You’ve probably heard that eating less sugar can benefit your health.
But fun fact: there are different types of sugar! Two kinds, to be exact. There is natural sugar and added sugar.
“Our brain needs sugar to survive – Natural sugar,” says Keri GlassmanMS, RD, CDN.
But your brain and your body can do without it added sugar, which is put in foods that generally do not contain sugar.
Here’s a deeper dive into the difference between the two sugars and how you can use this knowledge to improve your eating habits.
What are natural and added sugars?
- Natural sugars are found in food right from the start. They appear in foods like fruits, some vegetables and dairy products.
- Added sugars are not indigenous to foods and are added to enhance flavor.
Even when the sugar comes from a seemingly healthy source, like honey or agave, it’s considered added sugar if it wasn’t in the food to begin with.
While it is true that these substances may have nominally more nutritional value than pure processed sugar, they are still lacking in fiber and therefore have a similar impact.
For example, a portion of fat-free plain Greek yogurt contains nearly five grams of natural sugar. It’s the sugar that’s in the yogurt from the start.
But a portion of sweet vanilla fat-free greek yogurt contains 14 grams of sugar, some of which was added during the manufacturing process.
What is the difference between natural and added sugars?
Here’s the surprising part about sugar: “There’s no chemical difference between natural sugar and added sugar,” explains Dr. Robert Lustig, MD, MSL, who is based in San Francisco. “They are made up of the same molecules – glucose and fructose.” There is also lactose, which is found in dairy products.
Technically, your body cannot tell the difference between natural sugar and added sugar.
This means that a scoop of table sugar, a pinch of agave, and the lactose in that Greek yogurt are processed the same way in your body.
Sugar is sugar, whatever its name.
But the is a difference in the foods that contain these sugars.
Foods with natural sugars contain other healthy components, such as fiber and nutrients, which provide your body with complete nutrition and help your body process sugar in a healthier way.
In contrast, added sugar does not provide these benefits and, when consumed in excess, does more harm than good.
Is the sugar in fruit bad for you?
You don’t have to worry about the sugar in fruit. When you eat sugar naturally found in whole fruits and vegetables, it comes with the benefits of fiber.
“When you consume (soluble) fiber, it forms a gel in your gut that creates a barrier to slow the absorption of fructose, which protects your liver,” says Lustig.
However, “when you eat added sugar without fiber, you flood your liver,” says Lustig.
When you overwhelm the liver with fructose, it turns excess amounts into fat, he adds.
Is added sugar bad for you?
“Eating too many foods with added sugars is simply wasting your daily caloric intake,” says Michele Promaulayko, author of Sugar Free 3.
And worse than wasting your calories, you could also be damaging your health in the short and long term.
“The low-grade inflammation your body can experience when you consume too many added sugars can stress it out and lead to poor health,” she says. “By eliminating added sugars from your diet, your gut can better perform its essential gatekeeping function.”
What foods contain added sugar?
Some surprising foods contain added sugar. “Most shoppers assume they only have to be careful with added sugars in sweet foods, such as cookies and cakes,” says Promaulayko.
“However, added sugar, refined carbs, and artificial sweeteners are also found in many major brands of pasta sauce, bread, granola bars, yogurt, ketchup, salad dressings, and more.”
In order to avoid consuming added sugar, you just need to read the list of ingredients in your diet. If the list contains sugar or any of its other names, it is a sugar-added food.