The Real Story of Sugar

June 2023 - Health & Wellness

Think of some of your standout childhood food memories: a vanilla birthday cake baked by your mother, a finger-swirl of pink cotton candy at the fair, the caramels in the ceramic dish on your grandmother’s coffee table. Noticing a trend? Yes, it’s sugar.

So much of our eating lives are wrapped up in sugar. From apples to sugar-added apple juice, if it’s sweet, it’s there—but not all sugars are created equal. Of course, as a child you would have picked the candied apple at the fair over the fresh-picked McIntosh at the orchard, but which one left you feeling full and energized, and which one had you feeling a little woozy? Understanding how sugars are different helps you make informed choices so you can have a sweet tooth and feel good, too.

Natural Sugars

Natural sugars are also known as intrinsic sugars. They are the naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods like fruits, dairy products and starchy vegetables, as well as minimally processed foods like whole grain pasta, brown rice, cheese and yogurt. Mother Nature typically bundles intrinsic sugars with other nutrients like fibre or protein that slow the digestion of sugars. When these natural sugars are absorbed more slowly, it prevents a rapid blood sugar spike and subsequent drop that, over time, can lead to weight gain, diabetes or insulin resistance. Many whole foods that contain natural sugars are also loaded with vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients that our bodies and brains need to function properly, making them a smart choice.

Sugar Additives

Sugar additives are sugars added to foods by manufacturers during processing. You can find these types of sugars in various processed foods and drinks, like cakes, candies, cookies and soda. So it’s essential to read ingredient labels carefully when making food choices.

It is tricky because sugar additives go by many different names. In fact, there are more than 61 different names for sugar. Some are familiar, like high-fructose corn syrup, while others, like mannose, are not. Other added sugars include malt syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, honey, sucrose, dextrose and agave nectar. These and other added sugars provide little to no nutritional value, and their excessive consumption can lead to health issues.

Sugar additives are also often added to ultra-processed foods and drinks, which can have additional adverse health effects, including weight gain and an increased risk of chronic disease.

Which Sugars Are Best?

Ultimately, the body similarly processes all sugars, regardless of where they come from. That’s because natural sugars and added sugars both have similar chemical structures.

The real question is, what are those sugars paired with?

The natural sugars in fruits and vegetables contain fibre and other healthy nutrients that slow the sugar’s absorption. Even still, there typically isn’t a lot of natural sugar in whole foods. An apple, for example, has only about 19 grams of sugar combined with 3 grams of fibre and various vitamins and compounds that may help protect against disease.

Despite what your kids might want you to believe, drinking fruit juice is not the same as eating the whole fruit. Fruit juice contains much more sugar in concentrated form than a single serving of fruit, and it often lacks the natural fibres contained in the entire fruit.

On the other hand, a 20-oz bottle of regular soda can contain 69 grams of sugar but no fibre or nutritional benefits.

So, when consuming whole fruits and vegetables, their natural sugars are usually balanced with other beneficial nutrients. This makes them a healthier choice for maintaining a balanced diet and supporting proper neuronutrition.

While natural sugars in whole foods are generally considered healthier than sugar additives in ultra-processed foods, consuming them in moderation is still essential. When we overindulge in sugar, regardless of its source, our bodies can’t differentiate if we’ve had a glass of grape juice or a bag of grape jelly beans.

Consuming no more than 10 per cent of your daily calories from added sugar is recommended (from a nutritionist’s standpoint, even this is too much!). Otherwise, too much sugar from natural sources or sugar additives can lead to weight gain and an increased risk of chronic disease like type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, obesity and heart disease.

Excessive sugar intake can also contribute to inflammation in the body, which scientists have linked to assorted health problems. Numerous studies have demonstrated that high insulin levels, known as ‘hyperinsulinemia,’ significantly increase the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Some medical experts believe people with type 1 diabetes (who do not produce insulin) also have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The Bottom Line

Not all sugars are created equal, and the types of sugars we eat or drink can significantly impact our health.

While natural sugars in fruits, vegetables and dairy products provide essential nutrients and energy for our bodies, sugar additives in processed foods can lead to adverse health effects. It’s necessary to be mindful of the types of sugar we consume and strive to get the majority of our sugar intake from whole foods whenever possible.

Limiting our consumption of added sugars is one of the most significant steps that we can make toward achieving and maintaining optimal health.

To maintain a healthy lifestyle, it’s important to choose a variety of whole, nutrient-dense foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats. So, reach for the natural sugars found in whole foods (like apples) over sugar additives (like that juice box) whenever you can.

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