Natural and added sugar: What’s the difference and what’s the benefit

Dairy products, vegetables and fruits contain sugar. But this does not mean that they should be excluded from the diet. The sugar in a can of lemonade is not the same as in a cup of fresh berries.

Let’s understand the difference between added and natural sugar and why it’s dangerous to have too much sugar in your diet.

What is sugar

Sugar has many names. On food packages, you see the words “contains fructose” or “agave syrup” or “sucrose.” This gives the impression that it is not sugar, but something healthier. In fact, they are not. They are all simple carbohydrates, which are classified as mono- and disaccharides. Some sugars contain more fructose and some contain more sucrose.

The familiar word “sucrose” only means sucrose. Sucrose is produced in all green plants during photosynthesis and consists of glucose and fructose molecules. Sugar beets and sugar cane have the most sucrose, so refined sugar is derived from these plants.

Why we like sugar

In the digestive tract, sugar is broken down into glucose, fructose and galactose. It is glucose that serves as the main source of energy for the body, and the brain consumes nothing else at all. Glucose not only provides energy, but also affects brain function. After sweets, levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are responsible for feelings of joy and pleasure, increase.

Natural and added sugar: What's the difference and what's the benefit

It is this effect that conflates sugar with drugs and explains why it is so difficult to give up sweets. The fact is that with an excess of sugar in the diet, the level of dopamine in the adjoining nucleus, our pleasure center, rises considerably. This same nucleus is activated by taking heroin and cocaine. Consequently, once you become addicted to sweet foods, you have to increase the dose each time to get the same pleasure.

What is the difference between added sugars and natural sugars

Natural sugars are found in whole, unprocessed foods-fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and milk. Eating an apple will give you water, fiber, vitamins and minerals, and very few calories in addition to glucose and fructose. Fiber slows down the absorption of sugar, so blood glucose levels won’t skyrocket after a pear like they do after a candy bar.

Added sugar is any sugar that is added to prepared foods or simply to tea. Honey, syrups, molasses, concentrated fruit juice, regular or cane sugar are all added sugars, which are very caloric, contain no nutrients and are quickly digested in the body, dramatically increasing blood sugar levels. And, most importantly, they are easy to overeat. After all, they are found in most processed foods.

We only need to include natural sugars in our diet to maintain energy and health.

Sugar from fruits and berries cannot be compared to refined sugar. Even the high glycemic index of some fruits, such as melon or grapes, should not be intimidating. In this matter, it is important to know the glycemic load of the fruit, which determines the amount of carbohydrates per serving and the rate at which blood glucose levels rise. If you compare grapes and regular breakfast cornflakes, the glycemic load of grapes is half as high.

Read also: Chicken liver: benefits and harms for the body

If you add 2 teaspoons of sugar to your coffee, eat granola with sugar or honey, and drizzle a salad with store-bought dressing, you can reach your daily limit of added sugar by lunch without candy or desserts.

Refined, coconut, cane, and brown sugar are all added sugars that only bring extra calories. The high cost of brown sugar is a marketing ploy, but not an increase in benefits.

Why added sugars are dangerous

The danger of added sugars is that we often eat them without even realizing it. Lemonades and energy drinks, breakfast cereals, cookies and pastries, frozen convenience foods, granola bars, and sauces are major sources of added sugars that lead to an overabundance of sugar in the diet.

Natural and added sugar: What's the difference and what's the benefit

These foods are high in calories and contain almost no healthy nutrients – fiber and protein. This means that glucose is quickly digested and raises blood sugar levels dramatically, which then also drops dramatically, causing fatigue and a desire to snack again. Such drastic fluctuations in blood sugar lead to negative consequences:

  1. The risk of cardiovascular disease increases. In February 2021, the American Heart Association published a report stating that over-added sugars from beverages are directly linked to obesity and heart disease.
  2. The risk of insulin resistance increases, leading to type 2 diabetes and obesity.
  3. Blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol levels increase.
  4. The serotonin mechanism breaks down, causing irritability.
  5. Chronic inflammation occurs.

Sugar addiction increases stress levels. Moreover, when stressed, we ourselves accustom the body to the sweet: tired of doing a report – we indulge ourselves with a cake. And the brain remembers everything and next time it will demand a “reward” for overload. Especially when stressed, the brain needs 12% more glucose than in a relaxed state.

It is very easy to overdo the added sugar. A 350 ml can of Coca-Cola contains eight teaspoons of sugar, a fruit-filled yogurt has about three, and breakfast cereal has two to six.
According to WHO recommendations, the proportion of added sugars should be less than 10% of the daily caloric intake. This includes any sugar from prepared foods as well as natural sweeteners.

If you convert this to teaspoons, the daily rate is:

  1. Up to 6 teaspoons (about 30 g) – for women with a diet of 1,800 kcal.
  2. Up to 9 teaspoons (about 40 g) – for men with a diet of 2200 kcal.
  3. According to statistics, the average Russian eats up to 22 spoonfuls of sugar per day.

How to identify sugar on labels:

  • Brown sugar.
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Trehalose
  • Turbinado sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Coconut sugar
  • Grape sugar
  • Cane sugar
  • Evaporated sugar cane juice
  • Jerusalem artichoke syrup
  • Agave syrup
  • Coconut nectar
  • Rice syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Maltose
  • Barley malt
  • Fructose Sweetener
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • Maltose
  • Malt syrup
  • Maple syrup
  • Melassa
  • Refined sugar
  • Sucrose

Find prepared foods without added sugars is extremely difficult to find. Even dried berries, granola bars and breads have substitutes and sweeteners, if not sugar. So controlling sugar intake is not an easy task. And if avoiding sugar is medically necessary, it’s better to make everything yourself.

Veronika Sergunina
Veronika Sergunina
7 years of experience in nutritional medicine Nutritionist, Child Nutritionist
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In March 2021, researchers at Harvard Medical School completed a 30-year study showing that two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables each day support health and promote longevity. One serving of fruit is about 80 g. That's one apple or two plums.

Nut granola with berries and fruit contains protein, the right fats and slow carbohydrates, so it makes you feel full for a long time. Suitable for breakfast or an afternoon snack.

How to start eating less sugar

You don’t have to give up sugar and sweets drastically. Gradually reduce foods with added sugars and opt for whole foods. Start with simple steps:

Include fresh vegetables in every meal; they’re a great source of fiber.
Reduce portions – you used to add one spoonful of sugar to your tea, add half a spoonful. Over time, give up sugary coffee and tea altogether.
Make porridge without sugar and add fresh fruit for sweetness.
Try new spices. For example, cinnamon gives cottage cheese or porridge a sweet taste.
For a snack, choose an apple with nut paste or a handful of nuts instead of cookies or yogurt with additives.

Does buying organic food matter?
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Read labels and buy foods that either have no sugar at all or have it at the end of the list.
Substitute sweet cereal for sugar-free nut granola.
The less added sugar in your diet, the sweeter natural foods will seem. Include fresh fruits, berries and vegetables in your daily menu, which are rich in fiber and help you stay full longer. Eat enough protein. Add some physical activity to reduce stress and keep in shape. Go to bed before midnight, or preferably before 11 p.m. This makes it easier to eliminate foods with added sugars from your diet and take care of your health.

Sources:

  1. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1819573
  2. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1161/circulationaha.109.192627
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6959843/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5409724/
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261561417302108

Certified nutritionist and child nutritionist, health-coach and personal trainer in fitness and bodybuilding.
7 years of experience in nutritional medicine

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