Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar
While most people already know that sugar is not good for them, many people are confused as to the difference between natural sugar and added sugar, and if they are in fact created equal. Look at any food label and you might see the word “sugar” but whether that sugar is added or naturally occurring makes a huge difference as to how harmful or beneficial it might be. So, it’s time to clarify the question, natural sugar vs. added sugar; what is the difference?
Natural Sugar vs Added Sugar – What’s the Difference?
Sugar is a form of carbohydrate, and much like a car runs on gasoline, our bodies run primarily on sugar. Sugar provides fuel for many of our body’s processes, including everything from our brain to our muscles and our nervous system. However, although sugar plays a vital role in our bodies, sugar comes in many forms, and not all forms are efficient forms of gasoline. When used appropriately, sugar can be very beneficial to our health, athletic performance, and even weight loss, which is why the format and quantity of sugar we consume are incredibly important. So, for starters, let’s define natural vs. added sugar.
What is Natural Sugar?
Natural sugars are sugars that are (you got it) naturally occurring in food; they are found in a whole food in its whole format. These forms of sugars are present in fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and legumes in the form of glucose, fructose, and lactose, or as complex carbohydrates that eventually break down into glucose. The benefit of natural sugars is that they come intact as part of a whole food complete with fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. These sugars provide a source of energy to the body, along with building blocks and tools the body can use such as vitamins and minerals. For example, an apple might contain 19 grams of naturally occurring sugars, but it also includes 5 grams of fiber and vitamin C. Every time we consume sugar, or any food, our body must process it which uses up energy and resources from the body. Essentially, natural sugars give more than they take from the body.
What is Added Sugar?
Whether it is straight-up white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, added sugars do not occur in their natural form. They are “free sugars” that have been removed from an original source and added to foods as a sweetener. Although these sugars can still provide a source of energy to the body, they are typically devoid of their own nutrients. For instance, a teaspoon of granulated white sugar might provide 4 grams of sugar to the body, but that’s it. These types of sugars typically do not contain any fiber, vitamins, or minerals, therefore they take more than they give to the body. The body must process these simple added sugars into energy however they do not come equipped with the tools and building blocks to support this process. Added sugars come in many forms, the most common are typically harvested from sugar cane and sugar beet, as well as sugars such as sucrose, dextrose, corn syrup, rice syrup, maltodextrin, or juice concentrate. In fact, there are over 100 different names for added sugar, so knowing what to look for can help make identifying them easier.
Natural Sugar vs. Added Sugar: The Confusion
One of the many reasons the question of natural vs added sugar has become confusing to consumers is because it is possible to take a natural sugar (such as fruit) and process it into an added sugar (such as fruit concentrate). This is the gray area that food manufacturers thrive in because although most people are aware that simple white sugar is not good for them, many don’t realize that almost all added sugars are less than ideal. Without the fiber, vitamins, and minerals these sugars may have once contained, in excess, they can be very harmful to our health. The fiber present in naturally occurring sugars, such as fruits and vegetables, helps to slow down the digestion and absorption of these simple sugars, which helps to limit spikes in our blood sugar, keep us fuller longer, and reduce cravings, not to mention they provide nutrition to our bodies. Anything from the white sugar your put in your coffee, the syrup the drizzle of your oatmeal, the cane sugar in your almond milk, or the juice concentrate found in your smoothie are all added sugars.
But, What About Natural Sweeteners?
Another big area of confusion is the term “natural sweeteners”. Of course, there are some sweeteners that are more “natural” than high fructose corn syrup, however, these natural sweeteners still qualify as added sugar. Although you may use honey to sweeten your cookies, you are still adding it to the baking process, making honey an added sugar. (Unless you have found a magical cookie tree, in which case, holler at your girl!) When it comes to adding sweetness, natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey are undoubtedly a much better choice than refined white sugar, but they still equally qualify as added sugars and should be used sparingly.
Reading Sugars on Food Labels
One of the biggest conundrums in the natural vs added sugar debate is how sugar is identified on food labels. When it comes to packaged food, at the present time it is difficult for consumers to determine if the amount of sugar identified on a nutrition label is coming from natural sugars or added sugars. For instance, look at a vanilla-flavored yogurt label. Given this food will have naturally occurring sugars (lactose) present, it is difficult to determine if the total number of sugars listed on the nutrition label are naturally occurring or present due to the added cane sugars. If you see the word sugar, sucrose, fruit concentrate, or any of the other pseudo names for sugar in the ingredients list, you can assume that at least a portion of the sugars present is from added sugars, which is less than ideal. Savvy consumers can help to determine where the majority of the sugar in that food is coming from by reading the ingredients list, bearing in mind that ingredients are listed in descending order, so the closer sugar is to the top of the list, the more added sugar is present. If there are no pseudo names for sugar included, you can assume that the grams of sugar on the nutrition label are naturally occurring sugars.
The Bottom Line
For most, the problem isn’t so much a teaspoon of sugar in their morning coffee or occasional homemade desserts, it is the grams of added sugar in day-to-day packaged goods like yogurts, bread, granola bars, or sports drinks. A little treat here and there is totally acceptable if the majority of your diet is well-balanced with naturally occurring sugars, protein, and healthy fats. So when it comes to natural vs added sugar, ensure that you are consuming the bulk of your sugars in their whole food formats, along with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and save the added sugars for sweet treats on special occasions.