Naturally Occurring Sugar vs. Added Sugar

natural sugar vs. added sugar
What do you think of when you hear the word sugar? What types of images come to mind? For many people, the thought of sugar conjures up images of obesity, diabetes, and numerous other health problems. It certainly has a negative or “bad” image attached to it, and we all associate items like candy bars, sodas, and other junk food with sugar. In addition to these types of foods, there are others that also have sugar as part of their chemical makeup. These items include fruit, milk, and to some extent, vegetables. So what is the difference between eating a candy bar and having an apple? Is there any difference between drinking a soda and having a glass of unsweetened milk? To put it simply, the answer to these questions is yes. There is a large difference between sugar that is found naturally occurring in certain foods and the sugar that is added to processed food and drinks.

Getting To Know Sugar

The added sugar that we are discussing, or often-called refined sugar, originates from sugar beets or sugar cane. These are processed in order to remove the sugar for use in manufactured food products. Generally, this type of sugar is found as a combination of fructose and glucose, called sucrose. This type of sugar is used in numerous food products like cake, cookies, breakfast cereal, and countless others commonly found in the grocery store. Food manufacturers also add the highly processed and extremely sweet high fructose corn syrup to and endless number of products including soda, yogurt, pasta sauce, and even salad dressing!

Energy For The Body

We know that the body needs and uses sugar for energy, so what is the difference if it comes from a piece of fruit or from a donut? The major difference in how the body uses these two different foods for energy is in the way they are metabolized. An apple for example is loaded with fiber, while the donut has zero. The fiber that is found in a piece of fruit takes the body time to digest, and releases that energy slowly. Refined sugar on the other hand is broken down by the body almost instantly and causes blood sugar levels to spike. When this happens, the body releases insulin to regulate the amount of sugar in the blood, and can result in a drop in energy or “crash” that we have all felt after eating sweets or other refined carbohydrates.

Fiber And Other Nutrients

As mentioned above, fiber is a key difference between foods containing natural sugar and processed foods with added sugar. Not only does fiber prevent the sugars from being broken down quickly and stored as fat, it also contributes to feeling full after a meal. This can really help in reducing the amount of snacking or grazing throughout the day. The fiber in fruit and vegetables can help to restore and maintain a healthy GI tract, which has been linked to mental health conditions related to addiction, depression, anxiety, and others. A diet high in fiber helps to promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, which is extremely important for proper body function.
Along with fiber, fruit has an endless number of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that the body needs in order to maintain a healthy immune system and run efficiently. Fruit contains nonnutritive plant compounds called phytochemicals that are responsible for many health benefits. They help to give these foods their bright and distinctive colors, and have been associated with the reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

Not All Created Equal

The oversimplification of some dietary recommendations has caused confusion. We have all heard suggestions to reduce the amount of sugar in our diets, so it is understandable that some people would question fruit. It is important to look at the bigger picture and realize that not all sugar is created equally. There is an enormous difference between a banana and candy bar, and they cannot be compared simply on the amount of sugar contained.
Moving forward, grab a piece of fruit on the way out the door and keep the bowl on your table stocked with fresh produce! You can feel good about providing your body with the energy and nutrients it needs.

Dr. David Wiss became a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) in 2013 and founded Nutrition in Recovery, a group practice of RDNs specializing in treating eating and substance use disorders. In 2017, David received the “Excellence in Practice” award at the National Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo. The California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics awarded him the “Emerging Dietetic Leader Award” in 2020. He earned his Ph.D. from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health in the Community Health Sciences department (with a minor in Health Psychology) by investigating the links between adverse childhood experiences and various mental health outcomes among socially disadvantaged men. His treatment philosophy is based on a biopsychosocial model which incorporates an understanding of biological mechanisms, psychological underpinnings, and contextual factors that integrate the social determinants of health. Wise Mind Nutrition is an app-based interactive treatment program available for download now -

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