Over the past few decades sugar has been categorized as a tempting but hazardous ingredient, indulged in by the undisciplined and avoided by the virtuous. Expanding waistlines, increased health problems and hyperactivity in children were all chalked up to America’s increasing consumption of sugar.

Recently, The New York Times featured an article detailing the ways in which this indulgence is being recast as a healthy alternative to synthetic and corn-based sweeteners — sugar’s days as a “bad guy” may be coming to an end, at least for now. Fructose, otherwise known as high-fructose corn syrup, has replaced sugar as the sweetener that consumers are shunning.

Is this the right way to go? Is sugar really the healthier alternative? What are the health benefits of sugar?

Calorie content

Since total calorie intake is what will impact body fat levels and weight gain, it’s the first factor to assess when comparing two foods. Both fructose and sugar are forms of carbohydrate, and contain four calories per gram consumed. Both also lack dietary fiber, (which goes partially undigested through the body) and are generally lacking in nutritious value. There's not many health benefits of sugar or fructose here. Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup are both composed of glucose and fructose; the only difference is that high-fructose corn syrup has a higher degree of fructose in it by about 5 percent.

Impact on insulin and blood glucose levels

While total calorie content is important, it’s not the entire story. Different nutrients also have varying impacts on how we feel after we consume them, and that can impact how much we eat at mealtime.

Fructose wins the race when it comes to blood glucose levels, as it’s sent to the liver after consumption and has minimal impacts on insulin and blood sugar levels. This makes it a better option if you want to avoid the highs and lows typically associated with foods that contain pure glucose. Sugar, while composed of partial fructose, will still send the glucose straight to the blood, causing insulin levels to increase while you experience a quick burst of energy. Unfortunately, this burst of energy is frequently followed by a drop, which often just leaves you hungry and craving more. That, in turn, can cause you to consume more food during the day, increasing your calorie intake.

One downside to fructose is that it does not have as much of an impact on the hormone leptin, which regulates the sensation of hunger. So while you won’t get the blood sugar spike and crash from eating fructose, you may not feel as full after eating higher fructose foods compared with foods higher in sugar.

Degree of processing

Many people are starting to turn to sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup because sugar isn't as processed. As more people are trying to keep their food intake as unprocessed as possible, this seems to make sense.It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the best form of sugar will be the natural sugars found in fruits and vegetables, which also supply antioxidants as well as fiber. A high intake of either sugar or fructose can potentially lead to issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Minimizing the damage from consumption

When it comes to choosing which sweetener you should be using, you’re going to face some trade-offs. Do you want to control blood sugar levels? Or are you trying to prevent feeling drained come 2 p.m. after you’ve downed your lunchtime sugar-laden coffee? Either way you look at it, both of these sweeteners are providing excess calories to the body, and when these calories are not burned, they are going to be stored as body fat. Additional body fat puts you at risk for a whole number of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

You’re always going to be best off to try and remove both sweeteners from your diet and instead focus on complex sources of carbohydrates such as vegetables, potatoes, whole grains, and brown rice, along with the natural sugars found in fruit. These will give you well-rounded nutrition without all the excess calories.If you must have sweeteners in your diet, try to eat them around your workout, as this is when they will be used up by the muscle tissues, decreasing the negative impact on your body.

A sweet deal?

Just because sugar’s reputation is being burnished, don’t be too quick to start adding sugar into your diet thinking it’s somehow good for you. Regardless of whether high-fructose corn syrup is worse than sugar, there are still far superior forms of carbohydrates out there to be putting into your body, such as oatmeal, whole grain breads, brown rice, sweet potatoes, fruits, and vegetables.

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