Natural vs. Added Sugars: What's the Difference?
Over the past few years, sugar has replaced fat in getting blamed for most all health problems.
Excessive sugar intake is associated with an increased risk for developing some of the most common health issues—such as heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, and high blood pressure—so much of the blame is for good reason. But not all sugars are created equal.
Understanding the two types of sugar and the foods that contain them is as important as minimizing overall sugar intake. Here’s a breakdown of natural vs. added sugars, along with tips for establishing a healthy balance.
What are natural sugars?
As the name implies, natural sugars are those found naturally in foods. These sugars can take two forms: fructose or lactose. Fructose is the sugar responsible for giving fruits (and some vegetables) their sweet taste. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and dairy products; it’s why even unsweetened milk and plain yogurt contain some sugar.
However, while fructose and lactose are the two natural sugars in food, it’s important to realize that the carbohydrates in any food—even complex ones like whole grains, beans, and low-carb veggies—are all broken down to sugars in the digestion process and absorbed as glucose, the sugar our bodies rely on for energy.
Natural sugars are an important part of a healthy diet because they are packaged with other nutrients naturally found in food, like vitamins, minerals, fiber, and protein. On top of that, fruits and vegetables with natural sugars also contain disease-fighting phytochemicals, which exert antioxidant or anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
In regard to blood glucose or blood sugar, natural sugars tend to elicit a slower and less pronounced glucose response (compared to added sugars), thanks to their fiber and/or protein content that slows digestion and absorption. To put it simply, eating foods with natural sugars is an integral part of a healthy diet, and these sugars are not associated with the health risks mentioned above.
What are added sugars?
These are sugars that are added to a food during processing, production, or cooking. Added sugars come in more refined forms like granulated sugar, brown sugar, or corn syrup, but they also come in natural-sounding forms like honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar. But no matter the form, the result is the same: Added sugars contribute excess carbohydrates and calories without providing any nutrients to the body.
Foods and drinks containing added sugars are also typically lacking fiber, meaning they can be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream quickly, which leads to a spike in blood glucose (AKA a “sugar rush”). The pancreas then secretes more insulin than needed, which then usually leads to an episode of lower-than-normal blood sugar in the one to three hours that follow in many.
The negative health effects of “sugar” reported in the media pertain to added sugars, not natural sugars. Added sugars are an unnecessary component in our food supply because they don’t contain nutrients, but they also have harmful effects when consumed in excess, which most American do. In fact, it’s estimated that Americans consume around 17 teaspoons of added sugars a day—an excessive amount when compared to recommendations that advise six teaspoons or less for women and nine teaspoons or less for men.
Significantly reducing or cutting out sugar is a smart move for everyone, regardless of age and health status, but this doesn't mean cutting out all forms of sugar—even added sugars. I know I’m certainly not giving up desserts for the rest of my life! Instead, it means understanding the two forms—natural and added—so you can establish a healthier balance.
How to balance natural and added sugars:
1.) Start by reducing obvious sources of added sugar.
What are the foods and beverages that you consume regularly that you know (or think may) contain added sugars? Common sources are sodas, lemonades, teas, and fruit drinks; ice cream, candy, and other desserts; snack foods and some flavored yogurt and milks. You can see how many added sugars are in a food by checking the nutrition label. Don’t worry about the value for "total sugars," which is the sum of added and natural sugars in the product. Instead, focus on the "added sugars" value below that.
2.) Then, look for the not-so-obvious sources.
Identifying not-so-obvious added sugars can require a little detective work. Not-so-obvious sources are products that you wouldn’t expect to have added sugars, such as condiments, nut butters, pasta sauces, and even healthier sounding snack foods. To identify if added sugars are in a product, look at the added sugars value per serving on the nutrition label.
3.) Establish a healthy and realistic balance.
Taking a realistic approach is the best way to turn new eating habits and behaviors into lifelong habits, and by minimizing daily added sugar intake through the tips above, you'll be on your way to a more balanced diet. For some, this may mean occasionally indulging in favorite foods or recipes with added sugar. Others may find that adding a little added sugar each day really makes them happy. (I’m thinking of coffee drinkers who don’t want to give up a little sugar in their coffee each morning.)
For daily parameters, I recommend the American Heart Association’s guidelines, which advise that men consume no more than 150 calories from added sugars per day and women no more than 100 calories. This breaks down to approximately nine and six teaspoons, respectively. If you prefer to use calories over teaspoons, one teaspoon contains four grams of added sugars and each gram contains four calories.
Carolyn is known for her ability to not only simplify the science behind healthy eating, but also make it quick and delicious. Her work is regularly featured in publications like EatingWell, Real Simple, Parents, Health, and Allrecipes. In 2019, she released Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, a cookbook that teaches readers how to use the healing powers of food in quick, family-friendly recipes. Her next cookbook, One Pot Meals That Heal, is scheduled for release in Spring 2022.