Have you ever found yourself in the supermarket staring at sugar packets and not knowing which one to buy? Which one is healthier: brown sugar vs white sugar? What about raw sugar?
What is sugar?
The sugar you buy at the supermarket to put in your coffee is sucrose, a disaccharide (= two sugars) composed of glucose and fructose.
Types of sugar
- White sugar: this is your regular table sugar.
- Caster sugar: has a smaller crystal size than white sugar. It is used for coating bakery products and confectionery.
- Brown sugar: is a moist, golden brown, very fine crystal product, made using selected refinery syrups.
- Raw sugar: is a free flowing sugar of straw colour with a soft, honey-like flavour.
- Demerara sugar: is a particular form of raw sugar with a golden, sparkling crystal and a distinctive rich flavour.
- Icing sugar: these are fine-grained white sugars produced by grinding crystal sugar. They have specific uses where the very fine particles are required, such as fondant for confectionery and in the baking industry (1).
The charts below show the differences in selected nutrients for different types of sugar. I have included other sweeteners in some of the charts to highlight for comparison purposes (data from 2). What you should note is that the differences in nutrition are minimal, especially considering that the charted amounts are per 100g of food and we typically eat a lot less at a time. For reference, 1 teaspoon is approximately 4-5 grams and 1 tablespoon is approximately 15-20 grams.
The graph below shows that the water content varies slightly in different types of sugar. A consequence of this is that different sugars will produce different results in baked goods. However, this difference is not significant in terms of health.
Added vs free vs total sugars
Added sugars are monosaccharides (e.g. glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (e.g. sucrose) added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer (3).
Free sugars include added sugars plus the sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates (3).
Total sugars include all sugars present in a food or beverage, including the “intrinsic” or naturally occurring ones. For example, milk contains the naturally occurring sugar lactose, which counts toward the total sugar content but not the added sugars nor free sugars. However, if you add two sachets of sugar, all three measures (added, free and total) will go up. This will become relevant in a minute.
How much sugar is too much?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend to “limit intake of foods and drinks containing added sugars such as confectionery, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks”. The evidence cited includes a probable association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and increased risk of weight gain, and a suggestive association between a high or frequent consumption of added sugars and increased risk of dental caries (4).
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting daily intake of added sugars to no more than 9 teaspoons (= 36 grams or 150 kilocalories) for men and no more than 6 teaspoons (= 25 grams or 100 kcals for women) (5).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends limiting the daily intake of free sugars to no more than 10% of total energy intake, potentially no more than 5% (3). This means that for a daily energy intake of 2000 kcals, a maximum of 200 kcals should be coming from free sugars. This equates to 50 grams of free sugars or about 12.5 teaspoons. Given that energy intake should take into account a person’s body weight, this limit makes a little more sense than the AHA’s set amount for men and women.
Notice that the AHA and WHO’s recommendations cannot be directly compared because the limits are applied to added vs free sugars. The charts below contain examples of added, free and total sugars in foods (data from 2). Notice the serving size is an indication only, your mileage may vary.
Summary and recommendations
There is not a huge difference between brown sugar vs white sugar and other types of sugar available in supermarkets. They will all impact your blood sugar levels and general health in a similar way. When eaten within reasonable quantities, the amount of nutrients available in brown and raw sugar will be minimal.
To ensure you are not eating excessive amounts of added/free sugars:
- Avoid processed foods, in particular sugar-sweetened beverages
- Read nutrition labels. Added sugars can be found in sweet and savoury foods, including sauces, olives, bread, etc.
If you are an athlete don’t panic if your added sugar intake exceeds recommended limits to a great extent. Remember you are eating for performance and not only for health. Speak to your sports dietitian if you are concerned about your added sugar intake.
- Sugar Australia Company. Crystal Sugars 2018 [cited 2020 05/07/2020]. Available from: https://www.sugaraustralia.com.au/sugar-australia/products/industrial-products/crystal-sugars/.
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Australian Food Composition Database – Release 1. Canberra: FSANZ; 2019. Available from: www.foodstandards.gov.au
- Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2015.
- National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Dietary Guidelines. Canberra: National Health and Medical Research Council; 2013.
- American Heart Association. How much sugar is too much? [cited 07/07/2020]. Available from: https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/sugar/how-much-sugar-is-too-much.