If sugar is on your health radar, you’re not alone. Many are drawn to its sweet taste like a bee to honey. Whether you’re concerned about weight or simply want to eat a more healthful diet, it can be hard to reconcile public health recommendations to limit sugar with trending advice and your desire for its sweet taste. Be informed by reading about sugar’s sweet facts – learn what they 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
- anhydrous dextrose
- agave syrup (or nectar)
- brown rice syrup
- brown sugar
- cane juice
- cane juice crystal
- coconut palm sugar
- powdered (confectioners) 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
Download a list of added sugars here.
Sugars—At the molecular level
Sugars are classified as having a single molecule (monosaccharides) or two molecules (disaccharides). With the help of digestive enzymes, all sugars break down into single molecules (monosaccharides) before entering your blood stream.
Maltose (glucose + glucose)
Sucrose (glucose + fructose)
Lactose (glucose + galactose)
Do the following sugars sound familiar?
- Sucrose includes the granulated white table sugar our taste buds tend to love.
- Lactose is the sugar in milk many people lack the enzyme to digest properly – aka:lactose intolerance.
- Fructose is found naturally in fruit and honey. Commercially, it’s derived from sugar cane, sugar beets or corn.
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 nutrient dense 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.
A diet high in sugar may contribute to exceeding your body’s energy needs. Excess calories are stored as fat. Continued accumulation of excess fat can increase risk for chronic diseases, such as diabetes.
Do you have an 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 (aka: dieting), including sugar.
Here’s why… 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.
Alternatively, intuitive eating integrates physical needs with cognitive and emotional awareness. Intuitive eaters respond to physical hunger and fullness cues to meet energy needs, choose foods that sustain an overall feeling of wellbeing, and include foods that satisfy taste.
Can you SEE how much sugar you’re eating?
When you’re curious about the amount of sugar a food contains, a quick sugar calculation can help. By converting grams into teaspoons, a familiar measure, you can easily visualize the amount of sugar per serving. Simply divide the number of grams per serving by 4 to get the teaspoon equivalent.
Nutrition facts panels are starting to declare added sugar grams under Total Sugar grams. To calculate the naturally occurring sugars per serving, simply subtract added sugars from total sugars.
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.
What about sugar substitutes?
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.
Types of sugar substitutes:
- 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.
What makes some carbohydrates complex?
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 the practice of intuitive eating. You can have your cake and eat it too while supporting the weight that’s natural for your body.