Sugar: Added vs Natural & What you Need to Know (Part 1)
So, what’s the deal with sugar? Is it really that bad for us? Does excess sugar cause cancer? Are certain types of sugar, like from fruit and honey, better for us than the white sugar we find in cakes, muffins and pastries? So many questions, and I am sure you have heard so many different answers... I agree… It’s confusing!
In my opinion, sugar has to be one of the most controversial topics in the nutrition and health field today. It has been associated as the cause of several different chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, and positioned as the root of the so-called “obesity epidemic”. To complicate matters further, there is much confusion about what sugar actually is, and whether different types of sugar are less harmful to our health than others.
In today’s blog post, we will discuss the difference between added vs naturally occurring sugars, which types of sugar you need to be mindful of in your diet, and how to know if you might be getting too much “added” sugar.
What is sugar?
Understanding the difference between sugar and sugars, and added vs natural sugars can be confusing and even a bit frustrating especially when these terms are interchangeably used.
The general term sugar refers to “sucrose”, also known as common table sugar. Sucrose is made up of glucose and fructose. Glucose is the carbohydrate molecule our body uses primarily for energy.
The term sugars (plural) refers to any sweet-tasting, soluble carbohydrate. Sugars can be in the form of either monosaccharides (aka one unit sugars such as glucose, galactose, or fructose) or disaccharides (two unit sugars such as lactose or maltose). There are various types of sugars and they can be found and extracted from various sources, such as:
Sugar Beets: used to make sucrose (table sugar)
Sugar Cane: used to make sucrose, cane sugar, dextrose
Agave: used to make agave syrup (also tequila!)
Corn: corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
Molasses: is the thick, brown syrup left after the sugar has been removed from sugar cane juice and is added back to white sugar to make brown sugar
Out of the various sugars, it is the monosaccharide “glucose” that has the ability to raise our blood sugar levels. Glycemic index measures the effect a carbohydrate has on blood sugar levels. Because glucose is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine, it has a high GI value and can rapidly raise blood sugar levels. Fructose and galactose, the other two monosaccharides, have a lower GI value, meaning that they have relatively lower effects on blood sugar levels.
Regardless of its source, the body metabolizes each sugar molecule, whether it is glucose from candy or a fruit, in the same way. However, it is the overall “packaging” that differentiates how our body will react to the source of the sugar based on the food it is found in and the other components.
This is where the concept of added vs natural sugars comes in.
“Added” vs “Natural” Sugars
Naturally occurring sugars exist in most foods, but are found in the highest concentration in grains, vegetables, fruits and milk products. These are also known as “intrinsic sugars”, meaning they are encapsulated by a plant cell wall. Due to the presence of the cell wall (which contains a fiber known as cellulose), they tend to be digested more slowly and take longer to enter the blood stream than free sugars. This means they have a lower effect on blood sugar and insulin levels.
Added sugars are also known as “free sugars”. They are the mono- and disaccharides which are added to processed and prepared foods by the manufacturer, and found in concentrated forms in syrups, jams and juices. Foods such as ketchup, barbeque sauces and granola often have a plethora of added sugars. The issue with added sugars is that they add extra calories without extra nutrition (vitamins, minerals) to our diet. Further, because of the lack of fiber that is common with most processed foods, they have a more significant effect on raising blood sugar levels.
As a whole, it is the added sugars that we need to be mindful of limiting in our diet.
What’s the issue with added sugars?
The main concern with added sugars is the packaging they are found in – mainly processed, packaged and refined foods. The added sugars add excess calories without extra nutrition (vitamins, minerals) to our diet. When we consume sugar, and particularly those from sources where the body can easily break it down (aka “high glycemic foods”), this is where negative health effects may come into play.
When we consume glucose, it raises our blood sugar levels and triggers the release of insulin into the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone that promotes glucose uptake into our body cells where it can be used to make energy. However, if we consume excess amounts of sugar, it can lead to hyperglycemia, or chronically elevated blood sugar levels, as well as insulin resistance, which can increase the risk of diabetes. Interestingly, while our body cells become resistant to insulin’s effects on glucose uptake, they remain sensitive to insulin’s effect of fat storage. Some studies also suggest that hyperglycemia and insulin resistance interferes with leptin levels, a hormone essential for satiety after meals. This is why hyperglycemia and insulin resistance can lead to increased body fat and weight gain.
