If sugar is on your health radar, you’re not alone. Many are drawn to its sweet taste like a bee is to honey. Whether you’re trying to manage weight or simply eat a more healthful diet, it can be hard to reconcile public health recommendations to limit sugar with trending advice and your desire for sugar’s sweet taste. Be informed by learning what sugars are, how to spot them, and how to enjoy their sweet taste while supporting your health.
Sugars are simple carbohydrates, also known as simple sugars. They’re naturally found in fruits and dairy, but the vast majority of dietary sugars come from the many forms of added sugars, including:
- anhydrous dextrose
- agave syrup (or nectar)
- brown rice syrup
- brown sugar
- cane juice
- cane juice crystals
- coconut palm sugar
- confectioners sugar/powdered sugar
- corn syrup
- corn syrup solids
- crystal dextrose
- date sugar
- evaporated corn sweetener
- high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- maple syrup
- nectars (from fruit)
- palm sugar
- pancake syrup
- raw sugar
- sugar cane juice
- white granulated sugar
They’re classified as having a single molecule (monosaccharides) or two molecules (disaccharides). With the help of digestive enzymes, all sugars (from all sources) break down into single molecules before entering your blood stream.
Maltose (glucose + glucose)
Sucrose (glucose + fructose)
Lactose (glucose + galactose)
Some simple sugars may sound familiar. Sucrose is the granulated white table sugar our taste buds tend to love, lactose is the sugar in milk that many people lack the enzyme to digest properly, and fructose is found naturally in fruit and honey.
Fact: Glucose is the only source of fuel for the brain.
Sugars and your health:
Your body doesn’t need extra sugar beyond what you eat naturally in healthful foods like fruits and dairy. Naturally occurring sugars are delivered with other beneficial elements, such as fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
In contrast, sugar added to food and beverages during processing or home preparation offers no nutritional benefit beyond energy (calories). Added sugar can also displace calories from nutritious foods when eaten in excess.
If overall calorie intake exceeds your body’s energy needs, extra calories will be stored as fat. Excess body fat increases your risk for chronic diseases, including diabetes. Once you have diabetes, even naturally occurring sugars must be managed.
Your appetite for sugar:
Sugar’s sweetness can add satisfaction to a healthful diet. How do you prevent your sweet tooth from taking over? Avoid depriving yourself of calories – otherwise known as dieting. Dieting involves a period of calorie deprivation, typically involving restrictions on sweets. Your body will physiologically resist weight loss and your craving for sweet food and other forbidden foods will eventually intensify to the point of diet backlash.
Intuitive eating integrates physical needs with cognitive and emotional awareness. Intuitive eaters respond to physical hunger and fullness cues to manage energy needs, choose foods that sustain an overall feeling of wellbeing, and include foods that satisfy taste.
Want to break away from the dieting mindset and become an intuitive eater? Mainely Nutrition can help you cultivate a sustainable relationship with food for a lifetime.
It can be helpful to visualize the amount of sugar in food to help make an informed decision. Nutrition facts panels are starting to declare added sugar grams under Total Sugar grams. To convert grams into teaspoons, simply divide the number of grams per serving by 4 to get the teaspoon equivalent.
- Example: 1 cup of cereal with 12 grams total sugar has 3 teaspoons total sugar (12 divided by 4). Please note total sugar can be natural, added, or a combination.
What type of sugar is best?
Some sugars may taste better to your tongue, but your body won’t know the difference between white refined sugar, sugar in the raw, or maple syrup since they all contain nearly equal portions of the simple sugars glucose and fructose. All sugar is various combinations of simple sugars.
It’s helpful to know about types of sugar substitutes and how to spot them. Basically, they taste sweet and contain fewer calories than sugar, or offer zero calories.
- Artificial sweeteners are produced synthetically, are intensely sweet, and because of the small amount used they essentially contain no calories, though fillers may contribute a very small number of calories.
Examples: Sucralose, Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame-K, Advantame, Neotame
- Natural sweeteners are derived from natural sources, are intensely sweet, and because of the small amount used they essentially contain no calories.
Examples: stevia leaf extract and monk fruit extract
- Sugar Alcohols, also known as polyols, taste sweet but have fewer calories than sugar. Some occur naturally in plants but are usually manufactured for use in food. They are neither sugars nor alcohols.
Examples: Sorbitol, Erythritol, Xylitol, Lactitol, Mannitol
Significant amounts of sugar alcohols (except Erythritol) can cause intestinal gas, loose stools and/or diarrhea. Erythritol, when consumed in very large quantities may cause nausea.
The terms simple and complex carbohydrates are often familiar, but the differences may not be well understood. In a nutshell, simple sugars are easily (rapidly) digested carbohydrates whereas complex carbohydrates are not as easily (or rapidly) digested, or not digested at all.
Types of complex carbohydrates:
- Starch is made up of long chains of molecules that, when digested, enter the bloodstream as glucose. Because it takes longer to break down the many chemical bonds in starch, it doesn’t raise blood sugar levels as rapidly as most simple sugars.
- Fiber passes through us, indigested, because we don’t have the enzymes to break the chemical bonds.
- Glycogen is simply long chains of glucose molecules in our own muscles and liver. It’s our body’s way of storing energy for our muscles and brain.
Knowing sugar basics will help you weed out claims and beliefs that aren’t based in science. Learning to enjoy sugar without guilt or judgement while supporting your health is best achieved through intuitive eating. You can have your cake and eat it too while maintaining a weight that’s healthy for your body.
Download pdf version: Sugars, The Sweet Facts