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Ranking Sugars By How (Un)Healthy They Are

White Sugar? Honey? Agave? Which is least likely to turn me into a hyperactive, diabetic maniac spiraling toward sugar-induced violent crime?

Sure, we all know sugar is bad. But what about the other options, like Splenda or possibly even a glob of honey? Can I add those to my morning coffee without suffering from the many debilitating ailments associated with everyone’s second favorite white powder?

To find out, I asked nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, to help me rank various sweeteners by how healthy they are — from diabetes-inducing to possibly kinda okay.

Before we start, though, I should emphasize that this edition is a little different to the regular column, in that here, we’re starting with the worst offender, then working down to the most healthy (or rather, least unhealthy) option. That’s on the advice of Friedman, who insists that it’s vital to discuss the many, many dangers associated with some of these products up top, as so many people are oblivious to just how toxic they can be.

To that end, Friedman also stresses the fact that sugar is unhealthy, period: “For 25 years, I’ve had the privilege of interviewing today’s leading health experts, doctors and scientists for my syndicated radio show, To Your Good Health Radio. While most of them have conflicting ideas when it comes to diet, exercise and nutrition, they all share one common belief: Sugar is a leading cause of disease. Everything from obesity, diabetes and heart disease to ADHD and cancer has been linked to sugar consumption.”

“In 1907, the chief of the Philadelphia Bureau of Health put cravings for sugar in the same category as alcohol,” Friedman continues. “Fast forward to over a century later and science reveals that sugar causes the brain to react in the same way it does with cocaine addiction. Too much sugar can even alter the mind and cause a strong association with violence. In fact, the ‘Twinkie Defense’ has been argued in many court cases as being the cause of ‘diminished mental capacity’ and [sugar has] been blamed for violent crimes.”

So yeah, sugar is straight-up awful for you. With that, let’s get to the ranking, starting with the absolute worst one for you…

1) Artificial Sugars: Once again, this is the least healthy item on our list. “This may come to you as no sweet surprise, but America has been duped into believing that artificial sweeteners are healthier than sugar,” Friedman explains. “People turn to these artificial sugar alternatives, which are sold in blue (aspartame), yellow (sucralose) and pink (saccharin) packets, to keep from gaining weight. However, research shows that they actually stimulate appetite and contribute to obesity: A study performed at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio found that participants who drink diet soft drinks containing artificial sweeteners increase their risk of obesity by 41 percent for every diet soft drink they consume. Considering, on average, diet soft drink consumers drink five sodas a day, it’s no wonder obesity has become such an epidemic.”

So how exactly do these fake sugars make us fat? “Artificial sweeteners trick the brain into thinking you’ve consumed sugar, which can lead to more cravings and ultimately a higher sugar intake,” Friedman says. “Plus, artificial sweeteners are formulated with an array of toxic chemicals that have been linked to ailments like depression, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even cancer. Chemicals that are used to manufacture artificial sweeteners include acetone, which is also used in nail polish remover; benzene, a carcinogen found in gasoline; toluene, which is used in glues and paints; methanol, a poisonous wood alcohol that’s also used in antifreeze and windshield washer fluid; and of course, the ingredient I love to death, formaldehyde, the chemical used to embalm dead bodies. For those who put artificial sweeteners in their morning java, this puts a whole new meaning to the phrase, ‘Killer cup of coffee.’ Put simply, artificial sweeteners aren’t good for you and don’t help aid in weight loss, so why bother?”

2) White Sugar: “Sugar, in all forms, is a simple carbohydrate that the body converts into glucose to use for energy,” Friedman explains. “The effect on the body and its overall health depends on the type of sugar you’re eating, either natural or refined. White refined sugar comes from sugar cane or sugar beets. To make white sugar, sulfur dioxide is added to cane juice before it gets evaporated — this gas bleaches the juice white. Then phosphoric acid, calcium hydroxide or carbon dioxide is added to absorb impurities. The juice is then filtered through a bed of carbon, and it’s crystallized in a vacuum to produce sugar crystals.”

This refined white sugar is, of course, super unhealthy. “Refined white sugar is digested rapidly, which is why you typically don’t feel full and the reason one donut leaves you wanting two and then three,” says Friedman. “In addition to causing cavities, high-sugar diets have been associated with an increased risk of many diseases, including heart disease, the number one cause of death worldwide, depression, obesity, diabetes and cancer.”

