11/13/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST

Sugar is the same, nutritionally, even by any other name

Health-conscious consumers who think brown sugar is healthier than white sugar, that the large-grained demerara sugar is healthier then brown sugar, or that honey is better than any of them, think again — nutritionally, they're all basically the same, according to some experts.

"The short answer is no," said Kate Comeau, a Halifax-based dietitian and spokeswoman with Dietitians of Canada, when asked if there are any differences. 

"There may be minimal differences, nutritionally speaking. You may hear that one had a little bit more minerals or anti-oxidants."

The sweet substance is back in the headlines — this time the focus of a new survey that indicates fruit drinks consumed by children contain more sugar than soft drinks, more challenging news for parents looking for healthy alternatives.

In recent years, sugar has become a favourite target for many dietitians and nutrition specialists, warning of its potential health risks. 

Action on Sugar, a British-based group of specialists and the organization behind the survey released earlier this week, has repeatedly sounded the alarm on the substance, going so far as to call on the government to impose a sugar tax on the food industry if it doesn't comply with certain targets.

The survey, "Squeezing the Truth out of Hidden Sugars in Children's Juices," found that over a quarter of products such as juices, juice drinks and smoothies in in the survey (57 of 203 products) contained the same amount or more of sugar than a common soft drink, which contained five teaspoons of sugar per 200-ml glass.

Different forms of sugar in store aisles

Shoppers can find a wide variety of sugars in grocery stores.

As the Canadian Sugar Institute notes on its website: "Sugars may differ in colour, flavour, sweetness and crystal size. Each of these characteristics allows sugar to perform a variety of functions in food products, in addition to providing a sweet taste."

But not one particular sugar is much better than the other from a nutritional standpoint, experts say.  

Even those sugars that may have a higher amount of certain minerals won't be consumed in amounts to gain much of a benefit from them, Comeau says. 

"The amount we would need to get the benefit from that mineral, we can get those minerals other places, and in more nutritious places without the negative consequences of sugar."

'Really isn't that much difference'

However, Comeau said one of the benefits of sweeteners like honey or maple syrup is that consumers may not use as much.

"Maybe that's a choice you will make to reduce your overall consumption, but in terms of providing you with significant levels of anti-oxidants or significant levels of minerals, there just really isn’t that much difference."

When it comes to calories, all sugars provide about the same amount of energy — about 16 calories per teaspoon, she said. 

"The calories from all of these are identical within less than a per cent," adds Dr. Thomas Wolever, a physician and professor at the University of Toronto's department of nutritional sciences. "In terms of energy, they are no different whatsoever."

Even high fructose corn syrup, used in soft drinks and which has also received a lot of bad press, is basically the same as sugar, Wolever said.

"Tiny difference, but it's so small it’s essentially the same as sugar," Wolever said. "It contains the same amount of calories."

Is fruit better than fruit juice?

But what about the sugar found in fruit? Is the sugar found in a natural, juicy apple any different than the sugar in a can of pop? Well no. Sugar is sugar, wherever you find it. (As Wolever points out, table sugar could be technically refined out of oranges.) 

"The sugar per se is not any different. What else comes along with it is better," Wolever says.

This means that anyone consuming a piece of fruit — a source of simple sugars, fibre and vitamins important for health — rather than a soft drink or fruit juice will get more nutritional benefits.

As well, Comeau adds, fruit has more concentrated levels of sugar: "A cup and a half of juice is the equivalent of three pieces of fruit. That would be a lot of naturally occurring sugar without the benefits of fibre and the other nutrients that would come in the whole piece of fruit." 

Comeau stressed that for both children and adults, who require a healthy intake of fluids to stay hydrated and keep the body functioning optimally, it's better to focus on drinking water.

"Children don’t really need juice, and if they do, no more than 125 ml per day," says Comeau.

Wolever, on the other hands, says there's nothing wrong with having a standard cup or two of juice a day.

"But having it as as thirst quencher in large amounts can be problematic. Better to drink something with less calories."