We have been eating exponentially more sugar over the last century, especially in the last three or four decades. This increase is largely because whole food sources of carbohydrates have been replaced with refined carbohydrates and added sugars in processed and manufactured foods. It just so happens that while sugar consumption has increased so have obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease. While the evidence for a causal relationship between sugar consumption and these diseases remains preliminary, there is ample evidence for a link between sugar consumption and inflammation. See Why Is Sugar Bad?.
From a health perspective, high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners should be eliminated completely along with natural non-caloric sweeteners like stevia (see Why is High Fructose Corn Syrup Bad For Us?, Is It Paleo? Fructose and Fructose-Based Sweeteners (I’m looking at you, Agave!), Is It Paleo? Splenda, Erythritol, Stevia and other low-calorie sweeteners, and Teaser Excerpt from The Paleo Approach: The Trouble with Stevia). And the evidence clearly shows that sugar (in large quantities) should not be a staple in our diets (see Why Is Sugar Bad? and How many carbs should you eat?).
The good news is that small amounts of natural sugars are unlikely to be harmful and can even contribute some valuable micronutrients to our diets (see The Importance of Nutrient Density). The bad news is that it’s still a case of “the dose makes the poison”: these foods become harmful when they start displacing more-nutritious items from the menu or when they increase our energy intake beyond what we need. Therefore, they’re conditionally allowed on a Paleo diet.
Natural Sugars versus Refined Sugars
How do natural sugars differ from refined table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup? In most cases, the ratio of glucose to fructose (after we’ve consumed and metabolized the sweetener) is actually very similar: about 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose (keeping in mind that sucrose is broken down into equal parts fructose and glucose in our bodies). The biggest exception is agave syrup, which is in the “avoid” list due to its extremely high fructose content (up to 85 percent or higher); see Is It Paleo? Fructose and Fructose-Based Sweeteners (I’m looking at you, Agave!).
The main reason natural sugars are considered superior to highly refined table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup has to do with micronutrients. Raw honey contains small amounts of vitamins A, B1, B6, B9, B12, C, D, and E, as well as calcium, sodium, phosphorus, magnesium, silicon, iron, manganese, and copper. Maple syrup contains small amounts of manganese and zinc. Unrefined cane sugar (sucanat, evaporated cane juice, muscovado/Barbados sugar, rapadura sugar, or jaggery) contains small amounts of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, and B6, along with calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, chromium, phosphorus, manganese, sodium, and potassium. By contrast, white sugar, brown sugar, and turbinado sugar (“raw sugar”) contain close to zero micronutrients. Date sugar and coconut sugar contain some fiber, slowing down the glycemic response.
Among the natural sweeteners, though, molasses is king (see Blackstrap Molasses: The Sugar You Can Love!). Its nutritional content is exceptional, and while it should be used in moderation like any sweetener, it can make some truly beneficial contributions to our diets. However, all natural sweeteners can be used in moderation and occasionally.
The Best Natural Sugars to Choose
The trick with all natural sugars and sweeteners is to keep your intake moderate and occasional. When you do want a treat, a natural sugar with some micronutrient content is the best choice.
Note: Exact saccharide content can vary depending on exactly where and how these sugars are produced; the numbers in this table may not reflect the version you have purchased. Honey is especially variable in its glucose and fructose content. Also note that there is very limited and conflicting data on coconut sugar.
Now, don’t get excited at the long list of vitamins and minerals in some of these natural sugars. With the exception of molasses, especially blackstrap molasses (see Blackstrap Molasses: The Sugar You Can Love!), the amounts that you would need to eat in order for the micronutrient content to contribute meaningfully to your diet would far exceed what could be classified as moderate.
“Blackstrap Molasses. In-Depth Nutritional Analysis.” World’s Healthiest Foods. Accessed November 5, 2015.
Ensminger ME & Ensminger AH. “Foods and Nutrition Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition.” CRC Press, 1993: page 83.
“Glycemic Index.” The University of Sydney. http://www.glycemicindex.com
Nath A, et al. “Review on recent advances in value addition of jaggery based products.” J Food Process Technol. 2015;6:4
Secretaria, et al. “Comparison of the Elemental Content of 3 Sources of Edible Sugar.” The Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute. Analyzed by PCA-TAL, Sept. 11, 2000. 2003. In parts per million (ppm or mg/li).
“USDA Food Composition Databases.” United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/