“America is considered the sickest developed country,” Friedman continues. “We also consume the most sugar, averaging 140 pounds of sugar per year. In recent years, people have become more health conscious, so the food industry often hides sugar on food labels by calling it by different names. A rule of thumb for finding hidden sugar in your foods is to look for any ingredient ending in ‘ose,’ like dextrose, fructose, lactose, sucrose and maltose.”

3) Liquid Sugar: “Liquid sugar is white refined sugar in liquid form, and it’s often added to sodas, juices and mixed alcoholic drinks,” Friedman says. “The problem with drinking your sugar is it’s easier to consume larger amounts without feeling full: Research shows that the brain doesn’t register liquid sugar calories the same as it does calories from solid foods. Also, when you drink liquid sugar, it doesn’t lower your hunger hormone ghrelin as much as when you’re eating foods that contains sugar. When looking at the effects of eating a sugar-loaded candy bar compared to drinking a soda containing the exact same amount of sugar, drinking this amount brings about a much higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”

Also, as we’ve covered before, juice can be deceivingly unhealthy. “One of the biggest frustrations I have is when I see parents giving their children fruit juice, believing it’s healthy,” says Friedman. “These juices are loaded with liquid sugar and are a major cause of childhood obesity, as well as an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. Even varieties sold with ‘no added sugar’ stated on the label can actually contain more sugar and calories than sweetened sodas. As such, drinking fruit juice can increase the risk of an early death by as much as 42 percent.”

4) Brown Sugar: “Brown sugar is essentially the same as refined white sugar,” explains Friedman. “The difference is that brown sugar has molasses added back into it. Molasses contains polyphenols, which are natural chemicals found in plants that have antioxidant properties. The amount of molasses added determines how dark the sugar will appear: Light brown sugar contains 3.5 percent molasses, and dark brown sugar contains 6.5 percent molasses.”

“Many people believe that brown sugar is the same as raw sugar, but they’re quite different,” Friedman continues. ”White and brown sugar don’t have the nutritional content found in raw sugar, which is derived from sugar cane juice. Most brown sugar in North America is partially or totally beet sugar, which is usually genetically modified. GMO beet sugar is contaminated with Monsanto’s gut-destroying glyphosate (Roundup) residue.”

Brown sugar is still slightly better than white sugar, though. “One small benefit brown sugar has over white sugar is that it contains more water, which slightly lessens its caloric value by weight,” Friedman says.

5) Raw Sugar: “Along with white refined sugar, most hip coffee shops now offer ‘raw sugar’ as a healthier alternative,” Friedman says. “While many believe ‘RAW’ means that nothing has been removed or added, when it comes to sugar, this isn’t the case: The USDA allows sugar companies to use the word ‘RAW’ when sugar isn’t bleached.”

That’s not to say raw sugar isn’t slightly better, though. “Unlike white sugar, which has the molasses removed during processing, raw sugar is processed from the sugar cane and retains a small amount of molasses,” Friedman explains (again, molasses contains those healthy polyphenols). “After raw sugar is centrifuged, it retains 2 percent of its molasses and the other 98 percent remains as sucrose, compared to refined white table sugar, which has no molasses and 99.9 percent sucrose. Because the molasses in raw sugar is added after the drying process, this causes the crystals to get stuck together, giving it that classic ‘sugar in the raw’ appearance.”

6) Cane Sugar: Finally, a substantially healthier option. “Unlike white refined sugar, which is stripped of all its nutritional value, unrefined cane sugar has the same vitamin and mineral consistency as sugarcane plant juice,” Friedman explains. “Sugarcane juice is naturally rich in antioxidants, namely polyphenols, which helps defend against free radicals and toxins found in the environment. A study published in Food Chemistry found that sugarcane contains high levels of antioxidants, however, the high heat of processing destroys many of them.”

“Sugarcane juice is widely consumed by the people of the tropics and subtropics,” Friedman continues. “It’s been used to cure jaundice and liver-related disorders. Research shows sugar cane juice may also protect the body against DNA damage caused by radiation.”

