I just had the pleasure of taking one of my private clients shopping. We went to a huge grocery store that had a large natural foods section. In fairness, my family chooses to purchase from local farmers and local cooperatives. We run into a national chain for occasional supplies like toilet paper. So my worldview around food is fairly one-sided. And the question of “healthy sugars” isn’t usually part of it.
We walked around just the natural foods section and in my opinion, about 90% of the products were neutral to flat out bad for you. I would even argue that many of them were nowhere close to “natural”. In short, there’s a whole lot of what I’d call “health washing” going on and a big part of it revolves around this thought of “healthy sugar“.
“Healthy Sugar” in Processed Foods?
Boxes touting “healthy sugars” were everywhere. It was frustrating to see things like organic toaster pastries or organic oreo-type cookies. As if “organic” makes the added sugars in our diets okay. Is this what people think is a “healthy sugar“? I noticed most of these products don’t list the word sugar anywhere on the ingredients list. I guess that’s because consumers know “sugar” is bad for them. But there’s a whole host of other types of refined, concentrated sources of sugar, that really aren’t “healthy sugar“.
How to Identify “Healthy Sugar” in Processed Foods:
First, ingredients are listed by quantity. When you read the nutrition facts label, ingredients are listed in order of amount by weight. So there is more of the first ingredient than any other ingredient. If the ingredient list says “oats, peanut butter, honey, cashews, cocoa butter, water, vanilla, salt” you know that there are more cashews then cocoa butter in the product, even if only by a little amount. Of course, most people consider honey a “healthy sugar”. But, it is possible that if you combine the peanut butter and honey, they may outweigh the oats. So read the whole list, and read it carefully.
Second, learn the various names for sugar / I’ve counted 107 currently, but it’s always evolving. Manufacturers will frequently use more than one type of sugar so these “healthy sugars” can be listed further down the ingredients list. But, if you combined all the “healthy sugars” together, they may actually be the number one ingredient. Using the same example above, a manufacturer may decide to use the “healthy sugars” honey and evaporated cane juice instead of just honey. Now, reading the ingredient list could say “oats, peanut butter, cashews, honey, cocoa butter, evaporated cane juice, water, vanilla, salt”. This can be the same amount of overall sugar as the first list but now, cashews have moved up the list and honey has moved down. At first glance this might seem healthier but it’s just a game with “healthy sugar”.
Third, although some sugars can be healthier than other sugars, in moderation, added sugar is still added sugar, whether it’s a “healthy sugar” or not. Don’t let some of the healthier sounding names of these “healthy sugars” fool you into believing that it to less harmful added sugar. Some words jump right out at you. Be cautious with anything that says “syrup”, “malt”, anything ending in “-ose”, or “tol” these are all sugars. And don’t forget organic sugar is still sugar.
“Healthy” Sugar Options:
Yes, evaporated cane juice, raw honey, pure maple syrup, coconut sugar, and stevia are more healthy sugars than refined, white sugar, but not in excess. Most of us have small amounts of added sugar in our diet. But many of these manufactured foods contain a lot more than small amounts, and some of them in very high proportions. So don’t get sucked into “fake health” by supposed “healthy sugars” that are still real sugars.