Pick up an energy bar or healthier cereal from the free-from aisle of the supermarket, and you might spot the phrase “refined sugar free” proudly emblazoned across the packaging. Flipping to the back of package, you might see ingredients like date syrup, or notice that the nutrient information still shows that the product contains a few grams of sugar per serving. So what gives? What is an unrefined sugar, and is it better for you than good old table sugar?
In food production, refined tends to refer to removal of part of a raw ingredient to make the end product more desirable for a particular product. One example might be white flour, and the foods that are made from it. Refined sugar tends to refer to the cane and beet sugar you find commonly in the supermarket. Brown sugar still contains some of the molasses present in sugar cane, whereas white does not. The sugar will have been processed in a particular way to give it desirable qualities, such as caster sugars ability to easily dissolve and create light, fluffy cakes. Sugars that come under the unrefined sugar banner include honey, maple, date and agave syrup; coconut sugar and molasses. As these products are less refined than white cane sugar and beet sugar
Although these less refined sugar alternatives may contain trace minerals that table sugar lacks, the quantities are in tiny amounts, that would only contribute meaningfully to the diet if you consumed very high levels of the sugar, which likely negate the benefits.
A better definition to use than refined sugar is free sugar. Free sugars refers to any sugars not contained within a cell wall structure, and will therefore be absorbed rapidly. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) refers to free sugars as “all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.”
Without starches, and more complex structures of sugars and carbohydrates, you get a sweeter flavour needed for many recipes, but also a higher intake of sugar. Examples include fruit juices, honey, syrups, granulated sugar alternatives and cane sugar. Public Health England recommends aiming to keep free sugars to 5% of daily energy intake -so 5% of your daily calories would come from free sugars. Being aware of juices, sweet snacks and desserts can give you an idea of roughly how much free sugars you might be consuming without having to count the exact amount.
Stevia, xylitol and other sweeteners do not count as free sugars, as they contain no monosaccharide or disaccharide sugar molecules, and are low-calorie or calorie free.
This is where things get a little grey. Shop bought smoothies are often blended or pressed with fruit juices to improve the texture, increasing the free sugar content. When making smoothies at home, the cell structure of the fruit may be broken open during the blending process, so sugars are technically released even without the addition of more juice. SACN recommends that all foods where the cellular structure has broken down should be treated as free sugars. However, smoothies, especially homemade, will still contain the fruit fibre and may contain fats or proteins from other ingredients that could reduce absorption rates and blood sugar increases. Having a variety of ingredients in your smoothie, and sticking to the one glass is a sensible approach. Depending on the ratio of fruits to vegetables, and the types used, will affect how many sugars are in your juice. If you’re buying a juice, keep to a small portion, and if you are making one from home, you could dilute it with water to reduce the concentration of free sugars. In both cases, enjoying smoothies and green (or other colour!) juices is absolutely fine. Food guilt or getting stressed about calculating free sugar content is way less healthy than enjoying tasty drinks.
In all, treat any added sugar the same regardless of whether or it claims to be unrefined or not. Whilst there are small nutritional differences between each type, the amount consumed is too small to make a difference without eating huge quantities! I use a mixture of different sugars based on the flavours and textures I want for different recipes. Coconut nectar has a great rich flavour not dissimilar to Canary Island palm honey and juices can be a tasty part of your day. Foods with free sugars can be a delicious part of the diet alongside a variety of other foods, and choosing the food that you want rather than what claims to be slightly healthier will be far more satisfying.
Further reading and references:
Summary of free sugars: https://www.nutritionsociety.org/papers/definition-free-sugars-uk
Detailed SACN report on carbohydrates and sugar: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-carbohydrates-and-health-report