Another benefit of cane sugar is that it has a filling effect. “Cane sugar contains fiber, which makes it more filling than white processed ‘empty calorie’ sugar,” says Friedman. “It’s also more environmentally safe, because it requires less energy, fewer waste products and no added chemicals or gases, which are used to produce white sugar.”

“It’s best to go with ‘USDA certified organic cane sugar,’ which means it’s made from organic cane and contains no genetically modified seeds, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers,” Friedman continues. “Avoid cane sugar products made from beets, because in the U.S., genetically modified varieties of sugar beets are used, and there’s no organic beet sugar farming.”

7) Agave: “Agave is 1.5 times sweeter than regular sugar and contains 60 calories per tablespoon, which is more than white table sugar, which contains 48 calories per tablespoon,” Friedman says. “However, while it may be high in calories, agave contains healthy fiber called fructans, which are linked to beneficial effects on metabolism and insulin: According to the Journal of Medicinal Food, agave nectar causes less weight gain and decreased levels of insulin and blood sugar compared to regular sugar.”

That’s not to say you can go ahead and indulge in all the agave you want. “Unfortunately, by the time the processing is complete, the fiber and nutrients in refined agave sweeteners are essentially destroyed,” Friedman says. “Agave nectar has been touted as being ‘diabetic friendly’ because it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels like white sugar. Even so, the American Diabetes Association recommends limiting the amount of agave nectar in your diet. Consuming too much can wreak havoc on metabolic health. When your liver gets overloaded, it turns the fructose found in agave nectar into fat, which raises blood triglycerides and has been linked to causing fatty liver disease. Therefore, it’s best to limit consumption of agave nectar or opt for other natural sweeteners.” Which brings us to our next option…

8) Maple Syrup: “Maple syrup is made by tapping sugar maple trees, then boiling the sap to produce a thick syrup,” Friedman explains. “Don’t confuse this with the heavily processed, watered-down Aunt Jemima syrup. Unlike refined white sugar, which is void of any nutrients, pure maple syrup contains minerals, including manganese (bone health and brain function), calcium (bone health), potassium (healthy muscles), iron (blood) and zinc (skin and immune system). Plus, pure maple syrup contains up to 24 different antioxidants, which aid in the prevention of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.”

Maple syrup is also more diabetic friendly than most other options on this list. “While white sugar is 99.9 percent sucrose, maple syrup is only 66 percent, and therefore, doesn’t cause as much of a sugar spike when ingested,” says Friedman. “White sugar is known for causing inflammation and is linked to cancer. In comparison, maple syrup is a much less inflammatory sweetener and may even protect against cancer. This is because the powerful antioxidants in maple syrup help protect the body from DNA damage and mutation. The deeper, dark-colored maple syrup also supports a healthy gut — it’s been used as a natural medicine for gastrointestinal cancer treatment.”

Maple syrup also has an unusual ability. “Antibiotics have a bad reputation for killing healthy cells along with infection-causing bacteria,” Friedman explains. “This can lead to the creation of ‘superbugs’ that no longer respond to known antibiotics. Research published by the American Cancer Society found, when people take maple syrup in conjunction with antibiotics, they observed the same antimicrobial effect with 90 percent less antibiotics. In other words, the maple syrup extract helped the antibiotics work better by increasing the permeability of the bacteria, bringing the antibiotics into the bacterial cells more efficiently.”

A quick tip: “When buying maple syrup, read the label to make sure it’s pure maple syrup and not refined cane or beet sugar, or something containing high-fructose corn syrup,” Friedman suggests. “Always go with organic maple syrup to ensure the trees weren’t treated with any pesticides or chemicals.”

9) Molasses: “Molasses is a by-product obtained from the processing of sugar cane and sugar beet into table sugar,” Friedman explains. “Molasses offers a plethora of vitamins and minerals, such as niacin (circulation and cholesterol lowering), vitamin B6 (brain and cardiovascular health), riboflavin (skin, eye and hair health), thiamine (energy and immune system support) and essential minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper, iron, phosphorus and sodium.”

Molasses is especially good for those watching their weight. “Research published in the Journal of Applied Pharmaceutical Science suggests that the polyphenols present in molasses may be effective in reducing obesity,” Friedman says. “Molasses was found to help lower body weight and fat content by reducing the absorption of calories in the body.”

