Sugar is Sugar, By Any Other Name… Or Is It? (Part 2)

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Last week (in "Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name…Or Is It? [Part 1]"), we scratched the surface, exploring various types of sugar, starting with good ol’ table sugar and delving a little into different types of brown sugar. But sugar is kind of sneaky in that it exists in many forms.

Some people prefer “unrefined” or more “natural” types of sugar for use in cooking, baking, and overall sweetening. There’s nothing wrong with using fewer refined foods; however, at least in the case of sugar, unrefined doesn’t necessarily translate into “more nutritious.” Let’s continue our exploration of sugar. (A bit of sugar trivia: the word “sugar” is derived from the Sanskrit word shakara).

Honey. According to the National Honey Board (yes, there’s a “board” for just about everything!), honey is made up of mostly carbohydrate (i.e., glucose and fructose) and water, with small amounts of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants. Reading this makes honey sound almost like a complete food—all that’s missing is the fat! However, you’d have to consume an awful lot of this thick, golden syrup to derive any kind of nutritional benefit in terms of vitamins, minerals, and protein.

One tablespoon of honey contains 65 calories and 17 grams of carbohydrate (you may recall that one tablespoon of sugar contains about 48 calories and 12 grams of carb), so it can have a definite impact on blood glucose control, although you may end up using a little less honey compared to sugar. Honey comes in many varieties, and their glycemic indices range from about 32 to 87; sugar’s glycemic index (GI) is between 58 and 64 (depending on which GI list you consult).

Interestingly, though, honey does have some health benefits that sugar doesn’t. For example, honey is a pretty effective cough syrup, at least in children. In fact, when compared to dextromethorphan, honey surpasses this conventional cough medicine in its ability to reduce both the frequency and severity of coughing in children. It might be that honey is more soothing to the throat than regular cough syrup, although it’s possible that the antioxidants in honey somehow play a role in suppressing coughs. Honey is a good source of polyphenols, antioxidants that can possibly lower the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer.

What else does honey have to offer? It seems to have prebiotic properties. In other words, honey may help to increase the population of good bacteria, called bifidobacteria, in the gut. Bifidobacteria may help ward off illness, certain diseases, allergies, and vaginal and urinary tract infections.

And honey has wound-healing abilities. Ancient Egyptian physicians used honey to treat wounds, burns, cuts, and skin ulcers. The use of honey fell out of favor around the time of World War II, when antibiotics came into play. However, recently, some physicians have gone back to the old ways (well, one old way) and have been using honey, quite successfully, to treat wounds and speed up the healing process. Honey has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. (The use of honey for medicinal purposes is called apitherapy).

Molasses. Molasses is the by-product of refining sugar cane into table sugar. It’s sometimes called treacle or sorghum syrup. There are several stages of sugar refining, and the third stage results in the heavy, strong-tasting, dark-colored syrup known as blackstrap molasses. Blackstrap molasses is used primarily to make cattle feed, although some people take it as a supplement, or even use it in coffee or tea. Lighter grades of molasses are used in baking and to make candy and rum.

One tablespoon of blackstrap molasses contains 58 calories and 15 grams of carb. Unlike its sweet counterparts, though, molasses is a significant source of certain nutrients, such as iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, potassium, and vitamin B6. Keep in mind, though, that you’d need to eat a little over 1 cup of molasses to obtain the RDA for iron; there are easier, less caloric ways to meet your iron requirements!

Molasses came to the United States from Caribbean islands during early colonial times. And its past is tainted somewhat; molasses was the contributor to several deaths and to property destruction during the Great Molasses Flood in Boston in 1919. A storage tank holding two million gallons of molasses broke, flooding the streets of Boston with the dark, sticky syrup.

Next week: Agave syrup…and more!

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