“Can’t I even have honey?” asked my daughter.
I shook my head.
During the month of February, we’re trying to avoid all added sugars in our house. More than 2,500 others are also taking on this feat during the Star Tribune’s 28-Day Sugar-Free Challenge, including readers, community members and many of my colleagues.
My daughter wasn’t the only one to ask about honey. During the first week of the challenge, curious readers wanted to know if it, too, was considered an added sugar when it’s a natural one.
Honey seems wholesome. But is it any better for you than high-fructose corn syrup or other added sugars?
The answer: It may be a little bit better for you, but only if you don’t have too much of it — and other sugars.
Part of this has to do with the simple sugar molecules in sweeteners, from sugar to agave. Most are a combination of glucose and fructose.
Honey contains less fructose (about 40 percent) than table sugar (which has 50 percent), according to the health scientists at Sugarscience.org. High-fructose corn syrup can contain a range, from 42 percent to as high as 90 percent.
Because our body metabolizes glucose and fructose differently, many of the health issues that have doctors so concerned about added sugars are linked to high fructose consumption, in particular.
While several organs can metabolize glucose, only the liver handles fructose. This isn’t a problem when eating fruit, because the fructose in fruit comes with fiber, water, antioxidants and nutrients that slow down digestion. But if the liver gets too much fructose too quickly, it can lead to higher levels of fats in the blood and a fatty liver. These conditions are linked to heart disease and even nonalcoholic liver cirrhosis.
Our body processes fructose from sources such as honey and maple syrup just as it does fructose from regular table sugar because there’s no fiber to slow down digestion.
While honey has more calories than table sugar, it also has some healthy nutrients that refined sugars don’t, such as antioxidants, amino acids and vitamins. Maple syrup also contains antioxidant properties, a 2009 Virginia Tech study found.
Here’s the rub, though: While natural, these sugars are still added sugars that can tip our overall sugar consumption into unhealthy levels.
The American Heart Association suggests that men keep their daily total of added sugar intake at 9 teaspoons or below, women at 6 teaspoons and under, and that kids consume even less. But the average American consumes much more, about 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, according to the latest federal estimates. Those teaspoons add up quickly, especially given all of the hidden sugars in packaged foods.
So, despite honey’s sweeter reputation, we’ll keep trying to avoid it during the challenge.
After more than a week without added sugars, the taste of a doughnut seems like a distant memory and the frozen sweet corn from my dad’s garden tastes delightfully like candy.
My family has been rediscovering healthier snacks and alternatives to Goldfish crackers. My toddler has come to love crunchy seaweed. Go figure.
I’ve been trying to follow advice from Dr. Samar Malaeb, an endocrinologist and nutrition expert with University of Minnesota Health, who suggested that I get the kids involved in cooking and preparing meals to see if that inspires them to eat a wider variety of real food without covering it in ketchup.
“I think we can hope for the fact that children are still developing and we can try to help develop their taste buds in the right direction,” Malaeb told me.
Unfortunately, my kids seem to love adding the smoothie ingredients and pressing the buttons on the blender much more than the finished product.
And we have really missed our weekend breakfasts of pancakes or French toast covered in maple syrup.
Starting March 1, my family and I will figure out how to enjoy our honey — and my beloved maple syrup — in moderation.