This stuff is also diabetic friendly, much like maple syrup. “If you have diabetes, research shows that blackstrap molasses can help stabilize blood sugar levels,” says Friedman. “Blackstrap molasses is high in the mineral chromium, which increases glucose tolerance. Research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association also shows that blackstrap molasses contains the highest amount of antioxidants when compared to other sweeteners.”

Another benefit: “Blackstrap molasses is successfully used to help females suffering from irregular menstruation, cramps and PMS,” Friedman says. “Blackstrap molasses is sometimes referred to as pregnancy tea because of its high levels of iron, folate and other minerals that are essential for the growth and development of a baby.”

“Being high in calcium, blackstrap molasses can also play a role in maintaining bone health,” Friedman continues. “If you’re suffering from muscle cramps, spasms or general body fatigue, the magnesium in blackstrap molasses can offer relief. When buying blackstrap molasses, make sure it’s ‘organic’ and sulfur dioxide isn’t used. Some manufactures use sulfur dioxide during sugar cane processing to extend its shelf life, but it’s been identified as a key problematic substance involved with a common allergic reaction to sulfites in foods. Sulfur dioxide is also considered a pollutant of enormous concern to environmental scientists.”

10) Honey: “Honey has natural antibacterial and antiviral properties and is chock-full of many health-enhancing nutrients and antioxidants,” says Friedman. “Honey has been used to treat an array of health conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, stomach ulcers, wound healing and fighting tooth decay and gingivitis. But not all honey is the same, and the health benefits of consuming honey depends on the type of honey as well as when and how it’s harvested. Also, some honey is mixed with high-fructose corn syrup, which has been linked to causing inflammation and contributes to many diseases.”

“While all pure honey has health benefits, my favorite is called manuka, which is honey on steroids,” Friedman continues. “Manuka is made in Australia and New Zealand, but it’s available at most grocery and health food stores. Manuka honey has antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. It’s an effective treatment for stomach ulcers because it kills H. pylori, a bacterium that’s been associated with causing ulcers. It’s also been found to be effective against chronic diarrhea and C. difficile, a bacterium that can cause life-threatening inflammation of the colon.”

Honey can also be good for your teeth. “Unlike white processed sugar, which causes cavities and gum disease, studies have shown manuka honey attacks harmful oral bacteria associated with plaque formation and tooth decay,” Friedman says. “Make sure to choose a high-quality brand of raw honey and not one that’s mixed with any syrup. Check the ingredients, and look for the only ingredient listed as being ‘honey.’ Also, buy honey in a glass container instead of plastic, as this will ensure it’s more stable. Finally, avoid clear honey, which is an indication that it’s been filtered. Good quality honey is foggy, a natural effect of bee pollen.”

11) Stevia: Finally, the healthiest sweetener on our list. “My top pick is stevia,” Friedman says. “It’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used to sweeten beverages and make tea since the 16th century. Stevia is naturally free of calories and has a glycemic load of zero, meaning it’s great for diabetics and doesn’t spike blood sugar. Research shows that stevia can significantly lower insulin and glucose levels, as well as reduce appetite. Stevia has also been shown to help lower total cholesterol, LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as increase HDL ‘good’ cholesterol.”

“A double-blind, placebo-controlled study demonstrated that long-term stevia consumption produces significant, lasting decreases in blood pressure in patients with mild to moderate hypertension,” Friedman continues. “Some evidence suggests stevia may also help fight or prevent cancer: A glycoside called stevioside found in stevia plants boosts cancer cell death and also helps decrease some mitochondrial pathways that support cancer growth.”

Be careful when shopping for stevia, though. “Stevia products found on grocery store shelves, such as Truvia and Stevia in the Raw, don’t contain whole stevia leaf,” Friedman warns. “The primary ingredient in these sweeteners isn’t stevia; it’s a sugar alcohol called erythritol. Erythritol is a potent insecticide and also kills plants. Plus, the human body can’t digest erythritol and it’s been known to cause allergic reactions and digestive issues, which includes bloating, gas and diarrhea.”

“When shopping for the purest stevia, always buy a powdered product that’s 100 percent pure stevia extract — not stevia powder, which indicates it’s a blend and not a pure extract,” Friedman continues. “You can also go with a pure, alcohol-free liquid stevia, or you can do what I do and grow your own stevia. It’s really not that difficult.”

I hope you enjoyed all that sweet advice AHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAA