Sugar Is Sugar, By Any Other Name… Or Is It? (Part 1)

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By now you’re probably aware of the news: People with diabetes can eat sugar! No, sugar isn’t going to spike up your blood glucose levels (unless you happen to pour the entire contents of the sugar bowl into your mouth). But sugar isn’t so simple anymore. For those of you who’ve decided to sneak some back into your eating plan, you’re now faced with some choices.

Years ago, your sugar decisions boiled down to granulated, light brown, dark brown, and confectioner’s. Now there’s a whole new world of sugar to choose from, depending on what your tastes are: coarse sugar, sanding sugar, turbinado sugar, muscovado sugar, demerara sugar…and that’s not even counting other forms of sugar, such as honey, molasses, dextrose, maltodextrin, and high-fructose corn syrup.

We’ve looked at this topic before in past blog posts (see “Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Fitting Sugar Into Your Meal Plan”), so I won’t reiterate too much about it here. But, as a quick recap, let’s look at what we know about sugar and diabetes:

  • Eating sugar (or foods that contain sugar) doesn’t cause diabetes.
  • People with diabetes can fit sugar into their eating plan, as long as it’s accounted for.
  • Sugar is a type of carbohydrate, just as starch is a carbohydrate.
  • Gram for gram, sugar doesn’t raise blood glucose levels any more than eating another carbohydrate food, such as bread or cereal.
  • One teaspoon of sugar contains 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrate. One tablespoon of sugar contains 16 grams of carbohydrate, the same amount of carb that’s in a slice of bread.
  • Too much sugar is linked to obesity and dental cavities.

The point is, then, that sugar isn’t as evil as some folks make it out to be. Sugar is all natural and comes from sugar beet or sugar cane plants. On the other hand, it’s not exactly a powerhouse of nutrition. Sugar doesn’t contain fiber, vitamins, or minerals, for example. It’s pure carbohydrate and doesn’t have too much else to offer.

So what about all the different types of sugar? Are some a better choice to use, say, in coffee or baking, than others? Let’s look at the different kinds and what it all means.

  • White, or granulated, sugar. Also known as sucrose, this is the run-of-the-mill, everyday kind of sugar that is either sitting in your sugar bowl or is nestled in those little white packets at restaurants. Most recipes that call for “sugar” intend for you to use granulated sugar.
  • Confectioner’s (powdered) sugar. This is granulated sugar that is ground to a fine consistency and usually has cornstarch added so that it won’t cake up. If you ever make buttercream frosting, chances are you’ll be reaching for the confectioner’s sugar.
  • Brown sugar. This kind of sugar comes from sugar cane and contains molasses. Dark brown sugar contains more molasses than light brown. Some types are unrefined or partially refined, but brown sugar can also be produced by adding molasses to refined white sugar. And we all know that brown sugar is notorious for becoming as hard as a brick if not stored properly.
  • Turbinado sugar. Also known as raw sugar, or sugar in the raw, turbinado sugar is formed by steaming unrefined sugar. The result is a pale brown-colored sugar that many people like to use in coffee or tea, or even in recipes that call for light brown sugar.
  • Muscovado sugar. This unrefined sugar is a very dark brown, rich, molasses-tasting sugar that’s a little stickier than regular brown sugar. It’s used primarily to sweeten coffee, to make whiskey, and in baked goods.
  • Demerara. Another unrefined brown sugar that is light in color. It’s commonly used in Great Britain in coffee, tea, and in baking. It originated in the Demerara colony in Guyana, by the way; hence the name.

Despite some of the more “natural” sounding names, the bottom line with these sugars is that there’s no real nutritional advantage to using one over the other. Sure, brown sugar has a slightly higher mineral content than white sugar, but the difference is negligible. If your goal is to eat fewer refined foods, then go with one of the less-refined brown types. But you still have to count the carbs and calories. And even brown sugar is linked with cavities.

Next week: Sugar in other forms.

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