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Is Maple Syrup Better than Sugar?

Sugar is everywhere. It’s in your morning coffee drinks, it’s on your kitchen counter, it’s in your fruits and vegetables and it’s especially notable in the snacks, sweets and treats you consume.

It’s hard to avoid sugar, which is why almost eight in 10 adults are trying to reduce the amount of it in their diets, according to the American Health Association (AHA). It also explains why people are always in search of sugar substitutes or natural sweeteners such as maple syrup. But, does natural mean better for you and is maple syrup superior to table sugar? We sought out the answer to those questions by diving into more detail about how sugar affects your body and analyzing the potential health benefits maple syrup has over other options.

What does sugar do to your body?

Despite the negative connotation, your body actually needs sugar to function. Sugar is a carbohydrate found naturally in various foods that provides energy to your cells. 
Sugar is classified as either having one molecule (monosaccharides) or two molecules (disaccharides). Simple sugars have just one molecule and include glucose, fructose and galactose. Disaccharides include sucrose (glucose and fructose), lactose (glucose and galactose) and maltose (two glucose molecules).

Natural sugar vs. added sugar

Of course, all sugar isn’t equal. In general, you can separate sugar into two categories: naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. While maple syrup is a natural sweetener, it’s not a naturally occurring sugar found in food. Therefore, it falls under the category of added sugars.

Fructose is sugar found in fruit, while lactose is sugar found in dairy products. Sucrose also appears in fruits and vegetables, although you’ll most commonly find it in sugar packets and on counters in the form of table sugar. Table sugar, derived from sugar cane before being processed, bleached and crystallized, is one of many types of added sugars used in the food manufacturing process to help improve taste and shelf life.

The main difference between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars is the impact they have on your body. Added sugars contain no nutritional value, which is why they’re referred to as empty calories. Yes, your body processes natural and added sugars the same, but sugars found naturally in food also contain healthy vitamins and minerals. For example, an apple contains fructose but also has fiber, vitamin C and vitamin B6.

Too much added sugar leads to temporary spikes in glucose (blood sugar) and can cause weight gain, inflammation, skin aging and dental problems, according to the AHA.

Beyond that, it can contribute to a litany of health problems, including increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colon cancer, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and liver disease.

Glycemic index and blood sugar levels

Foods high in glucose are higher on the glycemic index — the effect carbohydrates have on your blood sugar — and will cause a quicker blood sugar spike compared to other types of sugar. 

This is why many athletes turn to products with glucose for boosts of energy. Foods high on the glycemic index cause your body to release glucose rapidly. Foods low on the glycemic index cause a slower, more sustained release of glucose. Glucose is a 100 on the glycemic index, whereas sucrose (54) and lactose (49) fall in the middle. Fructose is lower on the glycemic index at 19.

Maple syrup nutrition facts

Now that you know the basics of sugar, we can dive deeper into natural sweeteners and how they stack up against one another.

A tablespoon of sugar has 12.6 grams of sugar, 48.9 calories and 12.6 grams of carbohydrates, according to the USDA. It also has a glycemic index of 65. A tablespoon of maple syrup has 52 calories, 12.1 grams of sugar and 13.4 grams of carbohydrates. It has a glycemic index of 54.

By comparison, a tablespoon of pure honey has 63 calories, 17.2 grams of sugar and 17.3 grams of carbohydrates. It has a glycemic index of 58. A tablespoon of agave syrup has 14.1 grams of sugar, 64.2 calories and 15.8 grams of carbohydrates. It has a glycemic index of 19.

As you can see, maple syrup is lower on the glycemic index than table sugar, meaning it doesn’t spike blood sugar as quickly. However, it’s not as low as agave, which is considered a low glycemic index sweetener. What health benefits does maple syrup have?

The next time you use sugar, look at the label and you’ll be hard pressed to find anything of value — calories, carbohydrates and added sugars are the only nutrition facts with a number other than 0. 

As empty as sugar is for your body, maple syrup contains some small added value. Maple syrup comes from tree sap and, because trees contain minerals, the syrup has antioxidants and a prebiotic called oligosaccharides that assists with gut health.

One tablespoon of the sweet stuff contains 33 percent of your daily value of manganese, a mineral found in your bones and organs that helps form connective tissue and bones and helps with blood clotting. 

Maple syrup also has 15 mg of calcium and 45 mg of potassium, which amounts to about 1 percent of your daily recommended value. It also has trace amounts of zinc, copper and iron.

Is maple syrup the better choice?

Added sugars, whether found in nature or refined, are still sugars. Your body treats them as such. Even though maple syrup primarily consists of sucrose, along with trace amounts of fructose and glucose, all sugar eventually converts to glucose in the intestine before traveling into the blood. And while maple syrup may have a lower glycemic index than table sugar, it still raises your blood sugar — albeit more slowly.

The bottom line is this: Natural doesn’t always mean it’s good for you. Yes, pure maple syrup is less processed than other added sugars. Yes, it has more antioxidants and minerals than table sugar. So, should you add maple syrup to your diet because of this? No. But, if you’re going to use sugar in a recipe, you might as well substitute in maple syrup since it’s slightly better for you than refined sugar.

The reality is maple syrup is still high in sugar. It would be very unhealthy to eat several tablespoons of maple syrup per day to add calcium or potassium to your diet.

The more appropriate way is to add whole foods to your diet, not more sugar.

It’s important to remember whether you use table sugar, honey, agave or maple syrup, the AHA recommends men should limit their sugar intake to nine teaspoons of sugar per day (about 36 grams or 150 calories) and women should limit their sugar intake to six teaspoons (about 25 grams or 100 calories).

If you have any questions about your sugar intake or lowering your blood sugar levels, contact an INTEGRIS Health primary care physician to learn more about healthier habits.

 

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