Does the “Healthiest Sugar” Even Exist?

By Allison Lansman, RDN

What is the "healthiest sugar"? is likely the biggest question of the century.

And, because not all sugar or sweeteners are created equal, it makes this a difficult question to answer. Sugar comes in many different varieties, and it can become challenging to keep up with the benefits and drawbacks of each form.

Is All Sugar Bad for You?

You may have heard the phrase, "all sugar is bad sugar."

But is this really true?

In reality, there are some sugars and sweeteners, natural and artificial, that you should limit in your diet due to their research-backed health concerns. An example is added sugars.

Added sugars are simple sugars added to sugary foods and drinks. These excess sugars contribute to high daily sugar intake. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar per day, which contributes to higher rates of obesity, tooth decay, and other diseases like diabetes.

On the other hand, sugar is also essential for keeping your body functioning.

What is Sugar and Does Your Body Even Need it?

Sugars are the primary energy source for your body.

They are absorbed in the intestines after being consumed and digested into simple sugar units – glucose, sucrose, and fructose – if necessary. After, these simple sugars remain in the blood until cells absorb them to create energy or are stored in the form of body fat.

However, the body only needs a certain amount of sugar, especially added sugars, per day. According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, added sugars should make up less than 10% of your daily caloric intake, or 6 to 9 teaspoons (24 to 36 grams), per day.

When you consume over this amount of added sugar, you can also experience blood sugar spikes and crashes. This spike-crash cycle is of most concern to individuals mindful of their blood sugar levels, including those with prediabetes and diabetics.

All the Types of Sugar You Need to Know

A variety of different sugars and sweeteners are added to the foods you eat. These can be naturally derived, processed, or artificial and vary based on their effects on your body and health.

Processed Sugars

Processed sugars are created by refining and extracting natural sugars from different plants. The two most common sources of processed sugars are table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

Table Sugar
Table sugar, AKA: sucrose, is produced by processing the juice of sugar cane or sugar beets into edible sugar crystals.
Sucrose is commonly found in processed foods or can be available in bags at your local supermarket.
HFCS
HFCS is syrup produced from milled corn starch mixed with enzymes. The addition of these enzymes increases the sweetness of the syrup by increasing the content of fructose – another simple sugar.
This sugar can be bought at the store, but is usually found in prepared and canned foods, like jams, jellies, and breads.

Both table sugar and HFCS are known as 'added sugars.' And, as we’ve already highlighted, consuming excess added sugars can have a profound impact on blood sugar levels and chronic disease risk.

Naturally Derived Sugars

Sugar occurs naturally in many foods. These natural sugar sources contain energy – AKA: calories – and nutrients like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients. The natural sugar sources we most discuss are fruits, herbs, and syrups and saps.

Fruits
All fruits contain naturally-occurring sugars in the form of fructose.
One of the most intriguing fruits is monk fruit – a Chinese melon that is commonly dried and turned into a sweetener. This extract is 150-250 times sweeter than table sugar and also has zero calories or carbs. In addition, this natural sweetener does not raise blood glucose levels, making it an attractive option for people with diabetes.
However, some individuals experience allergic reactions, and there is also limited research about the long-term side effects of monk fruit use.
Herbs
Sweetener made from the stevia plant is one of the most popular natural sugar substitutes available. Stevia has zero calories, fat, carbs and is another excellent option for individuals looking to avoid blood sugar spikes.
Syrups & Saps

Plant-based syrups and saps are other options for enjoying natural sugars. Options you may be familiar with are molasses, agave, and maple syrup.

In the category, honey is one of the most popular syrup-based options. Honey receives its classically sweet taste from the naturally occurring compound known as palatinose – a simple sugar made up of bonded glucose and fructose molecules. Palatinose is a popular substitute for table sugar, with a slower digestion rate in the gut and, subsequently, a more moderate rise in blood sugar levels.

Artificial Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners also called sugar substitutes or non-nutritive sweeteners, are not natural substances. Instead, they are chemicals that can be added to foods to make them taste sweet. Some artificial sweeteners contain calories, but others do not, making them a common addition to low-calorie or zero-calorie foods.

Three of the most frequently used artificial sweeteners are:

  • Sucralose – is 600x sweeter than table sugar
  • Saccharin – also called Sweet’N Low and is 700x sweeter than table sugar
  • Aspartame – known as NutraSweet and Equal and is 200x sweeter than table sugar 

The Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for artificial sweeteners is 50 milligrams (mg) for each kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight. For example, a 150-pound person would need to consume 3,409 mg or less of artificial sweeteners per day.

Despite vigorous research, it is unclear how overconsuming artificial sweeteners affect the body or links to various adverse health outcomes.

What’s the Healthiest Sugar?

In reality, there is no healthiest sugar.

Any sugar or sweetener – whether natural, processed, or artificial – has its drawbacks.

Sugar or its alternatives are most harmful when overconsumed. Eating sugar beyond recommendations each day can lead to chronically high blood sugar levels and increase your disease risk. Those with minor potential disadvantages are natural sweeteners, including monk fruit, stevia, and palatinose.

Focus on eating sugars in moderation to control glucose levels in your bloodstream. Products like Sugarbreak’s Resist strips curb sugar cravings by temporarily blocking the taste of sugar, or Stabilize, which blocks the absorption of sugars and slows down carb digestion to prevent blood sugar spikes, can also help.