribute very little to the kilojoule content of fruit yoghurts, cooldrinks or other products they have been added to.

YOU Pulse advises: Use artificial sweeteners in moderation to replace sugar if you’re a diabetic, are trying to lose weight or simply because you prefer them. Even though sweeteners are low in kilojoules you shouldn’t use more than eight pills a day.

Low-kilojoule sweeteners are a hundred times sweeter than sugar

Sweeteners don’t cause cancer. Internet users are inundated with warnings about the dangers of aspartame and other sweeteners.

Several websites carry research (especially that done by the Ramazzini Foundation in Italy) stating that aspartame transforms in humans into toxins associated with brain cancer and lymphoma.

The merits on which aspartame was approved by American authorities (the FDA) are also still being questioned.

The European Commission’s independent scientific committee recently scrutinised more than 500 research documents published between 1988 and 2001 but could find no proof that aspartame is associated with epileptic attcks, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorder, depression, headaches, allergies or brain tumours.

The conclusion regarding honey, sugar and artificial sweeteners

  • Use sugar moderately (four to six teaspoons a day) even if you’re trying to lose weight, but always make it part of a balanced diet. Even diabetics can use a little sugar if it’s part of a low-GI meal and if their nutritionist agrees.

  • Eat honey in small quantities but only because you like its special taste.

  • Use artificial sweeteners if you usually use more than four to eight teaspoons of sugar a day but don’t use more than eight sweetener pills or powder equaling eight teaspoons a day

  • You won’t survive long without taking in carbohydrates at some stage. All sugars and starches are broken down in your body to form glucose, therefore it doesn’t matter in which form you get it.Glucose supplies the energy for everything you do: breathing, thinking, moving and digesting food. Without glucose your body cells, and especially your brain cells, can’t survive.

The sweet debate 

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