There’s no escaping it, we’re built to love sugar. As babies, we’re born with a preference for sweet flavors and there’s even evidence that early humans who ate fruit were more likely to survive. Craving sweetness was a benefit when it compelled us to eat more plants, but now that we’re surrounded by sugar that sweet tooth can feel pretty inconvenient. While small amounts of sugar aren’t a problem, regularly eating too much can lead to diabetes, fatty liver disease, and a decline in brain function.
Despite marketing claims, there are no truly healthy sugars. Your body doesn’t care if you drown your pancakes in organic maple syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. Once it gets past your tastebuds, all sugar, no matter its form, is just a simple molecule soup.
Glycemic index (GI) is a popular way to rank sugars, but a low GI doesn’t equal healthier. It’s just an indication of where the response happens in the body, and it changes based on what other foods are eaten. If a sugar has a high proportion of fructose, which is digested in the liver and doesn't trigger a blood sugar response, it'll have a lower GI. Excess sugar is harmful no matter the source.
There are also sugar alternatives that have no calories and no impact on blood sugar. The downside is that they are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and must be combined with bulking agents like sugar alcohols that can cause stomach upset. And even though many of them are derived from plants, they are highly processed.
But the news isn’t all bad. Though no sugar is “healthier” than any other, minimally processed sugars do retain some plant nutrients, which are stripped from highly processed versions. The naturally occurring sugar found in whole, unprocessed foods like fresh fruit and vegetables is full of fiber and other nutrients that slow digestion of the sugars and prevent insulin spikes.
Minimally processed sugars are also often produced in more sustainable ways. Sugarcane production has a devastating effect on the environment. It fuels deforestation, pollutes freshwater ecosystems, and is one of the most water-intensive crops on the planet. Those are good reasons to find alternatives to ultra-refined sugar.
The truth is that despite all its negative impact on our health and the environment, we need to make peace with the fact that most of us want something sweet to eat every once in a while and there is no shame in that. The question then is what types of sugar do the least harm.
Here’s our list of sugars ranked from best to worst.
Natural no-calorie sweeteners ranked: