Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name… Or Is It? (Part 1)

By now you’re probably aware of the news: People with diabetes can eat sugar! No, sugar isn’t going to spike up your blood glucose levels (unless you happen to pour the entire contents of the sugar bowl into your mouth). But sugar isn’t so simple anymore. For those of you who’ve decided to sneak some back into your eating plan, you’re now faced with some choices.

Years ago, your sugar decisions boiled down to granulated, light brown, dark brown, and confectioner’s. Now there’s a whole new world of sugar to choose from, depending on what your tastes are: coarse sugar, sanding sugar, turbinado sugar, muscovado sugar, demerara sugar…and that’s not even counting other forms of sugar, such as honey, molasses, dextrose, maltodextrin, and high-fructose corn syrup.

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We’ve looked at this topic before in past blog posts (see “Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Fitting Sugar Into Your Meal Plan”), so I won’t reiterate too much about it here. But, as a quick recap, let’s look at what we know about sugar and diabetes:

  • Eating sugar (or foods that contain sugar) doesn’t cause diabetes.
  • People with diabetes can fit sugar into their eating plan, as long as it’s accounted for.
  • Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, just as starch is a carbohydrate.
  • Gram for gram, sugar doesn’t raise blood glucose levels any more than eating another carbohydrate food, such as bread or cereal.
  • One teaspoon of sugar contains 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate. One tablespoon of sugar contains 16 grams of carbohydrate, the same amount of carb that’s in a slice of bread.
  • Too much sugar is linked to obesity and dental cavities.

The point is, then, that sugar isn’t as evil as some folks make it out to be. Sugar is all natural and comes from sugar beet or sugar cane plants. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a powerhouse of nutrition. Sugar doesn’t contain fiber, vitamins, or minerals, for example. It’s pure carbohydrate and doesn’t have too much else to offer.

So what about all the different types of sugar? Are some a better choice to use, say, in coffee or baking, than others? Let’s look at the different kinds and what it all means.

  • White, or granulated, sugar. Also known as sucrose, this is the run-of-the-mill, everyday kind of sugar that is either sitting in your sugar bowl or is nestled in those little white packets at restaurants. Most recipes that call for “sugar” intend for you to use granulated sugar.
  • Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar. This is granulated sugar that is ground to a fine consistency and usually has cornstarch added so that it won’t cake up. If you ever make buttercream frosting, chances are you’ll be reaching for the confectioner’s sugar.
  • Brown sugar. This kind of sugar comes from sugar cane and contains molasses. Dark brown sugar contains more molasses than light brown. Some types are unrefined or partially refined, but brown sugar can also be produced by adding molasses to refined white sugar. And we all know that brown sugar is notorious for becoming as hard as a brick if not stored properly.
  • Turbinado sugar. Also known as raw sugar, or sugar in the raw, turbinado sugar is formed by steaming unrefined sugar. The result is a pale brown-colored sugar that many people like to use in coffee or tea, or even in recipes that call for light brown sugar.
  • Muscovado sugar. This unrefined sugar is a very dark brown, rich, molasses-tasting sugar that’s a little stickier than regular brown sugar. It’s used primarily to sweeten coffee, to make whiskey, and in baked goods.
  • Demerara. Another unrefined brown sugar that is light in color. It’s commonly used in Great Britain in coffee, tea, and in baking. It originated in the Demerara colony in Guyana, by the way; hence the name.

Despite some of the more “natural” sounding names, the bottom line with these sugars is that there’s no real nutritional advantage to using one over the other. Sure, brown sugar has a slightly higher mineral content than white sugar, but the difference is negligible. If your goal is to eat fewer refined foods, then go with one of the less-refined brown types. But you still have to count the carbs and calories. And even brown sugar is linked with cavities.

Next week: Sugar in other forms.

  • CalgaryDiabetic

    Dear Amy. As a diabetic you wonder if pure fructose would be an acceptable sugar for occaisional use. The beauty is that it does not affect the blood sugar. Since sucrose is half glucose (blood sugar) and half fructose you would think that fructose would not be that toxic. Or am I wrong as fructose may help to increase triglycerides which we dont need more.

  • Vandy

    I need clarification. You state, “One teaspoon of sugar contains 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate. One tablespoon of sugar contains 16 grams of carbohydrate, the same amount of carb that’s in a slice of bread.” A tablespoon equals 3 teaspoons. If there are 4 carb grams in a teaspoon of sugar, wouldn’t there be 12 in a tablespoon?

  • acampbell

    Hi CalgaryDiabetic,
    Fructose really isn’t recommended for use as a sweetener, as there is some evidence that it may increase triglyceride levels, decrease the size of LDL particles (which is a bad thing), and possibly increase uric acid levels. Even the ADA cautions people about using too much of it. I think it’s probably fine to use occasionally, though. Also, fructose found naturally in fruits and vegetables is perfectly safe.

  • acampbell

    Hi Vandy,
    Good pick up! Believe it or not, depending on the database one looks at, the carb content of 1 tablespoon of sugar can differ somewhat. This may be, in part, due to how the nutrient composition of a food is analyzed. But you’re right on target. One tablespoon of sugar is probably closer to containing 12-13 grams of carb. Thanks for bringing this up.

  • Ann

    When discussing sugars why is STEVIA an herb sweetner not mentioned? We have used liquid STEVIA for years. We prefer it to the powdered STEVIA. Does anyone know where I can find recipes using STEVIA in baking. I have found few and mainly make up my own when necessary. If I need to use sugar in a recipe, I have found I can cut the sugar ingredient in half with very little notice in the outcome other than it is less sweet.

