In a world of sugar and sugar substitutes, it can be confusing to find which sugars you should be eating, or better yet avoiding. Fructose, sucrose, glucose, and lactose are just some of the popular sugars consumed on a daily basis. Then we have sugar alternatives that are commercialized as “healthier” because they don’t spike blood glucose levels. Here’s the bitter truth, none of them are healthy.
It’s true, we shouldn’t be looking for sugar alternatives, we should be looking to limit sugars. More importantly, we should be focusing on the type of carbs we’re eating. Carbohydrates are the main source of our energy, but we don’t need to consume them from pure sugar. Complex carbohydrates can be consumed in the form of starches like wholegrain bread, oats, and brown rice. Simple carbs like candy, cookies, and cakes are made with refined sugar which is stripped of all its fiber and other elements before being made into a fine powder. Both are broken down in the body by the same digestive pathway, but after that, they send either disease prevention or disease-provoking signals throughout the body.
- Complex Carbs: Whole foods that aren’t heavily processed. Whole grain, oats, barley, rye, and brown rice, have fiber to slow digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, regulate blood sugars better, improve cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes. Does not have added sugars.
- Simple/Refined Carbs: Fruit is considered a simple carbohydrate, but it’s loaded with vitamins and fiber which contain lots of health benefits, but since it does have some effect on glucose levels, fruit should be consumed in moderation. Those without nutritional benefits are fruit juices, sodas, donuts, and anything else made with white flour, and table sugar. High consumption can cause chronic inflammation, gut disruptions, mood changes, weight gain, and increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Fatty Liver Disease, Type 2 Diabetes, and more. Has lots of added sugars.
Sugar causes increased blood glucose levels, increased insulin levels, insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, disruptions in gut absorption, and acts as a food source for harmful bacteria and even certain cancer cells.
Glucose is the main source of energy for all cells in the body. However, glucose isn’t as sweet as sucrose or fructose. Fructose is used in nearly all processed foods and beverages and is recently getting a bad reputation as research is now showing health effects from a high-fructose diet. Sucrose, which is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, is the white table sugar in most households today, but the fructose component is still contributing to disease just as high-fructose corn syrup does. I think of sucrose as fructose in disguise. Food companies will advertise on the front “No High-Fructose Corn Syrup”, yet you’re still ingesting fructose in other forms and hidden under another alias. Just the same as they will split up the sugar content between five different sugar types so it looks better to consumers.
Choose Your Sugar by the Company it Keeps
Here’s where it gets confusing. Fructose is also found naturally in fruit and honey. But, isn’t this the healthy form of fructose? Bottom line, no sugar or sugar substitute is healthy for you. What makes it a good source of energy is the company it keeps. Does it have benefits for you like vitamins and fiber, or does it also have a lot of saturated fat?
When reading ingredient labels, look at the total sugar content, then look at the added sugars. Is the sugar content from one source like whole grain oats, or is it from five different refined sugar blends like high-fructose corn syrup, modified corn starch, sucrose, fruit juice, and malt syrup?
Next, see what benefits you’ll gain like the amount of fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients. Eating whole fruit is way better for you than eating cake even though ultimately both have fructose in some form. Fructose from the whole fruit is digested much slower as it also has fiber. Look for choices that have a higher fiber content to ‘offset’ the sugar content.
Ultimately, natural sugars are better than refined sugars. Your body recognizes the sweetness of a strawberry and also provides nutrients and antioxidants.
Artificial sugars, although they may have little effect on blood sugar levels, aren’t processed in the body well and lead to other conditions like increased weight gain, depression, cardiovascular disease, brain tumors, and other cancers. “Diet or Sugar-Free” is sweetened by artificial sugar or sugar substitutes. Let’s get this clear, It’s not better for you just because it’s zero calories, and consuming these treats on a regular basis will likely lead to you paying for it later in life.
If it tastes sweet but has “zero sugar”, it’s chemically sweetened, typically using aspartame or saccharin, and your body doesn’t like it.
Fruit Snacks: many use High Fructose Corn Syrup, modified corn starch, and chemicals for color and preservatives. These processed snacks contribute to inflammation, elevated blood glucose levels, and fat storage. High intake over time is likely to promote disease.
Real strawberries are a natural source of sugar and have fiber, vitamins C, K, and E, iron, magnesium, and more. Fat-free, cholesterol-free, and antioxidants. Real strawberries protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer.
My Tips on Sugar Shopping
- Limit all sugar intake, natural and artificial. According to the American Heart Association, daily sugar recommendations are less than 100 calories for women or 6tsp, and for men, less than 150 calories, or 9tsp. Limit other high-carb foods with little health benefits like chips, pretzels, cookies, crackers, and sadly, sweet desserts.
- Choose Natural sugars from whole food. Sugar intake should come from fruit sources like apples and blueberries which are also high in fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants. Dairy sugars are also lower on the glycemic index in lactose form and have a lower effect on blood glucose levels. However, milk substitutes often use various sugars in their products so be sure to check the ingredient list.
- What Company Does Sugar Keep? Choose carbohydrate options based on the number of nutrients you’re getting. Look for options with higher fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are low in saturated fats.
- Become a Sugar Detective. Sugar is now hidden under more than 60 different names and adding sugar substitutes to the list pushes it to nearly 100! Learn what to look for on the ingredient list. I do a quick search on my phone in the grocery store to look out for hidden sugars. If it’s got a long shelf-life it means there’s a ton of preservatives in it.
- Choose Complex Sugars over Simple Sugars. Complex sugars are chains of simple sugars that take much longer to break down, thus having a lesser impact on blood sugar and insulin levels. Complex sugars are whole grains like oats, barley, and brown rice. Simple sugars are sweet treats, candy, fruit juice, and fruit snacks.
I hope this helps clear some of the confusion about which sugar is better for you. It’s not that we must avoid it like the plague, you can still enjoy the treats that you love, like ice cream, but moderation is key. Focus on consuming healthy foods most of the time like whole fruits, veggies, lean meats, whole grains, and healthy fats. Start by adding just a little bit more each day of healthy foods your body wants and then enjoy the treat. We all start somewhere, and educating yourself on safer food choices is a great way to be a smarter shopper.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is designed for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat any health conditions without consulting your healthcare provider. Information used is based on experience and opinion, not 100% evidence. Always consult with a health care practitioner before relying on any information in this article or on this website.