DEAR DR. BLONZ: Other than price, what is the difference between organic sugar made from evaporated cane juice, and regular granulated sugar? Are both products stripped of their nutrients, and if consumed regularly, harmful to my health? Also, where do brown sugar and honey fit in? As a very active young adult (21 years old), should I replace some sugar products with a natural sweetener like honey? I am trying to create a healthy lifestyle. -- F.F., San Diego
DEAR F.F.: Bottom line: Nutritional value is not a reason to choose evaporated cane juice over granulated sugar, as they are essentially the same. Granulated sugar, whether from cane or beets, is pure sucrose -- plain and simple. There are flavor differences between sugar and evaporated cane juice, and the latter can also contain trace amounts of minerals and vitamins, but not enough to qualify as a source. Evaporated cane juice is less processed and requires less energy to produce, but as you point out, it also costs more.
As for brown sugar, don't let the color fool you into thinking that it's more nutritious. The only nutrient-rich component in sugar cane is the unprocessed molasses -- the fluid that is left after the sugar is crystallized out of the cane or beet juice. Brown sugar is not made by leaving the molasses in, but rather by adding a specially refined molasses juice to a refined white sugar. The nutritional differences between white and brown sugar are practically nil.
Honey is actually sweeter than an equivalent weight of granulated sugar or dried cane juice. (One note of caution: Honey is not recommended for infants less than 1 year old.) One advantage with honey is the way it's constructed and absorbed.
Both sucrose (from granulated sugar or cane juice) and honey are made up of equal amounts of two sugars: glucose and fructose. The glucose and fructose in sucrose are bound together, while with honey, the glucose and fructose are separate. This makes a difference in the speed at which the carbohydrate enters the body and is metabolized.
In the body, sucrose gets actively absorbed. This means there is a special mechanism that actively pulls it into the body when it comes in contact with the absorptive surfaces in our intestines. Glucose, when by itself, is also actively absorbed. Fructose, by contrast, is passively absorbed, which means it comes into the bloodstream at a slower rate.
The implication here is that when you eat honey, only half the carbohydrate (the glucose) is rapidly absorbed. With sucrose, both the glucose and the attached fructose are rapidly absorbed.
Sugary foods quickly satisfy the body's immediate energy needs, but once these needs are met, the blood sugar level begins to rise, causing insulin to be released. This signals a shift into "energy storage mode" and the sugar calories get changed into fat.
Sugars can certainly fit into a healthy lifestyle; their main use in cooking should be in small amounts to bring out or complement another food's natural flavors. Sweet treats, where the sugary taste is in the foreground, should only be consumed sparingly. Assuming you have no problems with blood sugar regulation, other factors to consider are the amount of calories your body requires, the risk of tooth decay and the fact that when you consume sugar calories, you have less room for food with more healthful attributes.
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