There has also been growing concern that sugar is addictive. Sugar activates the opiate receptors in our brain, meaning that our reward centres are affected when we consume it. By consuming sugar, we reinforce these neuropathways and hardwire ourselves to crave more of it over time. Though it may not be as addictive as other drugs (the jury is still out), it is clear that we can become dependent on sugar for a mood and energy boost. The downside is that it provides us with empty calories (which could contribute to weight gain) and a false energy boost.
For some of us, we hit the wall at 3 pm and reach for a sugary treat like candy or chocolate as a quick boost to get us through the next few hours of work. However, relying on sweets for an energy boost is counterintuitive. Consuming high amounts of sugar in processed foods like candy, desserts, chocolate bars and sodas can cause spikes and crashes in our blood sugar levels which can actually lead to unstable energy levels throughout the day.
How do I know if I’m eating added sugar?
Foods such as candy, sweets and desserts contain high amounts of added or “free sugars”, but added sugar is often hiding in many other foods too. Even foods we think of as “healthy” such as granola or yogurts may contain excess amounts of added sugars.
A huge issue is that companies tend to disguise added sugars under all sorts of names and forms, to name a few:
Aren’t natural sugars like honey & maple syrup healthier?
We need to be cautious of “natural sweeteners” too, because our body metabolizes the sugars in the same manner, and these foods have undergone processing to yield a concentrated carbohydrate type substance. Take maple syrup for example, although it is rich in certain minerals (such as zinc and manganese) it is essentially a boiled down, concentration of the circulating fluid of sugar maple trees. If you’ve ever had maple water in its pure form, it is much less sweet! Treat maple syrup, honey, date syrup, and other “natural sweeteners” as added sugars, and have them in moderation.
Making the swap from white sugar to maple syrup or raw, unpasteurized honey would be a wise choice, but adding maple syrup to your diet for the health benefits would not really make things better.
How much added sugar is too much?
Aren’t sure if you are having too much? The World Health Organization currently recommends no more than 10% of daily calories from added sugars, and ideally less than 5% (this includes juice, refined sugars and syrups like honey, maple syrup and agave) (WHO, 2015).
If you consume an average 2000 calorie per day diet, limiting your intake to under 5% would be about 6 tsp of added sugars total. If you chose to have 3 squares of 70% chocolate, 1 tsp honey in your coffee, and a ½ cup of regular granola for breakfast, you would reach your limit for added sugars for the day.
If your goal is to lose / maintain your weight and/or to lose body fat, I would highly recommend aiming for the 5% or less goal of added sugars.
Exceptions to this recommendation: If you have very high energy needs and are very active (eg. a runner, cyclist), consuming extra calories from sugar (say from energy gels, sports drinks) might be necessary for performance as your body would be burning the sugars rapidly for fuel during exercise. Obtaining naturally occurring sugars only would not be ideal as the fiber associated with whole foods would slow down digestion, causing discomfort and delayed glycogen (aka muscle energy) repletion. However, still focusing the diet on whole foods is key but the 5% limit for added sugars might not be applicable to elite endurance-type athletes and/or those with very high energy needs.
How to Manage your Intake of Added Sugars
Always read the labels for sugars disguised under the many names above. As a general rule, try to look for products with the following amounts of sugar or less:
Granola / Snack Bars: <8 g per 1 bar
Cereals & Granolas: <8 g per ¾ cup serving
Protein Bars: < 8g per 1 bar
Protein Powders: <2 g per 1 serving
Sauces / Condiments: <2 g per 2 tbsp serving
The Bottom Line
There are different types and sources of sugars, and distinguishing between those found naturally in foods and those added to products and recipes is important to consider. Focusing on reducing sugars, specifically added sugars, will indirectly influence us to consume more whole and unprocessed foods, which means more nutrition (phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre, etc.) which is a good thing!
Are you curious about artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes? Read my previous article on the topic.
A significant contributor of added sugars to the diet are the foods we generally think of when referring to added sugars – pastries, cakes, candies, etc. Think you might be consuming too much of these foods and want to cut down? Stay tuned for part 2 on some key strategies to help you reduce your cravings for sweets and help you manage your added sugar intake.
Erion, K., & Corkey, B. (2017). Hyperinsulinemia: a cause of obesity? Current Obesity Reports, 6(2), 178-186. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5487935/
SugarScience. (n.d.). Hidden in plain sight. Retrieved from http://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/#.XL0oZS0ZM1g
World Health Organization. (2015). Sugars intake for adults and children. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/nutrition/publications/guidelines/sugars_intake/en/
World Health Organization. (2014). The science behind the sweetness in our diets. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/92/11/14-031114.pdf