This article was written by one of our regular contributors; dietitian Maeve Hanan.
There are so many different types and classifications of sugar that it can be very confusing trying to figure out what this all means. This post will break this down and clarify whether unrefined sugars are healthier than refined sugars.
Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that has a sweet taste.
In technical terms, sugars are made up of one or two simple sugar molecules called saccharides. Whereas longer chains of saccharides, like oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are known as ‘complex carbohydrates’ and form starches and fibres in the diet.
‘Simple sugars’ can also be referred to scientifically as:
(made up of 1 saccharide) e.g. glucose, fructose and galactose
(made up of 2 saccharides) e.g. sucrose, lactose and maltose
Simple sugars are found naturally in dairy products, fruit and certain vegetables, as well as in processed products such as table sugar, sugary drinks, cakes, biscuits, sweets and chocolate.
Here are a few other names and classifications of sugar:
- Intrinsic sugar: Sugars that are naturally bound within the cellular structure of a food (1). e.g. sugars in whole fruits and vegetables.
- Extrinsic sugar: Sugars that are not contained within the cellular structure of a food (1). E.g. lactose (milk sugar) in dairy products. Honey, fruit juices, and table sugar are also examples of foods containing extrinsic sugars, referred to as non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES).
- Free sugar: Sugar that is “added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices” (1). Free sugars used to be known as “non-milk extrinsic sugars”.
- Added sugar: Sugar that is added to a production during the production or preparation stage, rather than being naturally-occuring.
- Refined sugar: Sugar that has been taken from a natural source, like sugar cane, sugar beet or corn, and processed into a simple sugar that can be added to food and drinks. Examples of refined sugars include table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.
The World Health Organisation and UK government recommend limiting free sugar intake to less than 5% of daily energy. For those 11 years old and older this works out as roughly 7 sugar cubes/teaspoons of sugar per day or 30g of sugar (2, 3).
What about unrefined sugar?
Unrefined sugar is a term used in the wellness world to describe sugar that is naturally present in food, rather than being refined or added as part of food manufacturing.
Here are some examples of popular unrefined sugars:
- Rice syrup
- Maple syrup
- Agave nectar/syrup
- Coconut sugar
Although this can seem healthier than refined sugar, you won’t see reputable scientists or health professionals recommending this as a ‘healthy sugar replacement’ for a few reasons.
First of all, unrefined sugars can include intrinsic sugars (those that aren’t contained within the cell structure of food), so they often still fall under the ‘free sugar’ category that we are recommended to limit overall.
The reason these foods are sweet is because they contain simple sugars which the body breaks down and absorbs in the monosaccharide form of glucose, fructose or galactose — just as it does with refined sugar. To the body, sugar is sugar.
The glycaemic index (GI) is another factor to consider, this is how quickly blood glucose levels increase in response to consuming a food. See here for more information about GI. Glycaemic load (GL) can be more applicable to real-life eating situations as it takes into account both the GI of a food and the amount of carbohydrate in a typical portion of the food. For example, watermelon has a GI of 72 per 100g serving, but a GL of 5 per 100g (4). Above 70 is considered high GI and low GI is <55. For GL high is considered > 20 and low is < 10 (5).
Unrefined sugars can contain more nutrients, especially minerals as compared with refined sugar, but the amount of these nutrients is usually insignificant when we take into account portion sizes. They also contain a very similar amount of calories.
Let’s compare some examples using a 1 teaspoon portion (4):
|Food||Sugars||GL (per tsp)||Minerals (per tsp)*||Kcals (per tsp)|
|Table sugar||5g sucrose (glucose + fructose)||3.4||0.25mg potassium|
|Maple syrup||0.2g glucose|
|Agave nectar||4.3g fructose|
|Coconut sugar||0.45g glucose|
|Black strap molasses||0.59g glucose|
*For reference here is the UK recommended daily intake of these minerals: 3500mg potassium, 700mg calcium, 8.7mg of iron for men and women over 50, 14.8mg iron for women 19 – 50 years old, 550mg phosphorus, 270mg magnesium for women, 300mg magnesium for men, 60mcg selenium for women, 75 mcg selenium for men, 7mg zinc for women, 9.5mg zinc for men. (6).
You can see that the amount of minerals in these sugars is very small, there is very little difference between the calorie content and although the GL varies slightly, they are all low GL at this portion size — including table sugar.
Although unrefined sugars have a ‘natural health halo’ in the wellness world, this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when we look at this from a scientific point of view. Neither refined or unrefined sugars are ‘bad’ but we should treat them in the same way, rather than putting unrefined sugars on a pedestal. So we can choose to include those that we enjoy the taste of in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Check out this article for more information about achieving balance when it comes to sugar.
- SACN (2015) “Carbohydrates & Health” [Accessed July 2021 via: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/445503/SACN_Carbohydrates_and_Health.pdf]
- WHO (2015) “WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children” [Accessed July 2021 via: https://www.who.int/news/item/04-03-2015-who-calls-on-countries-to-reduce-sugars-intake-among-adults-and-children]
- [Accessed July 2021 via: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacns-sugars-and-health-recommendations-why-5]
- Nutritics Nutrition Analysis Software (Professional Basic V5.66) [Accessed 28th of July 2021 via: https://www.nutritics.com/app/]
- Public Health England (2015) “SACN’s sugars and health recommendations: why 5%?” [Accessed July 2021 via: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6213615/
- NHS Website (2020) “Vitamins & Minerals) [Accessed July 2021 via: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vitamins-and-minerals]