  • acampbell

    Hi Ann,
    Stevia is a good topic for a posting, but this week I’ve started to take a look at nutritive sweeteners – sweeteners that provide calories and carbohydrate. Stevia is an herb, as you mentioned, and is more of a “nonnutritive” sweetener, although it hasn’t been approved by the FDA as such. It’s really considered a dietary supplement. There are some concerns about its safety, which explains the hold-up with its approval for use as a sweetener.

  • donbranch

    I am a Type II and control my blood glucose with exercise and diet using mainly the glycemic index for guidance. The only sugar I use these days is agave syrup which supposedly has a glycemic index of 19. Any thoughts?

  • getwiser

    Some of these sugars I have not heard of, but personally prefer turbinado for the taste in hot tea.

  • louise

    i was wondering if white sugar, castor sugar and icing sugar are the same.

  • acampbell

    Hi Louise,

    Castor sugar, as it’s known in Great Britain, is the same as superfine granulated sugar (as it’s known in the U.S.). Superfine sugar dissolves more quickly than granulated sugar, so it’s ideal for making meringues and for use in cold liquids. You can make your own superfine sugar by grinding regular sugar in a food processor for a few minutes. Superfine sugar has the same nutritional value as regular sugar. Icing sugar is the same as confectioner’s sugar, which I described in my posting, above.

  • Irma Bangsal

    Hi – Between coco sugar and turbinado sugar and splenda – what is the best to use? My daughter is a Type 1 diabetic. Thanks

  • acampbell

    Hi Irma,

    The answer is — it depends. Both coconut sugar and turbinado, or raw sugar, contain about 5 grams of carbohydrate per teaspoon. Splenda, which is a nonnutritive sweetener, has no carbohydrate. Obviously the amount of sugar needs to be limited, but some people prefer the taste of real sugar to a sugar substitute such as Splenda. On the other hand, Splenda tastes very much like sugar and you can also bake with it. If your daughter prefers real sugar, she or you will need to count the carbohydrate.

  • Yahya

    Dear Amy,

    Thank you for your article.

    Can you please forward me the resources you used to write it because I am writing an assignment on the subject of diabetes. Any help would be appreciated.

    Regards,

    Yahya

  • Valerie

    No one should use Splenda, as it is a chemical and nothing more. You can use raw Yacon syrup in place of molasses in baking recipes. Yacon syrup has no affect on the blood sugar at all, is full of nutients, antioxidants, and is a prebiotic.

    I am going to share about cocnut sugars, and would in no way compare them to a turbinado sugar. Coconut sugar (can also make your own with pulverized dates) to a turbunado sugar in the case of carbs. This is in no where near the same issue, as the former is nothing more than partially refined sugar, and the latter (if bought raw), are still in their intact form. They have a both a low GI index/load, and have retained their nutrients. Here is a bit of info on coconut and palm sugars: “Palm Sugar and coconut sugar are two different types of sugars used in southeast Asia and can also be found here in North America as imported items. Both are natural sweeteners that come from trees: coconut sugar comes from the buds of coconut tree flowers, while palm sugar is made from the sap of sugar palm tree (also called date palm). Both are collected as sap, and, like North American maple syrup, the sap is then boiled in enormous vats to create either a sugar paste (sold in jars or tins) or rock-like chunks of sugar (see my photos on this page) also known as ‘jaggery’ (note that jaggery can be made from cane sugar as well – it just means the solid, rock-form of sugar)” BE carefule of the one that contains refined.

    I have lost a ton of weight, and kept my sugar in check, by learning about the best natural sweeteners, and figured I would share with your readers. As there are better alternatives than what is created in a lab.

  • marlene

    Valerie, what do you know about maple syrup as a sweetener for diabetics ?

  • acampbell

    Hi marlene,

    Valerie is certainly welcome to respond to you, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share that pure maple syrup has a glycemic index of 54 (considered to be “low” on the glycemic index scale). One teaspoon contains 17 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate. For comparison, granulated sugar has a glycemic index of 60 (which is medium), and 16 calories and 4 grams of carb per teaspoon. So even though maple syrup has a lower glycemic index, you still need to consider its caloric and carbohydrate value.

  • Big Al

    Why eat it if your body can’t metabolize it properly? Should an alcoholic hydrate with beer? Carbohydrates are non essential nutrients, your body will convert protein to the glucose it needs. Prove me wrong please. I have a caveman mentality so make it simple enough for me to explain to my intellectually gifted wife.

  • Ole

    This article is bad, by bad i mean the ironic contradictions!

    “Sugar doesn’t contain fiber, vitamins, or minerals, for example.”

    “Despite some of the more “natural” sounding names, the bottom line with these sugars is that there’s no real nutritional advantage to using one over the other. Sure, brown sugar has a slightly higher mineral content than white sugar, but the difference is negligible.”

    Unrefined sugars can have positive effects on the body! In addition to being a simple carbohydrate, which can be quickly converted to energy, blackstrap molasses also contains high levels of iron, manganese and copper, all of which can translate into an energy boost for those with low iron levels. Menstruating and lactating women in particular are at danger of having lower levels of iron, which can lead to fatigue. Blackstrap molasses is one way to help correct an iron deficiency.

    All sugars in the wrong amounts, is a bad thing, so eat it with moderation, and spot the hidden sugars instead, like bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, soda etc…