The Raw Facts on Sugar


Feb. 24, 2006 — -- What's the real deal on sugar? We all know it's not great for us. It adds empty calories to our diet. Some people claim brown sugar is better for you than white sugar. It's more "natural," they say.

"Natural" is such a good selling point. So is "raw." One woman said, "When I see 'in the raw' [on a sugar package], I assume it's less processed than white sugar. The same thing with rice."

She makes a good point about rice. Brown rice is higher in fiber, because it still has some of the bran attached, explained Cathy Nonas, director of obesity and diabetes programs at New York City's North General Hospital.

Brown rice has much more fiber and significantly more minerals than white rice. But it's not the same story with brown sugar.

"People who are grabbing that brown sugar because they think it's healthier are basically deluding themselves," Nonas said.

Sugar begins as sap in sugarcane plants, which are crushed to release what is called sugar juice. The juice is heated, which creates a thick dark molasses containing sugar crystals. They spin that in a centrifuge to remove the molasses. What's left is white granulated sugar. Brown sugar is brown because it has some of the molasses added back to the white sugar.

It's true that molasses tastes a little sweeter and contains a little iron and calcium, but only a little.

To get as much iron as I'd get from one slice of whole-wheat bread, I'd have to eat nine teaspoons of brown sugar.

"Brown sugar is not any better than white sugar. People should still reduce their intake of all sugars because they're basically empty calories," Nonas said.

And "raw " sugar is no better, Nonas added. "People are very susceptible to marketing. And just because something is natural doesn't mean it's particularly healthy for you," she said.

Raw sugar isn't even really raw. It's just slightly less refined, so it retains some of the molasses. But there's no real health real benefit from it. "There's no more nutritional value in raw sugar than there is in white sugar or brown sugar," Nonas said.

Executive pastry chef Dennis Canciello of Ferrara Bakery in New York agrees. "It's sugar, that's all it is. Sugar is sugar," he said.

And there's another myth about sugar. We hear this one from parents all the time. Sugar drives the kids crazy.

Even some of the kids believe it.

"I go really nuts when I have candy," one girl said.

And it doesn't matter how old you are.

"You get really -- hyper! ... I'm like oh, I'm on such a sugar rush right now," a teenage girl said.

Lots of people accept the idea that too much sugar makes kids wild and hyper. But is it true?

"The research is very clear. Sugar does not make a child hyperactive," Nonas said.

Many studies have found that. One published in the New England Journal of Medicine gave some kids sugared foods and others foods with artificial sweeteners.

Their parents and the researchers didn't know who was eating sugar and who wasn't. They monitored the kids for things like irritability and hyperactivity. They found no difference.

"There is no such thing as a sugar high. And there is no such thing as sugar making you nuts. There just isn't," said Nonas.

But I've seen kids go crazy at parties. Isn't that because the sugar kicks in?

Actually, no. And some of their moms have figured out what's going on.

"The kids are hyper! They are hyper because they are excited. Because they have freedom. Because there are 20 kids, crowding around each other," said insightful mom Hillari Boritz.

Right, because it's a party!

The studies also show that if food has an effect, it could be the caffeine in chocolate and soda that's giving you the buzz. It's not the sugar.

Special thanks to New York City's Ferrara Bakery and Cafe, Ceci-Cela Patisserie and Rocco's Pastry Shop and Espresso Cafe.